Pioneering pharmacy professor learned early to work hard and help others

jean chen

For almost five decades at USC, Jean Chen Shih has excelled at research and in teaching. She says the groundbreaking legislation is as important now as it was 50 years ago.

When Jean Chen Shih interviewed for a faculty position at the USC Alfred E. Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in 1974, she was told there were 70 other applicants for the job and left campus feeling unsure about her chances. Shih was nearly nine months pregnant, but no one seemed to notice after two days of interviews and a seminar presentation.

Just days after giving birth to her second son, Shih received a call from a man congratulating her. She replied, “Thank you! It’s a boy!” After some confusion, Shih was surprised to discover she was not speaking with a family well-wisher but with the head of the USC search committee who was calling with an offer to join the faculty.

“He said, ‘I didn’t know you were about to deliver a baby,’” she recalled. “I didn’t know if it was an important issue and didn’t know what they thought about it.”

Shih didn’t ask; she just got to work. During her nearly five-decade career at USC, she has done groundbreaking scientific research and become a world leader in understanding the neurobiological and biochemical mechanisms behind such behaviors as aggression and anxiety. She is also developing cancer drugs with dual therapy and diagnosis functions.

She is a University Professor and holds the endowed Boyd P. and Elsie D. Welin Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences chair. Her areas of expertise include brain development, autism spectrum disorder and repurposing antidepressants for brain cancer and prostate cancer.

Shih’s many honors and accomplishments include two prestigious MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Awards from the National Institutes of Health. Fewer than 1% of researchers who apply for federal funding are chosen to receive a MERIT Award, which provides five years of grant support with the option of an additional five years. She is the only faculty member to hold this honor in USC history. She is also the founding director of USC-Taiwan Center for Translational Research and past president of the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America, a leader in global interdisciplinary and translational research.

Title IX trailblazer: Working twice as hard

Title IX had been signed into law just two years before Shih’s hiring at USC. The landmark law prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other educational program receiving funding from the federal government.

Jean Chen Shih has been with USC’s pharmacy school for 48 years. (Photo/Courtesy of the USC Alfred E. Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences)

“Most women like me didn’t know what our rights were,” Shih said of her early days at USC. “When anything would happen to us that wasn’t fair, we just thought, ‘That’s the way it is.’”

The discrimination wasn’t obvious, but it was there.

Read Jean’s Story