Empowering Women to Lead in Science

Alumna gives back to help other female scientists flourish in a field rife with gender disparities.

When Michelle Rhyu, PhD, graduated from UCSF in the mid-1990s with a degree in biochemistry and biophysics, women earned fewer than 30 percent of all science and engineering doctorates in the US. That number has since risen to around 40 percent, but female scientists still face real disadvantages, and the gender gap only widens as they climb the career ladder. At US universities today, women make up just 34 percent of research faculty and 29 percent of top science leadership. 

“While there has been progress, much more needs to be done to promote women in science,” says Rhyu, a partner at the international law firm Cooley, where she represents life-science companies in intellectual-property disputes. An early funder of UCSF’s Discovery Fellows Fund and Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research (PBBR), Rhyu has long championed basic-science research, recognizing the importance of investing in the kind of bold experimentation that leads to world-changing discoveries like antibiotics, cell engineering, and gene therapy

In 2018, Rhyu and her husband, Stephen C. Neal, made a $250,000 commitment to expand opportunities for women scientists at UCSF. The university matched part of the commitment, which provided seed funding for women in science and established the Michelle S. Rhyu Women in Science Endowment to address gender disparities in basic science. 

Compared to their male counterparts, women scientists spend more time outside the lab mentoring students and junior faculty members, representing minorities on panels and committees, and caring for their young children or older relatives. As a result, they must make extra time to apply for grants, to network, and to take advantage of other opportunities for career advancement – or risk missing out. 

“I know many women who left academia because they perceived having a family as not compatible with having a career in science, and that’s a shame,” says Hana El-Samad, PhD, an associate professor in UCSF’s Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. 

Rhyu hopes that the endowment will support programs such as skill-building workshops, caretaking benefits, and endowed professorships to mentor and champion women scientists. El-Samad hope it will inspire others to take up the cause. “Even a small investment could have a huge amplifying effect,” she says. 

“The reason women scientists at UCSF have made it this far despite the disparities is because they’re amazing,” says Seemay Chou, PhD, an assistant professor in UCSF’s Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. “Imagine how much more they will do when we gave them the support they need.” 

Image: A UCSF researcher in her lab. [Credit: Steve Babuljak]

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