Rebecca Heald to Deliver 2021 Keith R. Porter Lecture

Cell and developmental biologist Rebecca W. Heald has been selected to deliver the Keith R. Porter Lecture at Cell Bio Virtual 2021. This lecture, presented annually since 1982, honors an outstanding and innovative leader at the forefront of cell biology who is actively contributing fundamental new knowledge to our understanding of cell biology.

Heald is a professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, well known for her work on mechanisms of cell division and biological size control using Xenopus as her model organism. So it should come as a surprise to no one that the title of her Porter Lecture will be “Fun experiments you can only do with frogs.”

“We use cytoplasmic extracts prepared from frog eggs and embryos to study how the mitotic spindle assembles and how subcellular structures scale to cell size across species and during the cleavage divisions of early development,” she wrote to ASCB.

A native of central Pennsylvania, Heald was born in Bellefonte and grew up in Greenville. She graduated in 1985 from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, with a degree in chemistry. In 1993, she earned her PhD in Physiology and Biophysics from Harvard Medical School. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley in 1997.

She was awarded the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award in 2006 and was elected as an ASCB Fellow in 2017. Heald was recognized for postdoctoral mentoring and for promoting diversity and inclusion< in the life sciences and was awarded the Leon K. Henkin Citation for Distinguished Service at UC Berkeley in 2019. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Rebecca is a fearless and inspirational scientist,” said ASCB President Ruth Lehmann. “The question of what controls size has been a century-old puzzle for cell and developmental biologists. Rebecca has systematically addressed this fundamental question and her studies are revealing the molecular principles of scaling at the organelle, cell, and organismal level. Beyond her groundbreaking research, Rebecca is also a strong voice for equity and inclusion in our community, making her a particularly compelling recipient of this year’s Keith Porter lecture award.”

Heald is devoted to fostering growth for her trainees and colleagues.

“Aside from research, my overarching professional goal is to provide a productive and nurturing environment for my group members, help guide them to the next phase of their careers, and continue supporting them so that they reach their full potential wherever their paths take them,” Heald wrote to ASCB. “I am fortunate that leadership roles in my department, campus, and scientific community have enabled me to engage in mentoring efforts to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Heald boasts a long and active career with ASCB, serving in numerous capacities.

“In the cell biology community, I have served as a member of ASCB Council and on the Women in Cell Biology Committee. One of my main efforts was to revamp an easily searchable list of excellent female speakers (www.ascb.org/career-development/speaker-referral-lists). ASCB Fellow Sandra Masur said Heald’s effort to transform the speaker list into a searchable database is more than just useful, it could be game-changing.

“Dr. Heald stepped up and transformed what had been a list into a searchable database. Each entry is now categorized by research area with keywords, institution, and a link to the person’s website. It is frequently used and recommended to organizers and to people searching for experts in various areas of cell biology. With this list in hand, cell biology ‘manels’ (male-only panels) may finally be a thing of the past.”

“I am incredibly honored to receive this award,” says Heald. “For my entire career, ASCB has always been my home as a scientific organization. The annual meeting is where I get to meet my very favorite scientists and people and have a reunion with my former lab members. The society represents the best efforts of our community to support one another and share our enthusiasm for the power and beauty of cell biology research.”

Frogs are not the only thing that fascinates Heald. She also enjoys cycling, camping, reading, gardening, and binge-watching her favorite TV shows.

About the Author:


Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.