Exploration can expand the human experience, but some are exploited in the process. However, a Jewish-Italian scientific explorer, Rita Levi-Montalcini made a discovery that positively impacted humans while also overcoming many obstacles throughout her life. I feel that she is a strong example of innovation, exploration, and resilience making her a wonderful representation of Italian heritage.
Levi-Montalcini was first interested in studying science when a family friend died from cancer. Against her father’s original wishes, Levi-Montalcini went on to study at the University of Turin Medical School and was interested in neurological research. After graduating, she worked as a laboratory assistant but was forced to give that up due to Mussolini’s series of laws barring Jews from many jobs. In 1943, her family had to flee to Florence to escape the Nazi regime and the Holocaust. Despite being in hiding, Levi-Montalcini continued studying and experimenting with nerve fibers in her bedroom. After the war, she came to Washington University in St. Louis for a position under Viktor Hamburger. Her research career there led to her being able to isolate the nerve growth factor (NGF) through studying cancerous cells. This discovery of the NGF was significant in understanding how cancerous tumors grow and spread as well as a better understanding of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Rett syndrome, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and more. Levi-Montalcini and her collaborators later went on to win a Nobel Prize for this discovery as well as countless other awards.
In addition to being a talented scientist, Rita Levi-Montalcini was very proud of her Italian heritage. When she was professor at Washington University in St. Louis, she established a second laboratory program in Rome bringing her knowledge and research back to Italy. She also directed the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research in Rome and later founded the European Brain Research Institute. She continued to immerse herself in Italian culture by serving as a Senator for Life in the Italian Senate, being heavily involved in the Italian Masonic organization, and living the rest of her life out in Rome.
Rita Levi-Montalcini is an admirable example of Italian culture and pride. As she faced extreme adversity in the face of the Holocaust, she stayed determined to continue her research in neuroscience. She was able to expand neurological research in Italy pushing science further. She continued to play an active role in her community until her death. I believe that Rita Levi-Montalcini perfectly encapsulates the Italian spirit and would be a wonderful subject for a statue in the Piazza.