Rebecca Heald ’85
As professor and co-chair in the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley, Rebecca Heald ’85 works to empower basic research and pave the way for those underrepresented in scientific fields.

Heald, who runs a research laboratory and teaches a senior level cell biology and physiology laboratory course, was honored for her work by the American Society for Cell Biology. She received the 2022 Sandra K. Masur Senior Leadership Award, which recognizes a scientist who couples outstanding scientific achievements with a record of active leadership in mentoring women and individuals from underrepresented groups.

“Our research focuses on mechanisms of cell division and size control, and we use African frogs of the genus Xenopus as our primary model. I could write pages about how cool this is,” she said.

Heald is currently most excited about research finding that indicate frogs with larger genomes (more DNA) have lower metabolic rates because their cells are also larger and have less total surface area that requires less of the energy (ATP) to maintain per mass.

As department co-chair, Heald decided her primary mission was to improve the culture of the department to make it more inclusive and welcoming to all, and to increase diversity among the faculty.

“Academia remains a very unfriendly place for outsiders, and I would like to do what I can to change that,” she said.

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In 2018, she led the Life Sciences Initiative cluster search that utilized blind review of diversity statements to screen applications for junior faculty positions. “This approach is very much in the news now and strongly criticized by some, as it challenges the status quo,” Heald said. “While the situation for women in academia has improved, systemic racism is still rampant on campuses.”

Heald majored in chemistry at Hamilton because there was no biochemistry or molecular biology at the time. “My experience at Hamilton was mixed, but I truly appreciate the liberal arts education I received,” she said. “The obstacles I faced as a woman in science have helped shape my career and made me a better mentor.”

To gain more research experience before graduate school, she worked for two years as a technician in a muscle biochemistry lab at Rutgers Medical School. She then attended Harvard Medical School for a Ph.D. in cell biology and physiology, graduating in 1993.  

She pursued postdoctoral research for four years in Germany at the prestigious European Molecular Biology Laboratory and then obtained a tenure-track faculty position at Berkeley.

“I expect to stay at Berkeley until I retire,” Heald said. “I am focusing more on science education and would like to help transform introductory biology courses to better engage students and improve the experience of those from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups.”


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