Vicki Chandler, PhD ’83 : From secretary to scientific standard-bearer
Vicki Chandler, PhD ’83, never thought she would make a significant mark in science. She never even thought she would get a college degree.
By the time she was 20, Chandler had married, become the mother of two children, and divorced. She was working as a secretary when she met several other young single moms who were going back to school. “It became clear to me that this was something I could do,” she remembers. “When I got married, I assumed I was giving up that career path.”
When I got married, I assumed I was giving up [the professional career path]. But [after a divorce and the introduction to young single moms going back to school] it became clear to me that this was something I could do.
Chandler enrolled at Foothill College and, as an avid scuba diver and ocean lover, planned to study marine biology. But an introduction to biology sparked her enthusiasm for genetics, and she never looked back. Two years later, she transferred to UC Berkeley, where she majored in biochemistry and studied yeast cell division.
When it came time to select a graduate program, she found herself caught up by the energy of innovative young scientists at UCSF, especially Keith Yamamoto, PhD, now vice chancellor for research. Chandler joined his lab and continued to study gene regulation, this time in animal systems. “What characterized Vicki at the time still characterizes her today – smart, enormous passion, drive, and hard work,” says Yamamoto.
While looking for postdoc opportunities, Chandler stumbled upon some plant literature that shaped the rest of her career. It described maize (corn) as an ideal system for studying gene expression – in particular, a phenomenon in gene silencing called paramutation.
Until Chandler started her postdoc at Stanford University, paramutation was “this huge black-box mystery: it suggested there was a lot we didn’t understand about how genes change each other’s expression,” she explains. Over the course of her career, first at the University of Oregon, then at the University of Arizona, her lab uncovered some of the underlying mechanisms of the phenomenon, bringing clarity to that black box. Her team’s results have implications for animals and humans, too.
In 2009, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation beckoned Chandler with a new challenge – serving as director of the organization’s science program. In that role, she is responsible for leading a team charged with identifying and funding early stage research across the life and physical sciences.
“Vicki understood from early on that there are many ways to use PhD-level training in the biological sciences,” says Yamamoto. “From yeast to mammals to maize into science policy and support, she has applied rigorous problem-solving to rise to leadership across the field. Her career is a standard bearer for that very point and for UCSF training. It’s really impressive.”