Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff
Cytonome, Inc. CEO
Patron Member since 1973
“If you don’t ask or don’t try, you will never succeed.”
What advice do you give to women who are starting in the STEM profession?
When applying to graduate schools, I knew I wanted to be in the Boston area. I planned on applying to every school in Boston except MIT. I was scared of the math, never having been naturally good at math. My research adviser at NIH, who was going to write a letter of recommendation for me, asked my why MIT wasn’t on my list. She knew I was interested in molecular biology, and MIT had the finest molecular biology department in the nation, if not in the world, at this time. So, I reluctantly added MIT to my list of applications. They were the only school in the area to accept me. If I hadn’t applied to MIT, of course I wouldn’t have been accepted. It was an important lesson to learn: if you don’t ask or don’t try, you will never succeed. Now I travel around the country giving motivational speeches to minority students, and this is one of my messages to them.
What do you see as being the biggest factors that inhibit female equity?
When I first joined AWIS, it was at a time when I was becoming more aware of the difficulties faced by women and minorities. It is clearly better now. There are more women graduate students, doctorate students, and faculty. Then again, it is somewhat surprising to me what has not happened yet. Women still get paid less and have less space. You can also see subtle discrimination in the makeup of many academic departments. If you look at the population, half of it is composed of women. Yet, women rarely make up half of the faculty. The way we set up rules at these institutions about how we do things has to be clear. How do we define merit? How do they fit with the faculty? There is a tendency not to bring new people in because it is less comfortable.
What is your current job? How would you describe your career?
I knew I always wanted to have my own lab. So, I got my own lab. I then went on to become an academic administrator at Northwestern University. After that I went to work as the Chief Opportunities Officer at the Whitehead Institute. The business side of science has always attracted me, so when I got the opportunity to work with Cytonome, Inc.—an entrepreneurial company manufacturing a machine that will help sort out bone marrow cells before being transplanted, to limit the risk of graft-versus-host disease—I jumped on it. I am now the CEO. The transition from academia to other areas of science was easier than you may think. I don’t miss the academics because I consider myself still in that field. When I left the bench to become an administrator, I thought I would miss the lab. Though I didn’t miss the lab, I did miss the students. I missed watching them grow into independent-thinking scientists and develop intellectually. I am glad I have the opportunity to speak to students around the country; it helps me connect with what I missed in leaving academia.