Thursday, January 03, 2013

Mother of Neuroscience: a life that inspires discovery

Rita Levi Montalcini, 20 april 2009
Rita Levi Montalcini, 20 april 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rita Levi Montalcini "began her seminal research on cell development while dodging bombs..." (Emily Langer/Washington Post).

A Washington Post obituary on 12/30/12 impelled me to shine a light on the life and work of Rita Levi-Montalcini. Her nerve growth discovery under-girds today's neuroscience experimentation. Her life touches difficult endeavors beyond science.
     Rita Levi-Montalcini (link video) died in Rome at age 103. I found a report that as late as 2009, aged 98 years, she lectured on her areas of work.  
     Rita  Levi-Montalcini "began her seminal research on cell development while dodging bombs...." wrote Emily Langer in the Washington Post. She was fleeing Nazi Germany's efforts to gather up select groups for persecution and, ultimately, death.  
     Rita Levi-Montalcini's discovery of "the nerve growth factor" led to a Nobel Prize. The nerve growth factor is "a naturally occurring protein that helps spark the growth of nerve cells.
    Significantly, her ground-breaking discovery grew from her research "in a makeshift bedroom laboratory during the war." It extended, after the war, to Washington University in St. Louis, USA.
     If there is something you or I wish to discover this year, I doubt that it has as much as, or more than, a challenge as the discovery of the nerve growth factor, which influences experiments to help people with nerve diseases or injuries. 
    I think the key to what kept her going was her drive toward discovery, no matter what context her work had to make do...a hiding place, a small location not at all obviously conducive to scientific discovery. 
    Yes, she had to have been brilliant. However, how often has brilliance not been enough. So much comes from the personality and grit of human beings. I think also of Maria Callas, whose voice coach once said she willed herself to take control of notes completely, otherwise, outside her range or abilities. 
    What the facts remind me is one of my favorite credos: We must know what we want to do and do it. (Didn't Nike come to the same conclusion?) It must also be something worth doing, something big enough to drive us to continue. It must not be something independent of money, status, or "the right conditions." It must include a huge hope or dream. It may be a secret aspiration that might last beyond ourselves to benefit the lives of loved ones or beyond. It usually does not come from disconnected impulse. 
     The summary of Rita Levi-Montalcini's life inspires me. Her discovery continues to matter and to guide nerve research. I think it mean far more to her than perfection of place or conditions.   

"...there is no great a thrill as the moment of discovery."
Rita Levi-Montalicini (Nobel Prize/Medicine, "mother of neuroscience")*

*"mother of neuroscience" appears in photo description uploaded to Flickr by audrey.

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