Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Science Byte

Today's Science Byte is the first one for July - so I'll be talking about the MSOE team challenge. Each month there's a new theme, rotating between a field of science, a famous scientist & words in recent science news. This month we're focusing on a famous scientist: Rita Levi-Montalcini.
  • Rita Levi-Montalcini won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). Her experiments looked at the growth of chick embryos & found that a transplanted tumour caused an excessive outgrowth of nerves. She thought the tumour cells must be producing a compound (NGF) that was inducing the growth of neurons only. At the time (1952), it was a fairly radical idea & no one believed her - but she went on to prove her theory. Further researched also showed that cells can produce NGF when looking for a new nerve connection.
  • Rita shared the Nobel Prize with her colleague Stanley Cohen. He found that NGF was abundant in snake venom & mammalian saliva & was able to isolate the protein to determine its structure. At the same time, he discovered epidermal growth factor, a compound that promotes the growth of a number of different cell types.
  • Rita is a twin. She & her twin sister Paola were born in 1909 - which makes her 101, the oldest living Nobel laureate. She's also the first Nobel laureate to reach her 100th birthday.
  • As with many female scientists, she was discouraged along the way. Her father ran a strict household & thought that a professional career would interfere with a woman's role as a wife & mother. Eventually she was able to overcome his objections though & enrolled in medical school.
  • As a Jewish family in Italy during WWII, her medical career was over almost as soon as it began. She set up a lab in her own bedroom though - more than once since they had to relocate - and conducted her own experiments! She even hired an old teacher of hers as an assistant for a time. At the end of the war, another one of her professors asked her to join him in America. She planned on staying a few months, but the experiments went so well she stayed for 30 years!
  • She's a Senator for Life in Italy. She gets a lot of bad press from people who disagree with her political opinions. She's fierce though & won't back down, despite her age & gradual loss of hearing & sight.