Photo and story by Gail Mallimson
The most important biological discovery in Jan Randall's career came in the middle of the night, while she was sitting on a lawn chair in the desert. Alone and 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 careful observation 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, she observed that her male colleagues were often accompanied by their wives who worked as unpaid research assistants, giving the men a career boost that female researchers didn't have. “I became a pretty strident feminist and that carried me through in many ways. I was determined that I as a woman wasn’t going to be thwarted. I persevered.”
When Randall began researching and teaching at San Francisco State University in 1987 she was surrounded by more female colleagues, and felt more at home. However, there was little opportunity to bond with her female colleagues, as their work and life schedules left little room for meeting together. In response, she revived the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program at SF State. WISE provides opportunities for women in STEM fields at the University to learn from and support one another through presentations, workshops and the establishment of mentoring communities.
After 17 years teaching and researching at SF State, Randall retired and is now a professor emerita. She continues to generously support WISE and the WISE scholarship, which is awarded to an outstanding graduate student each year. An important aspect of these programs to Randall is mentorship “I hope that young women now get mentors. 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.”
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.