W. Sue Shafer, advocate for women and minorities in science

We share the sad news of the death of W. Sue Shafer on December 17, 2020, after the reoccurrence of an aggressive cancer that had been at bay since 2012. Sue was born on October 3, 1941, in Alton, IL. With the bona fides of any research scientist—a BS in Zoology from the University of Wisconsin, a PhD in Developmental Biology from the University of Florida, and a postdoc at the University of Florida before becoming a lecturer at Kalamazoo College in Michigan—Sue chose a career within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) administration through which she had a significant impact on the research careers of many. Ending as Deputy Director, Sue spent 25 years at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the NIH, where she fostered multiple initiatives to innovate in research and worked tirelessly to improve training and support for underrepresented minority scientists. 

While at the NIH, she also developed Achieving XXcellence in Science (AXXS), with support from the Office of Research on Women’s Health. AXXS highlighted and supported the contributions of women to science, encouraging their professional societies to step forward and do the same. Sue chaired this effort for seven years, and organized national workshops in both 1999 and 2002, the proceedings from which were published as a “how to” to foster continuing efforts by professional societies for advancing women in science.

Sue brought her deep knowledge of management and research and research funding to ASCB where she was again an effective advocate on behalf of women scientists and scientists of color. She led the Women in Cell Biology (WICB) Committee for four years and was an active member on the Committee for 13 years. As WICB chair she provided a model of inclusive leadership that encouraged diverse voices and taught their owners how to be heard. She also served on the
ASCB Council and on the Minorities Affairs Committee. Her activism with ASCB was yet another facet of a long and distinguished career helping men and women from many backgrounds in their careers.

She moved from the NIH to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where she was the Assistant Vice Chancellor in Research Administration before becoming the Deputy Director of the highly lauded Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research. While at UCSF, she implemented one of the first “climate surveys” for faculty and research scientists, a survey that has become a model for many colleges and universities across the United States. In particular, she exposed the dramatic salary inequities between various staff members, which led to the UCSF administration to take active steps to reconcile the differences. 

Sue was also an avid musician, hiker, and birder, and she could recognize avian species from Hawaii through the East Coast. Her family was a very important aspect of her life, and she and her husband Ric returned from San Francisco to Maryland to be closer to children and grandchildren. Even while living in San Francisco, and of course after moving to Maryland, they also spent much time on Cape May, a place they enjoyed for respite on the southern coast of New Jersey.

After “retirement,” she continued to be very active in meetings and workshops focused on developing the careers of women in biomedical research. Many of us have been more successful because of Sue’s mentorship and encouragement and her opening doors for diverse groups of scientists. While many tears are being shed in her passing, she has also inspired us to continue to work with scientists and their institutions fighting for equitable opportunities for all who have been underrepresented in leadership roles.

About the Author:


Caroline M Kane is a Professor in Residence Emerita in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley.
Sandra K. Masur is a professor of Ophthalmology and Pharmacological Sciences and director of the Office of Women's Careers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

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