Monday, May 4, 2009

A Nobel-Winning Home Biologist

"I should thank Mussolini for having declared me to be of an inferior race. This led me to the joy of working, not any more unfortunately, in university institutes but in a bedroom." -- Rita Levi-Montalcini
Last night we watched Death by Design, a 1996 documentary that explains programmed cell death in a very entertaining manner. Interspersed with interviews with biologists from the US, France, Germany and Italy are scenes from old comedies that illustrate metaphorically what the scientist is discussing. Together with the lively score it made for a very interesting 70 minutes.

One of the most interesting segments was an interview with Nobel Prize winning scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini. Levi-Montalcini, who celebrated her 100th birthday on April 22, is still active as a scientist and as a life-long member of the Italian parliament. The daughter of Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and gifted mathematician, and Adele Montalcini, a talented painter, Levi-Montalcini had to convince her traditionalist father to allow her to pursue a University education. (Her twin sister Paola, an accomplished painter who also appears in the film and who died in 2000, was allowed to study art, which her father did not feel would interfere with her future duties as a wife and mother.)

In 1936, Levi-Montalcini had graduated from medical school and was trying to decide whether to go into practice or research when World War II intervened. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini decreed that Jews like the Levi-Montalcinis could no longer work in academic or professional careers. Rather than fleeing to the United States, the family decided to stay in Italy and work at home. Levi-Montalcini set up a laboratory in her bedroom and began studying the development of chicken embryos.

As the film explains (if I understand it correctly), it had been shown many times that cells "commit suicide" when given a signal by the rest of the organism, but those findings had never been considered important. But as she says in the film, Levi-Montalcini likes to work by intuition. She sees a connection between scientific investigation and art. (Her twin Paola, also shown in the film, was likewise often inspired by her sister's research.) And the armies clashing around them made the idea of organized death even more concrete. (The family had to pack up their life and work and leave their hometown of Turin for the hills when fighting got too intense.) Working in her bedroom lab, Levi-Montalcini was the first to study how embryos shape themselves during development by creating more cells than are needed in the mature organism and signaling certain cells to die. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1986.

I just loved learning Levi-Montalcini's remarkable story. It shows what you can accomplish simply working at home. I especially love how the sisters' work in art and science influenced each other. I've started looking into their story further with the intention of turning it into a children's book. I'll keep you posted!


Meg_L said...

that is fascinating, please share if you come up with any more resources about her life.

Anonymous said...

If you are interested, read the following book:
Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries

author: Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Citadel Press; Rev Sub edition (September 1998)

This book has many stories about the women who've won Nobel Prizes (not many compared to the men) and the struggles they had to go through to get there.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to add, programmed cell death, aka "apoptosis" is what is responsible for humans (and other species) developing individual fingers and toes. Embryos have webbed hands and feet in utereo, but through the process of apoptosis, cells are removed in sections to form individual fingers and toes. Occassionally, you'll get someone who has a fused set of toes or fingers and this is the result of incomplete apoptosis.