ALD22: Professor Rita Levi Montalcini, Neurobiologist

Professor Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini was a neurobiologist who discovered nerve growth factor in collaboration with her colleague, Stanley Cohen. They were both awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986, and Levi-Montalcini became only the fourth woman to be awarded the prize.

Levi-Montalcini was born in Turin in 1909. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Turin Medical School in 1936, staying there to investigate the development of the nervous system. But she lost her job just two years later when Mussolini banned Jews from academic and professional careers.

Unable to officially work, she began buying fertilised eggs and studying chicken embryos in a laboratory that she set up in her bedroom, working in “primitive conditions”. She focused on understanding how nerve fibres grow in the embryos’ wings using microsurgical instruments she made herself from tools such as sewing needles and watchmakers’ tweezers. As the Guardian reported in her obituary, “many of the experiments could be eaten when they were finished.”

In 1943, she and her family fled to Florence, where they were protected from the Nazis by non-Jewish friends. After the war, they returned to Turin and in 1946, she moved to the US to take up a short term position at Washington University in St Louis, in Missouri. She successfully duplicated the experiments she’d done in her bedroom, and was offered a research associate position. She stayed at the university for 30 years.

In 1952, Levi-Montalcini grafted mouse tumour tissue onto chick embryos, and discovered that the cancerous tissues caused the rapid growth of nerve fibres. Somehow the tumour was encouraging nerve fibres to grow. She isolated a protein that she called nerve growth factor (NGF) from these cancerous tissues. This was painstaking and difficult work, but its importance to embryology and oncology was clear.

She became a professor in 1958 and four years later established a second lab in Rome, splitting her time between Italy and the USA. She became the director of the Research Centre of Neurobiology of the CNR (Rome), and then became director at the Laboratory of Cellular Biology of the Italian National Council of Research. In 2001 she became an Italian senatore a vita, or senator for life, able to sit in the Italian upper house of parliament. In 2002, she founded and later became president of the European Brain Research Institute.

She died in 2012, aged 103.

Further Reading

ALD22: Professor Maria Pavlova, Palaeontologist

Maria Pavlova

Professor Maria Pavlova

Maria Vasilievna Pavlova, Мария Павлова, was a palaeontologist who discovered several hoofed mammals from the Tertiary period and changed our understanding of the ancestry of horses in Eurasia.

Born in 1854, from age 26, Pavlova studied natural history at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and the Sorbonne, graduating in 1884.

After graduation, she moved to Moscow where she began studying the geological collections held by the Moscow State University, where she worked for 30 years. She would go on to establish the Museum of Palaeontology there.

Pavlova began her career writing papers on Early Cretaceous ammonites from the Volga region before moving on to Tertiary mammal evolution. She travelled widely around Russia and Western Europe, studying museum collections and collecting fossils herself. She named and described several extinct species, including a rhinoceros P. transouralicum.

She also worked on the ancestry of horses, proving that Hipparion, a small three-toed horse, was not the direct ancestor of the modern horse as thought at the time, but an offshoot of the horse family tree. She then focused on ungulates (hoofed mammals) and proboscidians (elephants and their extinct relatives), especially mastodons.

In 1897, she was one of just two women to be invited to join the Organising Committee of the International Geological Congress, which was held in St Petersburg. Between 1887 and 1906, she published nine issues of Studies in the Paleontological History of Hoofed Animals. In 1899, she published a monograph, Fossil Elephants.

She became the head of the department of palaeontology at Moscow State University in 1910, and by 1912, she had collected over 10,000 specimens, which she gave to the university. In 1916, became a doctor of zoology of the Imperial Moscow University, an “extremely rare” rank for a woman.

She became a professor at the Moscow State University, and was instrumental in founding its palaeontological museum. In 1926, the museum was named after her and her husband who was also a geologist and palaeontologist.

Pavlova was the first Ukrainian or Russian woman to become a national and internationally successful vertebrate palaeontologist. In 1925, she was elected as a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and a year later the Geological Society of France awarded her and her husband with a gold medal for their work.

She went on her final geological expedition in 1931, collecting fossil mammoths, elephants and rhinos from the Volyn district of northern Ukraine.

Further Reading

ALD22: Dr Katalin Karikó, Biochemist

Katalin Karikó

Dr Katalin Karikó

Katalin Karikó is a biochemist whose work on RNA-mediated immune activation laid the foundations required for the development of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

Karikó was born in 1955 in Hungary, and earnt her PhD at the University of Szeged before going on to do postdoctoral research at the Institute of Biochemistry, Biological Research Centre of Hungary until the lab lost its funding in 1985, at which point she moved to the US.

She began working on Messenger RNA (mRNA) in 1989 at the University of Pennsylvania. She wrote a grant application that proposed using mRNA in gene therapy, but it was rejected. Her ideas were unorthodox and the basic work required to do the research, such as making RNA molecules, was difficult. After a string of rejections, the university demoted her in 1995.

She persevered, hopping from lab to lab in low-paid positions. Then, by chance, Karikó met immunologist Drew Weissman, who wanted to make an HIV vaccine. She thought she could do it, but the mRNA caused the mice’s immune systems to react, triggering inflammation. But during another experiment they noticed that transfer RNA, which they’d used as a control, didn’t result in the same immune reaction as mRNA.

