Making her own way

Jan Randall speaks in front of a screen depicting a map.

A career of challenges fueled Professor Emerita Jan Randall’s mission to aid women in science 

This story originally appeared on the University’s Bold Thinkers blog, which ran from May 2018 to Nov. 2019.

Professor Emerita of Biology Jan Randall’s most important biological discovery came while she was sitting on a lawn chair, at night, by herself in the desert. Armed with a flashlight and lots of patience, she was observing an endangered kangaroo rat in southern Arizona, an animal usually identified as asocial. After many nights of study, however, Randall realized that the small rats had a secret. “I discovered that they had a unique form of communication, which is drumming their feet, and that they had a rudimentary social organization,” she explained. “Even though they live alone, they know who their neighbors are.”

Randall was no stranger to solitary work. When she began studying zoology in the early 1960s, she was one of only a few women pursuing the sciences. While working on her doctorate degree at Washington State University, her animal behaviorist professor often went hunting and fishing with male students, but only visited her study site once. Years later at a desert research station in Arizona, Randall observed that her male colleagues were often accompanied by their wives, who worked as unpaid research assistants — giving them a career boost that she and the other female researchers did not have. “I became a pretty strident feminist, and that kind of carried me through in many ways,” she said. “I was determined that I as a woman wasn’t going to be thwarted. I persevered.”

At San Francisco State University, where Randall began researching and teaching in 1987, she felt more at home. However, she found that there was little opportunity to bond with her female colleagues. In response, she revived SF State’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, which provides opportunities for women in STEM fields to learn from and support one another through presentations, workshops and the establishment of mentoring communities.

After 17 years at SF State, Randall continues her work as an activist as a member of the board of the Endangered Species Coalition and is the author of a new book, “Endangered Species: A Reference Handbook.” She also created and funded the WISE scholarship, which is awarded to an outstanding female graduate student in the College of Science & Engineering each year. “I just hope that young women now get mentors,” Randall said. “I didn’t really have a mentor — that was the hard part. I didn’t have anyone saying I should do this or that. I had to make my own way.”