Rita Levi Montalcini, the Italian-Jewish scientist, physician and neurobiologist who won a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986 with her colleague Stanley Cohen for the discovery of how cells selectively prune and communicate with each other, died on Sunday at the age of 103 in her native Italy.

She was the oldest living Nobel Laureate, and the 10th woman to ever be elected to the United States National Academy of Sciences.

She began college at age 20, at a time when women were expected only to become wives and mothers. She conducted her early research on chicken embryos in a lab that she set up in her bedroom, after being forced to abandon her post at the University of Turin by the rise of Benito Mussolini and the Fascist party.

She had also served as a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization since 1999, and as a Senator for Life in Italy since 2001.

"Professor Montalcini was recognized internationally as one of the world's finest minds. At FAO, we knew her as a wise and gracious friend, a tireless advocate for a hunger-free world," said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva in a statement. "FAO will always be grateful to her for helping to keep the drive to end hunger, malnutrition and extreme poverty high on the international agenda."

In her later years, Montalcini devoted herself to raising awareness of hunger. The FAO said that as a goodwill ambassador, she wrote articles about the plight of the hungry and regularly spoke at high-level FAO events.