In Memory of Dr. Phoebe Leboy: Scientist and Advocate

By Allison Beal

Professor  Phoebe  Starfield  Leboy,  a  retired  professor  at the School of Dental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania,  passed  away  at  the  age  of  75  on  June  16, 2012  from  complications  of amyotrophic  lateral  sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).   You may not be aware of her significant accomplishments in both science and in advocacy for women in STEM, since she retired in 2005 before many of us arrived at Penn. I think it is important that our community know that she was truly a pioneer in her scientific fields of nucleic acid modifications and, later, regenerative medicine.  But some of her most groundbreaking work was in her activism, promoting equality for women in science at both Penn and at the national level.

Three of her Penn colleagues, Dr.’s Sherrill Adams, Susan Margulies and Susan Volk, noted that Professor Leboy was “a rare creature” when she joined the faculty at the Dental School  in  1967.  At the time, she was only one of a few women among many men on the faculty. When she was promoted to tenure three years later, she was the only tenured woman among the faculty at the Dental School. It might be hard for us to imagine today, but she remained the only tenured woman at the dental school for 21 years!

Professor Leboy began keeping track of gender inequities long  before  it  became  a  priority  at  Penn  and  at  other academic institutions. She helped organize and chair an advocacy organization called Women for Equal Opportunity at the University of Pennsylvania (WEOUP) in 1970, which was formed since the university was unable to develop a federally-­‐mandated affirmative action plan. She also helped organize a sit-­‐in at Penn in response to a series of rapes on campus. This ultimately led to the founding of the Penn Women’s Center, a Women’s studies program, and victim support services. In 2000-­‐2001, she co-­‐chaired Penn’s Task Force on Gender Inequity.  The  work  of  this task force led to the creation  of the Senate  Committee  on Faculty  Development,  Diversity  and  Equity  and  the creation  of  mentorship   programs  for  all  junior  faculty across the university. In addition to these and many other accomplishments that drastically improved women’s experiences at Penn, she also personally mentored numerous    women    graduate    students,    postdocs    and faculty during her time at Penn.

On the national level, Professor Leboy was a founding member of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). AWIS was founded in 1971 after a series of informal meetings at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental  Biology  (FASEB)  meeting  that  year  where the  women  realized  that  job  discrimination,  lower  pay, and professional isolation were huge issues. Since it’s founding, AWIS has fought to improve these issues and achieve equity in STEM. Professor Leboy served as AWIS President in 2008 and 2009 and was an active supporter of the AWIS-­‐PHL local chapter.  In 2001, she served as a Penn liaison on the “MIT9”. This group, composed of presidents,   chancellors,   provosts,   and several   scholars from nine of the top research institutions, met at MIT to initiate novel discussions on the barriers faced by women faculty in science and engineering. For more than forty years, Professor Leboy tirelessly fought to achieve equity for  women  in  STEM,  writing  numerous  articles, conducting countless studies and serving as a principle investigator  on an NSF ADVANCE  PAID grant to increase the  recognition  of  women  in  scientific  disciplinary societies.

Professor  Leboy was a scientist  who was dedicated  both to  her  science   and  to  the  advancement   of  women   in science  and  engineering.  Her advocacy later broadened its focus to include equality for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. Her passion for promoting   women and minorities   in STEM fields was truly admirable and inspirational.  What is striking is that she was determined to continue her advocacy throughout her illness even until the very end of her life. She wrote and submitted a recent article to the journal DNA and Cell Biology on the limited diversity among medical school faculty. This article was just published online and I highly recommend reading it. While there is still a lot of work to do to achieve equality in the STEM, Professor Leboy significantly contributed to several advances that have been made thus far. I think Professor Leboy said it best as she  shared   with  her  friend   and  former   colleague   Dr. Sherrill  Adams,  Professor  at  the  Dental  School,  “We’ve come a long way-­‐be proud.”

There will be a memorial service at Penn to honor Phoebe Leboy that is tentatively scheduled for October 19, 2012 in Bodek Lounge in Houston Hall from 12:30-­2:30 pm (look for more details on our  blog).

One response to “In Memory of Dr. Phoebe Leboy: Scientist and Advocate”

  1. Catherine Moorwood (@moorwood) says :

    Great article, Allison! It’s incredible how much difference one person was able to make, and an inspiration to all of us.

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