Jan Randall’s most important biological discovery came while she was 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 the 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. Even though they live alone, they know who their neighbors are.” After further study, Randall realized that each rat had a distinctive pattern to their drumming with their hind legs, a special kind of song. “I think that was the most rewarding area of my research.”
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 and she often felt left out by her male colleagues and professors. 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. 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, as their work and life schedules left little room for meeting together. In response, Randall revived the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program at SF State. WISE provides opportunities for women in STEM fields at SF State to learn from and support one another through presentations, workshops, and the establishment of mentoring communities.
After 17 years at SF State, Randall is now a retired professor emerita. She continues to generously support WISE financially, ensuring that women in the sciences at the University have the opportunity to stay connected with each other. Randall also created and funds the WISE scholarship, which is awarded to an outstanding woman in the graduate program at San Francisco State University each year. An important aspect of these programs to Randall is mentorship “I just hope that young women now get mentors. I didn’t really have a mentor, that was the hard part. I didn’t really have anyone saying I should do this or that, I had to make my own way.”
Active even in retirement, Randall is currently an activist, author, philanthropist, and ardent gardener. One of her main interests is in preserving endangered species, and she currently sits on the Board of Directors at the Endangered Species Coalition. Her new book, “Endangered Species: A Reference Handbook”, is a compendium of resources, history, and facts regarding the protection of endangered species in the U.S.