Dr. Phoebe Starfield Leboy, professor emerita of biochemistry, School of Dental Medicine, scientist and tireless advocate for women in science and engineering, passed away on June 16, 2012, after a four-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). She was 75.
Born in Brooklyn, NY, Dr. Leboy took her BA with honors in 1957 at Swarthmore in zoology, and her PhD in 1962 at Bryn Mawr in biochemistry.
Dr. Leboy was a rare creature when she joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine in 1966, one of only a few women among many men. She was promoted to associate professor with tenure three years later, and to the rank of professor in 1976. For 21 years she remained the only tenured woman in the School of Dental Medicine. She served as chair of the department from 1992-95.
Dr. Leboy had a distinguished career in two unrelated areas of research. Her early career focused on nucleic acid modifications, presaging the recent explosion of work in the new field of epigenetics. Her later work focused on bone-forming adult stem cells, and made her a pioneer in the field of what is now known as regenerative medicine. "However, perhaps her greatest scientific impact was through her activism for other women scientists," said her colleague Dr. Sherri Adams, professor of biochemistry in the School of Dental Medicine.
Her advocacy for women began in 1970, with formation of Women for Equal Opportunity at the University of Pennsylvania (WEOUP), an organization that she chaired and founded. The organization was formed in response to the University's failure to develop a federally-mandated affirmative action plan, the need for which was dramatically demonstrated by the finding that, in 1971, only 7% of faculty positions were held by women. After a series of rapes on campus, she organized a sit-in at College Hall. Ultimately, negotiations led to numerous advances that made Penn a model for other academic institutions in its programs for women, with the founding of the Penn Women's Center, a Women's Studies Program, victim support and special services, and increased campus safety for women. She was a member of the University Council Committee on the Status of Women (Cohn Committee) which conducted the first official study on women's status at Penn (Almanac April 13, 20, and 27, 1971).
The consummate Penn citizen, she served on many University-wide committees and was the chair of the Faculty Senate from 1981-1982. She co-chaired Penn's Task Force on Gender Equity, 2000-2001 (Almanac December 4, 2001).
In 2001, in response to an initiative by the Ford Foundation, presidents, chancellors, provosts, and several leading scholars from nine top research universities met at MIT to engage in an unprecedented discussion on barriers to success for women faculty in science and engineering. The group, now known as the "MIT9," released a statement agreeing to analyze salaries and university resources provided to women faculty. MIT Professor Nancy Hopkins remembers Dr. Leboy as an integral part of "MIT9": "[Phoebe] was fearless in speaking out and in turning what can be contentious issues into issues of simple common sense and common decency. I donŐt know what makes a person possess such a powerful innate sense of fairness as Phoebe has or that equips them with the courage to act on their convictions with risk and no obvious professional benefit to themselves. But I do know that at least hundreds and more probably thousands of women scientists owe the ease of their life in science to the courageous and brilliant efforts of Phoebe Leboy." The group has continued to meet annually, and has since broadened its focus to include both women faculty and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields.
In 2005 Dr. Leboy received the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching (Almanac April 12, 2005). Upon retirement from Penn in 2005, she took her advocacy for women on the road, becoming President of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) 2008-2009. She continued to work throughout her illness to promote women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. At the time of her death she held a grant from the National Science Foundation on gender inequity in science, and was actively publishing the findings of this research. In recognition of her leadership, several fellowships have been created in her name.
"Although many of the women whom Dr. Leboy mentored both directly and indirectly consider themselves her academic progeny, she was lucky later in life to develop a rich family life," added Dr. Adams.
Dr. Leboy is survived by her husband, Dr. Neal Nathanson, associate dean, Global Health Programs, Penn Medicine, her three step-children, Kate, John, and Daniel and six grandchildren, Leah and Claire Ochroch, Alexander, Sophia, Olivia and Jack Nathanson.
The family has requested that contributions be made to the Association for Women
in Science, awis.org A memorial service will be held at the University of
Pennsylvania in the fall.