They discovered that nucleoside modifications of mRNA could make it non-immunogenic, but had difficulty getting their findings published. Their results were eventually published in 2005, in Immunity, but didn’t cause a splash at the time because other scientists didn’t believe that mRNA was a “usable molecule”. The paper has, however, now become a seminal publication in the field of mRNA therapeutics.

Karikó and Weissman also worked on developing an mRNA purification technique, as no such protocol existed, and they were eventually able to use high-performance liquid chromatography to purify mRNA. They knew that they could use mRNA to order cells to make any protein, including insulin, hormones or diabetes drugs. They could also use it to create a new type of vaccine where the mRNA would tell cells to make part of the virus, which would then stimulate the immune system. But they couldn’t get any traction.

They founded a company, RNARx, in 2006 and patented several modified nucleosides that reduced the antiviral immune response to mRNA. But the University of Pennsylvania sold the intellectual property rights, so when Moderna asked Karikó if they could licence the patent, all she could say was that she didn’t have it.

Realising that her opportunities to work on mRNA would be greater in industry, Karikó became a vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals in 2013, becoming a senior VP in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a huge amount of scientific work and collaboration, but it was Karikó’s research that formed the foundation for the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Once Chinese scientists had posted the virus’s genome, BioNTech designed its mRNA vaccine in hours and Moderna completed the task in two days. Other groups provided the data and expertise needed to make the vaccine a reality.

In 2022, Karikó won the Vilcek Prize for Excellence which recognises immigrant contributions to biomedical science and the arts. She has also received Spain’s Princess of Asturias Award for technical and scientific research, the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, the Horwitz Prize, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

Further Reading

ALD22: Professor Maryna Viazovska, Mathematician

Maryna Viazovska

Professor Maryna Viazovska

Maryna Viazovska, Марина Вязовська, is a mathematician known for her work in sphere packing. In 2022, she became only the second woman to win the Fields Medal.

Born in Kyiv in 1984, Viazovska competed in national and international mathematics Olympiads throughout her late teens and early 20s. She earnt her masters degree from University of Kaiserslautern in 2007, her PhD from the Institute of Mathematics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in 2010 and a second doctorate from University of Bonn in 2013. She now works at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).

The sphere-packing problem asks how spheres can be packed together, in a particular number of dimensions, in the densest possible way. It’s a problem that fascinated Johannes Kepler, (born 1571), who was interested in how best to stack cannonballs. Although it’s easy to see how cannonballs naturally stack, it’s not so easy to prove that a pyramid is the most mathematically efficient way to pack them. That problem was not solved in three dimensions until Thomas Hales in 1998, and it required long and complex computer calculations.

Viazovska proved that an arrangement called the E8 lattice is the densest solution for eight dimensions with a proof that was mathematically very simple. Along with collaborators, she solved the problem for 24 dimensions using the Leech lattice. She also proved that the E8 lattice and Leech lattice are university optimal, a discovery “on a par with the great breakthroughs of the 19th century”.

Further Reading

ALD22: Dr Rukhmabai Raut, Physician

Rukhmabai Raut

Dr Rukhmabai Raut

Rukhmabai Raut was the second woman to become a practising physician in India.

Born in 1864 in South Bombay, India, Rukhmabai’s father died when she was two years old. Six years later, her mother, Jayantibai Save, married Sakharam Arjun Raut, a respected physician and social activist in Mumbai who educated his step-daughter at home and encouraged her ambition to study medicine.

Rukhmabai Raut was married to a 19 year old man when she was 11 years old, an arrangement which she and her family resisted despite the fact that it was Hindu custom. She continued to live at home and her husband ignored her until 1885 when, perhaps interested in her dowry, he sought “restitution of conjugal rights”. After years of legal battles, he relinquished his claim over her, accepting instead a payment of 2,000 rupees. Her case was widely covered in India and Europe, provoking an intense debate about social reform and the age of consent in British India, which was eventually raised from 10 to 12 in 1891.

Raut’s legal battles drew her to the attention of many suffrage activists and she was supported by several to continue her education. In 1889, she sailed to England to study medicine at the Royal Free Hospital and then the London School of Medicine for Women. She became a Doctor of Medicine in 1894, eight years after Dr Kadambini Ganguly and Dr Anandibai Joshi. Joshi died of tuberculosis shortly after graduating, so Raut was the second practising female doctor after Ganguly.

Although Raut could have stayed and worked in the UK, she chose to return to India where women had little, if any, access to healthcare. She was not welcomed with open arms, being branded a witch by many, and attacked by upper-caste Hindu conservatives.

In 1895, she became the Chief Medical Officer at the Women’s Hospital in Surat, but when the hospital opened there were no patients as people thought that hospitals were only for those who were dying. She faced an uphill struggle to convince her community that medicine was safe and effective, but worked at the hospital for two decades.

In 1918, she took on a role at the Zenana (Woman’s) State Hospital in Rajkot, where she also established the Red Cross Society. She retired to Bombay in 1929 and died in 1955, aged 90.

Further Reading