Betty Liu, W. M. Keck Foundation

TITLE: Senior Program Officer 

FUNDING AREAS: Medical research

CONTACT: Visit PeopleFinder for email and phone number (paid subscribers only)

IP TAKE: Liu got her start in biological research, but during her time at Yale she became interested in grantmaking, which she now continues at the W. M. Keck Foundation.

PROFILE: Before entering philanthropy, Betty Liu, PhD, began her career in cellular biology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, also spending five years post-doc at Yale doing biomedical research on, among other things, treatments for spinal cord injuries.  While at Yale, she began writing and editing the grants and white papers necessary to continue research. She was good at it, and interested in it, and it would eventually lead to her current role at the W. M. Keck Foundation.

W. M. Keck is a large, Los Angeles-based private foundation that primarily gives to science, engineering, and medical research.  Liu is a senior program officer in the Research Program.  In her capacity there, she oversees around $10 million a year in grantmaking, with most grants in the seven figures.

While Liu has been at W. M. Keck for more than half a decade now, before she entered the world of foundations she was in the field herself, making a successful career as an up-an-coming microbiology researcher. At UNC, she was named a Lineberger Fellow by the cancer center for her demonstrated excellence in research. Liu worked under Keith Burridge, a British researcher and one of the most distinguished molecular biologists in the field. Liu's specific line of research was how the body regulates the movement and spread of cells and how that process might be studied to learn how cancer metastasizes and spreads throughout the body.

During her postdoctoral fellow and research associate years at Yale School of Medicine she authored and coauthored seven articles and focused on treatments for spinal cord injuries. But it was also during her time in New Haven that she shifted from lab work and became involved in philanthropy and fundraising.  In her final year and a half at Yale, she was assistant director of the university’s corporate and foundation relations.  In that role, she sought funding from corporate and non-profit funders for biomedical research projects at the university, developing and writing grant proposals and building ties with foundations, faculty, and administrators. She also did her first work on the foundation side as a committee member for the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, reviewing grant proposals from local organizations seeking funding for a variety of projects.

Today, Liu is one of a strong team of directors and officers at the W. M. Keck Foundation, the family foundation created from the wealth of Superior Oil Company founder William Myron Keck.  The foundation has more than $1 billion dollars in assets and makes about $50 million in annual grants, primarily to education, science and medical research, and engineering.

Liu’s program, in particular, funds researchers working on breakthroughs in life and physical sciences and seeking high-risk work at the frontier of biomedical fields.  The program gives 15-20 grants each year, but they are big awards, most for $1 million.

Lately, Liu’s program has made most of its grants to cellular and genetic research related to cancer, intellectual disabilities, and other illnesses. For example, Keck recently granted $1 million to researchers at University of California, Berkeley, who are transferring genes from magnetically sensitive bacteria into mammal cells, which could allow huge breakthroughs by using MRI to watch specific cell processes in whole animals.

The foundation recommends contacting its staff between January 1 and February 15 to apply to Liu’s program, leading to a Phase I application submission as soon as May 1.