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Obituary: Sue Piper Duckles, PhD, FASPET

January 24, 2022

Sue Piper Duckles, Ph.D., FASPET

On January 24, 2022, Sue Piper Duckles passed away and we lost a distinguished and well-loved member of ASPET (1979-2022). Sue was an exceptional leader, an outstanding researcher, an invaluable collaborator, a sage mentor, an inspiring role model and a dear friend and colleague. She was a world-renown pharmacologist and a tireless advocate for advancing the discipline of pharmacology and the careers of pharmacology students and professionals.

A native Californian, Sue Piper Duckles grew up in the hills of Oakland which instilled in her a lifelong love of nature, hiking, camping, and native plant restoration. She obtained her B.A., cum laude, in Philosophy from UC Berkeley in 1968. At that time, she married Lawrence Duckles, a professional flutist, and also made the fateful decision to pursue a PhD in Pharmacology & Toxicology at UC San Francisco. In 1973, Dr. Duckles moved to UCLA as an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow and then Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology. From 1979 -1985, she was a pharmacology faculty member at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Tucson, in the department of Dr. Thomas Burks, a key mentor in her career. In 1985, Sue was recruited to the Department of Pharmacology in the School of Medicine at UC Irvine, where she remained until her retirement as Professor Emerita in 2010. 

In 2019, Sue Duckles was named to the inaugural class of ASPET Fellows for her overall impact on pharmacology and the Society. She provided outstanding leadership and guidance to ASPET, serving as President (1997-1998), Councilor (1992-1995) and on numerous committees. In recognition of her achievements, Sue was presented the ASPET Torald Sollmann Award in Pharmacology (2007) and the Paul M. Vanhoutte Award in Vascular Pharmacology (2014). Sue also received the PhRMA Foundation Award in Excellence in Pharmacology/Toxicology (2007) and was named an honorary fellow of the British Pharmacological Society (2005).

A gifted administrator and organizer, Sue Duckles also served as President (2006-2010), Secretary General (2002-2006) and General Assembly Delegate of the International Union of Pharmacology (IUPHAR). In addition, she was President of the Western Pharmacology Society (1992) and a member of the Board of Directors and Vice President for Science Policy for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (1997-2001). During her career, she helped organize numerous meetings and symposia; most notably, she was Congress President for the XIVth World Congress of Pharmacology held in San Francisco (2002). In addition, Sue provided strong leadership within her own institution, serving as Chair of the UCI Academic Senate (1990-1992), Interim Chair of the UCI Department of Pharmacology (2000-2005) and Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Development in the UCI School of Medicine (1993-2010).

As a cerebrovascular pharmacologist, Sue Duckles was world renown for her pioneering research on the influence of sex hormones on the vasculature. Together with her long-time collaborator, Diana Krause, Sue discovered that estrogen acts directly on receptors in brain blood vessels to influence a variety of cellular and contractile responses. Groundbreaking studies by her research team established that estrogen protects vascular mitochondria by increasing mitochondrial efficiency and suppressing free radicals. Her studies elucidated mechanisms that underlie sex differences and hormonal influences in vascular function and age-related diseases such as stroke. In 1996, she helped organize a seminal ASPET-sponsored colloquium, “Effects of gonadal steroids on vascular function” that brought hormone experts together with vascular biologists for the first time. For over 20 years, Sue contributed to and promoted the importance of the study of sex and hormonal influences in cardiovascular research.

When Sue joined ASPET in 1979, only about 10% of the members were women. To become a successful woman in science, Sue often had to break gender barriers and persevere with few role models and little mentorship. Sue constantly moved forward with confidence, smarts, a warm smile and laser focus on her goals. She was an excellent communicator, gifted writer and a natural leader who embraced collaboration. She was always firm, fair, respectful and kind.

Throughout her life and career, Sue Duckles had a profound influence on others. She was a powerful role model, especially for women in science. Sue was an outstanding advisor and example – of how to think critically and do good science, how to advance your career, and how to maintain balance and enjoy life. She modeled how to prioritize her interests and passions, which included her role as wife and mother. Sue used her position and experience to guide and support junior scientists and faculty members. A pioneer in promoting diversity and inclusion, she was an encouraging and supportive mentor for all.

Maybe because she started off studying philosophy, Sue had a unique perspective on a career in science. When asked to give a retrospective lecture on her journey, Sue titled it “A career in pharmacology: In search of beauty and joy”.

Sue Duckles is survived by her husband of 54 years, Lawrence Duckles, and her sons Ian (wife Heather) and Galen. She will be greatly missed and fondly remembered by her many students, mentees, co-workers and colleagues.


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