From More Intelligent Life:
Rita Levi-Montalcini was a scientist in Italy at a time when few women were scientists. She was born into a rich Jewish family in Turin and studied medicine against her father’s wishes, building a lab in her bedroom where she grew nerve fibres using chicken embryos. Then war broke out, and being a woman scientist and Jewish—both of which were banned by the Fascists—she was under threat of persecution. But instead of halting her research, she moved her lab into the cellar and continued her work. This determination to carry on against all the odds impressed me very strongly. She put research above everything else, and pursued it with a passion that was never diluted by age. Even well into her 90s, she would go into the lab every day, always immaculately dressed in old-fashioned clothes with lots of ribbons.
After the war she moved to Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. And it was there, working with Stanley Cohen, that she proved the existence of nerve-growth factor, a substance produced in the limb buds that stimulates nerve growth. I was just starting my PhD in 1986 when she won her Nobel. Suddenly—boom!—she was known to everyone in Italy. I started to be interested in her life; that she was a woman and Italian was a huge inspiration. She represented what I wanted to do: research, the pursuit of knowledge, exploring new territories and going beyond what is known. Later on, as I got older and more mature, her life provided an example of how a scientist should behave—with humility and modesty. Newton said: “What we know is a droplet; what we don’t know is an ocean.” It is still true today—we know so little about our universe.