Rae Lyn Burke, PhD


Rae Lyn Burke, an eminent San Francisco Bay Area virologist, passed away on October 30th after more than fourteen years of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her accomplishments in the fields of infectious diseases and vaccine development still have a powerful impact, even a decade and a half after the progression of her disease forced her to retire from the work she loved.

The daughter of two schoolteachers, Rae Lyn spent most of her childhood and young adulthood in Reno, Nevada. Her mother was an active leader in the National Education Association and the Nevada State Democratic Party. Her father, who taught woodshop and built beautiful furniture, installed solar panels on the family home decades before renewables became popular.

In 1966, after winning numerous state and national academic awards in high school, Rae Lyn was chosen as one of the two Presidential Scholars from Nevada, leading to her thrilling meeting with President Lyndon Johnson.

Rae Lyn earned her undergraduate degree with honors at the University of Nevada, Reno. She was also an accomplished gymnast, winning a state title on the uneven bars. She earned a PhD in chemistry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. It was there that her interests began to evolve from traditional chemistry to the increasingly intriguing field of DNA.

After her PhD, she was a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco. Rae Lyn arrived at UCSF at a particularly exciting time, when DNA synthesis and sequencing were just taking off. Rae Lyn fit in immediately, spending long hours in the cold room, achieving remarkable success in purifying important proteins and recording her work with a meticulous precision that made her notebooks prime exhibits in future patent battles.

Her postdoc finished, Rae Lyn’s next step was not immediately clear, as most science faculties had few to no women. Indeed, UCSF at the time was-reluctantly-hiring its first female faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. There was another option, however, that was even riskier for a woman than seeking a faculty position. Some scientists were taking tentative steps toward creating biotechnology companies. At that time, the future of biotechnology seemed as dubious as putting a human on Mars. Showing again her quiet fearlessness and penchant for risk-taking, Rae Lyn left UCSF to be employee number six at a new startup, Chiron. Rae Lyn’s brilliance and industriousness made her an essential part of the early small team that raised Chiron to international prominence.

Rae Lyn gained increasing respect during the fifteen years she spent at Chiron. The program she headed, creating a vaccine against the herpes virus, was the first Chiron project to progress to Phase III clinical trials in humans.
She later became a consultant, including for Elan Corporation on a vaccine approach to Alzheimer’s. In an ironic twist, years later she became a patient in the clinical trial for the drug she developed.

Rae Lyn was also a consultant with the Stanford Research Institute. Recognizing her talents, SRI recruited Rae Lyn as director of their Infectious Diseases Division, which she built into one of the most well-funded research groups at SRI. When she went into retirement at age 59 because of Alzheimer’s, she was responsible for the largest amount of NIH funding of any scientist at SRI.

Throughout Rae Lyn’s career, from her PhD program to every company where she worked, she was always one of the only women at her level. She always pushed boundaries, paving the way for women scientists who followed. To many of her women colleagues fighting for recognition in a world overwhelmingly dominated by men, Rae Lyn was a hero.

In addition to being a brilliant scientist, Rae Lyn had an adventurous spirit. In the 70s she undertook a backpacking trip to Machu Pichu, long before it became a tourist destination. She bought and equipped two sailboats and learned to be an ocean sailor, including sailing with her husband, Reg Kelly, from San Francisco to Mexico twice and a three-week trip from Rarotonga to Hawaii.

She had a great family life with husband and children, Dylan and Colin. She owned a house in Lake Tahoe, where they would hike and swim in summer, and where she taught the kids to ski in winter. The family went scuba diving in Sulawesi, trekked through isolated villages in Laos, climbed to Buddhist shrines at the mountainous Sikkim-China border, and visited, with an armed guard, remote archeological sites in Cambodia before the guerrilla war there had ended.
She is remembered as a fun-loving, adventurous genius who would have found this current pandemic absolutely fascinating.

This obituary was originally published by San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 27, 2022.

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