It took three years and thousands of dollars in fundraising, but the legacy of a celebrated UCSF professor and researcher has now been cemented in a lecture hall for generations of learners to come.

The inaugural Zena Werb Memorial Lecture in Cancer Biology took place at UCSF Parnassus Heights earlier this month, the product of an effort organized by family, colleagues and friends to celebrate the life and work of Werb, who unexpectedly passed away in June 2020 at the age of 75. Zena Werb, PhD, led widely cited and respected research in the field of cancer biology during her four-decade career at UCSF – research that continues to be recognized internationally for fundamental discoveries.

She was a professor in the UCSF Department of Anatomy and associate director for basic science at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Her close friends knew they all wanted to do something,” said Susan Fisher, PhD, UCSF professor of OB/GYN and reproductive sciences with a joint appointment in anatomy. “So, we had several meetings, both formal and informal, and we decided the best way to honor Zena was with a research symposium.”

Fisher and Steven Rosen, PhD, professor emeritus in the UCSF Department of Anatomy, led the effort to organize the symposium series, one that was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Zena had a huge impact on many, many people inside and outside UCSF,” Rosen said. “She was a world-renowned scientist but she was a great citizen of UCSF and served on innumerable committees. She was always busy doing this and that. She was a great source of counseling advice for students, postdocs, junior faculty and senior faculty. Whether it was scientific or personal advice, Zena was the one you went to. She trained a lot of people.”

Three speakers, all former female mentees of Werb’s, presented their own research findings in cancer biology as part of the opening symposium.

A group of people pose for a photo in a lecture hall.
Mikala Egeblad, PhD (third from left), Devon Lawson, PhD (center) and Lisa Coussens, PhD (third from right) were speakers at the opening symposium. Photo by Scott Chernis

“Zena had an immeasurable gift of innovation and creativity,” Devon Lawson, PhD, associate professor of physiology and biophysics at UC Irvine School of Medicine, told those in attendance. “That’s something I’ve brought with me to my own lab. I try to instill that in my students and trainees.”

Lawson spoke alongside Mikala Egeblad, PhD, professor of cell biology and oncology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and keynote Lisa Coussens, PhD, professor of cell, developmental and cancer biology at OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. All three seamlessly blended their cancer research discovery with anecdotes about Werb’s impact as a mentor and friend.

For her passion and continued work in supporting the next generation of scientists, Werb was awarded the UCSF Lifetime Achievement in Mentoring Award in 2015. It was just one of several honors and recognitions Werb received throughout her career, which included membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and past presidency of the American Society of Cell Biology. She also was an elected Fellow of the American Association of Cancer Research, American Society for Cell Biology and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

For Rosen, establishing the UCSF lecture series will pay dividends in education far beyond the researchers and learners who knew Werb personally.

“I imagine that in the coming few years we will have people presenting who are really connected to Zena,” Rosen said. “But the most important thing that will evolve in this series, and what Zena would have wanted, is that the person speaking be really top notch and present great science. Zena would not have wanted tribute after tribute. She would have wanted great science presented in her name.”

Among those making the trek to UCSF for this inaugural event was Werb’s extended family, many of whom flew in from Canada for the event. The group included Werb’s two siblings, her sister’s grandchildren and nieces.

“It’s taken this much time to really find ways to both celebrate our aunt and her work,” said Debra Hamer, one of Werb’s two nieces in attendance. “I think the speakers that they chose are particularly poignant. They’re three incredible female scientists who were mentored by and collaborated with Zena. I think that’s a testament to the work she did and she would absolutely love that.”

Organizers plan for the series to continue on an annual basis at UCSF Parnassus Heights using an endowment established by Werb’s family and ongoing fundraising.

A black and white photo of Zena Werb standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.