At the end of March, organizers of the March for Science named Lydia Villa-Komaroff as one of its three honorary co-chairs, along with science guy Bill Nye and pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who helped raise the alarm about lead in the Flint, Mich., drinking water.
In the 1970s, Villa-Komaroff’s work in the lab of Nobel laureate Walter Gilbert led to the use of bacteria to make human insulin and set the stage for the emergence of the biotechnology industry. Since then she has served as vice president for research at Northwestern University, vice president for research and CEO of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and as a senior executive and board member of several biotechnology companies. One of the first Mexican-American women to receive a doctoral degree in science in the US, Villa-Komaroff is a cofounding member of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS).
I talked with Villa-Komaroff by phone. The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed.
How did you get involved in the March for Science?
I learned about the march early on through the media. Some of my colleagues at SACNAS asked me if it would be OK if they submitted my name as a possible speaker, since I have been working for years to help make the science community more diverse. I was a little surprised to get a phone call from march organizer Caroline Weinberg asking if I would serve as one of three honorary co-chairs, but I immediately agreed.
Some call this a pro-science march, others an anti-Trump march. How do you see it?
President Trump’s policies certainly sparked the feeling that we need to have a strong voice for science. But I think that the organizers have been pretty clear that this is a pro-science movement that looks far beyond the current administration.
Support for science has been falling for quite some time. And discussions about whether or not science is valid have been going on since long before Trump entered the political scene. These two trends have been building to the point where many of us feel that we need to make the case for science in as nonpartisan a way as possible.
Many people who have said they will be taking part in the march tend toward the liberal progressive end of the political spectrum. But I know a lot of conservative scientists who support the feeling even if they aren’t sure about marching. And I also know many progressive scientists who aren’t certain about the value of a march.
In your opinion, what would make the march a success?
Among scientists, there has always been a tension between doing science and publicly talking about this work. Scientists have generally been reticent about doing the latter. To be fair, when you are focused on your work, it takes time and energy to explain what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what it means to people outside of your usual circles. But we need to do just that to help educate our fellow Americans who aren’t interested in science and to rally support for this wonderful endeavor.
I hope the march will help more scientists do this.
Will you be speaking at the march?
I will be speaking in Washington. My goal is to make two points in my two-minute time slot. I’m not quite sure how I’ll do that since each one is worthy of a longer talk.
The first point is the importance of supporting fundamental research. You just never know where it will go. The work that we did in Wally Gilbert’s lab to get bacteria to make insulin could only have been done because, in the 1960s, several researchers got interested in why some bacteria seemed to be able to protect themselves against certain viruses that infect bacteria (bacteriophages). Those organisms had nothing to do with human disease or health as far as anyone knew. It was a quirky piece of biology off in a corner. But it led directly to the entire biotech industry.
We have to find a way to support creative science that we don’t know the value of. When we learn something wonderful about how the world works, it expands the realm of possibility for all of us, from artists to patients to the average citizen.
The second point is that virtually everything today has somehow been touched in important ways by science. Our society couldn’t exist without science. So it’s the duty of scientists to explain the connection between science and society to nonscientists.
The march is a one-day event. What do you hope will happen afterward to keep the momentum moving forward?
I hope that more scientists will be empowered to publicly make the case for why science, especially basic science, is important and should be encouraged. To be sure, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society for Cell Biology, and other groups have sponsored days on Capitol Hill for scientists to talk to lawmakers about their work. I hope the march will energize more of us to do that kind of outreach for science.
I also hope the march will nudge people to get outside of their comfort zones and provide straight talk about the importance of doing science when they give lectures to their peers, students, and nonscientists in their communities. More of us need to get involved in outreach, which means leaving the bubbles of our laboratories and engaging with our communities.
And there’s one more thing on my wish list for the march: I hope it prods more scientists to vote in local, state, and federal elections. That’s an essential way to make our voices heard.