Headstrong: Rita Levi-Montalcini

I’ll be honest, I’m pretty excited to be getting to the second half of the year where the fields of the women I’m reading about are physics, engineering and mathematics. Since I have such little background in some of these other fields it’s hard for fully understand the hard work they put in and communicate it in a relatable context. I admire and respect all of these clever women, I just wish I had a better grasp of how unique and groundbreaking their thinking was! As it is, I have two more geneticists to read about before I immerse myself in the accomplishments of women physicists – and then I can give you all plenty of context and motivation for how cool they are 😉

June’s science women is Italian neuroembryologist Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012). She primarily studied the development of the spines in embryos of chickens. She was determined and driven, deciding even at an early age that she wouldn’t get married so she could devote herself to science.

In Italy, as a Jewish woman, she didn’t have the opportunity to get involved in the field. She was kept from attending medical school and performing research. So instead, she internalized the idea of being self-taught. After reading an inspiring article she created a lab to study chick embryos on her own, collecting the precise tools from other professions such as a watchmaker’s forceps or an ophthalmologist’s scissors. She even made her own scalpel from a filed down knitting needle!

When she began to make discoveries in her secret lab, she turned to Swiss and Belgian journals to publish her work, as she wasn’t allowed to publish in Italian journals. Eventually her discoveries were recognized and she was invited to visit the US to work with a prominent embryologist for a few months. She ended up staying for several years.

Rita devoted all her attention to learning more about nerve growth and the spiral cord. Eventually, she and her research partner Stanley Cohen hit upon a discovery that earned the two of them a Nobel Prize; the nerve growth factor. This controls the growth, maintenance, and survival of neurons. (And if that goes over your head, rest assured, it goes over mine too 😉 )

After that accomplishment, Rita travelled back and forth between the US and Italy but she never stopped working. Her determination and motivation kept her working until she died at the age of 103.

I find Rita inspiring because she was so self-driven. Even when she was discouraged, or even barred, from pursuing her interests, she found away to do it anyway. Right now my research work is also entirely self-driven. I have the privilege that I am supported and encouraged in my work, but even then it can be difficult to stay focused. I aspire to be like Rita in the way that she was motivated to do her science for the sake of learning new things. (I also aspire to have the energy and longevity she had in order to live to 103 😉 )

One thought on “Headstrong: Rita Levi-Montalcini

  1. How wonderful she was so self motivated to keep learning and accomplishing great things despite the obstacles and lack of support. I wonder how many people live to be 103!

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