A grandmother with an unattainable dream of being a scientist and physician grandfather she never met continue to inspire Wyss Staff Scientist Nina Donghia to develop innovations in healthcare
By Jessica Leff
Growing up in Tampa Bay, Florida, Nina Donghia spent her childhood days playing outside with her identical twin sister. She enjoyed chasing after small creatures, especially lizards, trying to study their behavior.
Every summer, the Donghias would travel north to the town of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, around 30 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where both of Nina’s parents grew up. Vandergrift was designed to be a model industrial town – a working man’s paradise – by Olmstead, Olmstead, and Eliot, the architectural firm established by the sons of Fredrick Law Olmstead. Early in the twentieth century, it had the largest steel mill in the world.
Summers in Vandergrift were filled with family, and no figure was more prominent than Nina’s grandmother, Rose Marie Donghia. “She was an orator,” Nina remembers. “She always talked about her childhood, her family, and all of the other knowledge that is easily lost when we lose people from previous generations.” Rose’s favorite topics: her unrealized aspirations in science and her late husband Sebastian, affectionately known as Seb.
A vision of a woman in a white coat
Rose grew up outside of Pittsburgh, on the heels of the 1918 flu pandemic, amid The Great Depression. During her early adulthood, laboratory sciences like bacteriology and virology became more accessible and understandable to the public as figures like Jonas Salk made national news. Rose watched her brothers study the subjects they wanted at university, but those opportunities weren’t afforded to her.
“My grandmother always spoke of these fantastical dreams and visions of wanting to enter a world that wasn’t really an option. She wanted to go into a lab, put on a white coat, and make an important discovery.” Nina says.
Instead, Rose attended beauty school, and found that she loved that career, even though it wasn’t her first choice. Still, she kept her dreams of being a scientist alive in unconventional ways. She managed to wear a white coat by working in a salon and diligently read her prized Marie Curie biography in her spare time. The other way she tried to realize her dreams was by marrying a doctor.
From Italy to Vandergrift
Sebastian Donghia was born soon after the turn of the century in Bari, in the region of Puglia, in southern Italy. When he was about eight years old, his family came to the United States. Despite the adversity he faced as an immigrant, he matriculated at George Washington University and got his degree and medical license as part of the class of 1934.
Very soon after graduating, he met Rose, then quickly left to serve as a doctor in the army in the Pacific theater during World War II. When he returned, he and Rose got married and had two children, eventually settling in Vandergrift where he served as the town’s doctor.
Love is a rose
Rose’s stories were a constant in Nina’s life, but because Seb died in the 1970s before she was born, she’d never heard his words. Rose reached an age when she decided to leave Vandergrift and move down to Florida to be closer to her son and granddaughters. Nina and her sister sat with their grandmother as she sorted through the home she’d shared with her husband and children for decades, deciding what to keep and what to get rid of.
The three women discovered messages that Seb had sent Rose while he was abroad during the War. “There were boxes and boxes of these things. They’d say, ‘Hello darling, My thoughts are always with you. I miss you so much. Love you, Seb.” Nina recalls.
“I always felt like I knew him through her, but now it was like I could hear him. It was important to me that I had this chance to see who he was before he was a father and a small-town physician, when he was just a young man in love. I felt so connected to him.”
A common bond across generations
In 2014, Nina began working at the Wyss Institute. Rose had since passed away, but she absolutely loved seeing her granddaughter pursue a scientific career, even though it was a little unconventional. Instead of pursuing a traditional path of going for her Ph.D. immediately following undergraduate school, Nina spent six years working at a prestigious lab in Maine as she formed a critically acclaimed rock band. Two of their four albums charted in the top ten of national college radio charts, all while she diligently performed her research.
“Even though my grandmother was never able to make her vision a reality, she made it part of her life in the ways that were available to her. Every day that I’m at the Wyss and I put on my white lab coat, that is a nod to her. Being able to do that is very meaningful to me.”
That same year, Nina’s father was doing some cleaning of his own. While she was visiting him in Florida, he handed her a stack of old dusty books – Seb’s medical school textbooks. In the muggy, humid, heat of the day, Nina immediately pored over these relics from a time before the structure of DNA had been formally discovered.
What she found was a lot of familiar concepts – Mendel’s law of inheritance, the process of cell division, evolution – without the foundational knowledge of what was driving them. It was not lost on Nina that she was about the same age Seb would have been while he spent hours studying these exact same words and figures.
“As I was flipping through one of the books, this beautiful drawing of a diagram of the maturation of germ cells fell from between the pages. That really shook me,” Nina recounts. “Even though we never met, I knew without a doubt in that moment we would have had so much in common and what I do at the Wyss would have truly interested him. We share what I can only describe as a common bond across time – a dorky fascination with cellular processes.”
Reimagining careers in science and access to healthcare for all
Looking through her grandfather’s textbooks, which were published at a time when women were generally barred from entering science or medicine, was a reminder of how far the field has come in the last century. But, reflecting on her grandparents’ stories, Nina knows there’s more to be done.
“If I could Reimagine the World, it would be one with opportunities in science for all and healthcare for all,” she explains. “We need to stop pigeonholing people and making assumptions about who is ‘supposed to be’ in this field, because I don’t think that applies anymore. When comparing my career to my grandmother’s, I know there have been strides to change the dynamic, but there is more we can do even beyond gender.”
“It would be great to see women’s healthcare receive more attention, especially reproductive health. With more women in research, hopefully this could become a reality. Healthcare should be more personalized and be accessible for everyone.”
Creating change through living therapeutics at the Wyss
Since her arrival at the Wyss, Nina has advanced from Research Assistant to Staff Scientist and member of the Advanced Technology Team. She currently works in the field of living therapeutics, which means using synthetic biology design principles to engineer products or technologies that can be used in a curative way. She specializes in validating the group’s technologies in in vivo models, which puts them on the path toward approval for use in humans.
One of the projects she’s passionate about is an Engineered Living Biotherapeutic Product (eLBP) to protect the gut from the harmful effects of antibiotics. The technology can be used as a safe, effective, and inexpensive co-therapy when a patient is prescribed antibiotics to prevent “dysbiosis,” or an alteration of the gut microbiome.
In her eight years at the Wyss, she’s also been part of the team that created a workflow to diagnose Zika and the group that developed an Ebola diagnostic. Work she contributed to has even been licensed to Sherlock Biosciences as the INSPECTR™ diagnostic tool. All of this work delivers diagnostics to low-resource settings, pushing towards Nina’s vision of healthcare for all.
From Florida to Puglia, from the past to the future
In 2019, Nina, her twin sister, and her father made a pilgrimage to Puglia to see where Seb was born and spent his childhood. Among the mountains, between the historic buildings, in the warm Italian sunshine, Nina saw a familiar sight: small lizards. She wondered, did Seb chase them around as a kid, just like she had?
“All of these pieces from my family have come together to inspire me to do the work I do and dare to reimagine a world better than the one I found,” Nina explains.
“I like to be an advocate for anyone who feels a little different or feels like they don’t fit in anywhere. Like my grandmother and me, you can take an unconventional path. If you’re dedicated enough, maybe even if you’re dorky enough, like my grandfather and me, you can find a place for yourself where you never thought you would wind up, and where your ancestors would have never imagined their descendants could make it.”