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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Woman of the Week – Rita Levi-Montalcini

Posted May 01, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24
Pathfinder Tags: science Woman of the week women wow

Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini was a Nobel Prize-winning neurologist who discovered critical chemical tools that the body uses to direct cell growth and build nerve networks. Her work paved the way for the study of how those processes can go wrong in diseases like dementia and cancer.

She was born in Italy and lived her life there. She and her twin sister Paola were the youngest of four children. Her parents were Adele Montalcini, a painter, and Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and mathematician.

As a teenager, she considered becoming a writer, but after seeing a close family friend die of stomach cancer she decided to attend the University of Turin Medical School. Her father discouraged his daughters from attending college, as he feared it would disrupt their potential lives as wives and mothers. Eventually he supported Levi-Montalcini's aspirations to become a doctor.

While in college, neurophysiologist Giuseppe Levi sparked her interest in the developing nervous system. After graduating with a summa cum laude M.D. in 1936, she remained at the university as Levi's assistant.

However, her plan to further her academic career was cut short by Benito Mussolini's 1938 Manifesto of Race and the subsequent introduction of laws barring Jewish people from academic and professional careers.[MM1] During World War II she set up a laboratory in her bedroom and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos. This laid the groundwork for much of her later research.

When the Germans invaded Italy in 1943, her family fled south to Florence, where she set up a second laboratory in a corner of their shared living space. During this time, she also volunteered her medical expertise for the Allied Health Service. Her family returned to Turin in 1945.

In September 1946, Levi-Montalcini was granted a one-semester research fellowship in the laboratory of Professor Viktor Hamburger at Washington University in St. Louis. She duplicated the lab experiments she did at home, which lead to her being offered a research associate position, which she stayed in for 30 years.

She did her most important work at Washington University: isolating nerve growth factor (NGF) from observations of certain cancerous tissues that cause extremely rapid growth of nerve cells.

By transferring pieces of tumors to chick embryos, Montalcini established a mass of cells that was full of nerve fibers. The discovery of nerves that grew everywhere, like a halo around the tumor cells, was shocking and revolutionary.

The nerve growth produced by the tumor was unlike anything she had seen before–the nerves took over areas that would become other tissues and even entered veins in the embryo. But nerves did not grow into the arteries, which would flow from the embryo back to the tumor. This suggested to Montalcini that the tumor itself was releasing a substance that was stimulating the growth of nerves.

She was made a full professor in 1958. By 1962, she established a second laboratory in Rome and divided her time between there and St. Louis.

After she retired from research and full-time teaching in 1977, she was appointed as director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research in Rome. She later retired from that position in 1979, however continued to be involved as a guest professor.

Though the scientific community did not appreciate the importance of nerve growth factor at first, they came to realize that it offered possible treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, infertility, and cancer. For their discovery of nerve growth factor, Rita Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

Later in life, she went on to create an educational foundation in 1992 and set up the European Brain Research Institute in 2002. Italy honored her by making her a senator for life in 2001.

Even toward the end of her life, Levi-Montalcini continued conducting research every day. She remained mentally sharp and witty until very close to her death. She died in Rome, Italy, on December 30, 2012, at the age of 103.

“It is imperfection—not perfection—that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain,” Dr. Levi-Montalcini wrote in her autobiography, “and of the influences exerted upon us by the environment and whoever takes care of us during the long years of our physical, psychological and intellectual development.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/31/science/dr-rita-levi-montalcini-a-revolutionary-in-the-study-of-the-brain-dies-at-103.html

https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1986/levi-montalcini-bio.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rita_Levi-Montalcini

http://www.biography.com/people/rita-levi-montalcini-9380593


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Re: Woman of the Week – Rita Levi-Montalcini

05/03/2017 3:22 AM

I read that on the day she died, she went into her lab after her usual breakfast, did some work until lunchtime, then went to rest and apparently decided she had done enough.

She was a great example of how to keep your wits and do your work without getting involved in extraneous issues.

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