Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, 103-year-old neuroscientist and all-around impressive individual, has passed away this weekend. (2012 has been a bad year to be a personal hero of mine, statistically.)
Graduating medical school in 1930s Italy as a Jewish woman, Levi-Montalcini faced unbelievable amounts of adversity from the beginning of her academic career. Nonetheless, she went on to share the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Stanley Cohen for their discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF is crucial to the survival of many neurons, and is therefore a focus of ongoing research into disorders where cell growth is abnormal, including dementia.
While her loss remains a loss to us all, Levi-Montalcini was also the first Nobel Laureate to reach 100 years of age, and if that’s not the best that can be hoped for in a lifetime, I don’t know what is.
The Guardian has a profile that is well worth a read. The following is my favorite passage:
“Making her own microsurgical and tissue-manipulating equipment – using, among other things, reshaped domestic sewing needles and modified watchmaker’s tweezers — she began her fruitful investigation into normal and abnormal neural development and its mechanisms of control. Discovery of her activities could have resulted in imprisonment or death, but she attracted little interest by buying fertile eggs to investigate the early phases of nerve growth in chick embryos. As a bonus to concealment, many of the experiments could be eaten when they were finished.”
The New York Times today has a Name That Scientist quiz today, accompanying their article on scientists engaging in politics.
I think you should take the quiz a) Because it’s only ten questions and it’s kind of fun, and b) Because my ramblings will make a little more sense then. So, go, click, guess. I believe in you.
First of all, the quiz wins points for its inclusion of 4 female scientists (out of 10 total questions). At first I thought it was a little light on the life sciences, but I suppose 3/10 is about as good as can be expected. The quiz also wins points for including Carolyn Porco, whose tweet brought it to my attention to begin with, and who is basically one of the coolest people alive. She has worked on Voyager and Cassini, has given two TED talks, was a scientific advisor for the 2009 Star Trek, and is a Beatles fan. If you ever need a role model, look no further.
Now, here is my problem with the quiz: recognizing scientists by sight isn’t exactly a perfect metric of one’s engagement with science, or of said scientists’ visibility to to the public. For instance, Lisa Randall. I read her book, Warped Passages, on plane rides to and from my college orientation week in the early summer of 2008. I had a cold so bad I could barely hear. And it was the first time I ever felt like I truly understood relativity. (To the extent that I can understand relativity.) But did I recognize her picture? No. I did guess based on the physics-looking chalkboard scrawls in the picture provided, though.