Reaching Across Boundaries: Michelle Rhyu, Graduate Division 2017 Distinguished Alumna

Michelle Rhyu, Graduate Division 2017 Distinguished Alumna

The UCSF Graduate Division is pleased to announce that Michelle Rhyu, PhD '94,
has been named our Distinguished Alumna of the Year for 2017.

As a biochemistry PhD candidate at UCSF, Michelle Rhyu spent long hours in the Jan lab “fly room,” where researchers set up and analyzed experiments using drosophila — the tiny fly species commonly used for genetic experiments.

Most of Rhyu’s labmates — mainly grad students and postdocs — were building a foundation of scientific skills and inquiry that would guide them throughout science careers, but the experience was quietly shaping Rhyu’s professional life in an unconventional way. As she worked elbow to elbow with colleagues from all over the world, conversations about the drosophila peripheral nervous system blended with banter about history and world events. With National Public Radio constantly in the background, the fly room buzzed with far-ranging discussions, from Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings to population control to the fall of the Iron Curtain, and everything in between.

Rhyu found the diversity of topics and cultural perspectives illuminating. The fly room discussions tapped into a passion for engaging in discourse on a broad range of issues, eventually steering her to a legal career. There, pressing her scientific expertise into service, she has become a leading life-sciences litigator. As a partner at the Palo Alto office of the international law firm Cooley, she has made a mark as a leader, innovator, and mentor. The UCSF Graduate Division is honoring Rhyu as its 2017 Distinguished Alumna of the Year for forging this unique and influential path of science achievement.

She was off to a fortuitous start when, as a UC Berkeley undergraduate, she learned about research on telomeres, the structures at the end of chromosomes that protect them against degradation during cell division, from Elizabeth Blackburn, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for that work. “It was the first biology question that really grabbed me,” she recalls, and it cultivated an enthusiasm that, together with encouragement from her father, carried Rhyu to UCSF. “It is fascinating to figure out how nature works and then to use that understanding for greater advancement,” says Rhyu, who lives in Menlo Park with her husband and two children.

But even as Rhyu excelled in biochemistry, she knew she was headed down a different path. Seeing how her graduate school colleagues “loved living and breathing science,” she knew she lacked the same passion. “I wanted to find something that made me that excited,” she said.

Then, during a year of professional exploration funded by a National Institutes of Health fellowship, a casual chat with United States Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Paul Michel landed her an internship and a mentor, which forged a marriage of science and law that she has been building on ever since.

Rhyu’s background is a natural fit for today’s tech-centric world, but in the late 1980s, she says, going into industry was still taboo. “There was a feeling that the best minds — the most successful scientists — stayed in [bench] science. You had to overcome that,” she says. She pushed past the stigma, committing to a related field that engaged all her interests, including a love of advocacy and language.

“You have black, white, and then all of these shades of gray,” she says, admiring law’s focus on interpretation. But she also appreciates the purity of a question with a definitive answer. “In science, creativity is about finding clever ways to get at the answer, whereas in the law, there is room to shape the answer,” she observes, seamlessly synthesizing her dual scientist/lawyer perspectives.

As a Korean-American — her family immigrated to California when she was just four years old — and a female in the white male–dominated corporate realm, Rhyu navigates other dual worlds. Mid-career, she realized minorities and women saw her as a role model. “Whether or not I want to take on this role, there I am in the spotlight,” she acknowledges. “The responsibility is on you, and there’s a humility that comes with that.” 

Confronting that responsibility directly, she has begun to formulate a larger vision around inclusiveness — around putting the weight of her accomplishments behind efforts to benefit more people. In practice, that has translated to a spectrum of intentional choices: striving to be a thought leader in a continuously evolving field; supporting education in science and law; doing pro bono work that aligns with her vision, such as a case that resulted in improved federal procedures for immigrants. It can also mean just being available to those who look to her for guidance.

Rhyu says she’s deeply honored by the UCSF award. She sees her selection as an indication from the Graduate Division that “having these paths to other communities is important for the future of science.” It’s a message that makes sense to her from her vantage point at the intersection between cultures, genders, generations, and professional disciplines. “I think that for a long time I viewed being at the boundaries as being excluded, on the outside looking in,” she says. “But I’m coming to realize these are opportunities to reach out in both directions — to learn from different worlds and to facilitate understanding between them.”

Rhyu will receive her award at the Graduate Division Gala, which takes place during UCSF's Alumni Weekend on April 7-8, 2017 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Visit the Alumni Weekend website for more information and online registration.

--- story by Ann Brody Guy