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2007 Rosenblatt Prize Winner Mary Beckerle

A Passion for Science
The 2007 Rosenblatt Prize Winner, Mary Beckerle, leads the charge in the fight against cancer.

by Jason Matthew Smith

Huntsman Cancer Institute Executive Director Mary C. Beckerle usually has a good memory for details. She must, after all, because she helms one of the world's leading centers for cancer research and treatment (in just 14 years, HCI has grown to become one of the nation's premier facilities), and there's no room for absentmindedness. But there's part of one conversation she has difficulty recalling40 minutes with University of Utah President Michael K. Young preceding the moment he informed her that she was the recipient of the 2007 Rosenblatt Prize, the U's highest honor for excellence in research, teaching, and administration. "I was completely astounded," she says. "We had a conversation before he told me that I'd been awarded the prize. Now, I don't even remember what we'd talked about."

The Rosenblatt Prize marks an important milestone in Beckerle's career, but without the influence of a couple of key mentors, the reality might have been quite different.

As a child, Beckerleoriginally from New Jerseywas always fascinated with the natural world, but a career in science seemed impossible. Decades ago, it wasn't a field typically believed to be open to women. But Beckerle credits a professor at Wells College in Aurora,

New York, for providing her with the inspiration to become a scientist.

At Wells, biology professor Pat Sullivan encouraged her to pursue a career in science, stressing that a woman can-and indeed should-devote herself to it. "She was an amazing woman," says Beckerle. "She was passionate about the beauty and excitement and impact of science." Since then, Beckerle has also been an advocate for recruiting female scientists, first as a member of the American Society for Cell Biology's Women In Cell Biology Committee and later as president of ASCB.

Beckerle also spent a summer in a student program at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, a renowned lab noted for its biomedical and genetics research. Peering into microscopes was (and in many ways still is) a transcendent experience for Beckerle, and at Jackson, she grew to love the hands-on aspects of science.

After graduating from Wells in 1976, she wasn't sure where to head next. Graduate school? Medical school? Something else? She packed up her yellow Volkswagen and headed south to become a research assistant at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas. It was her way of testing the scientific waters. "That experience convinced me I really enjoyed the process of discovery science," she says.

After receiving a doctorate in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1983, and some postdoctoral work at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Beckerle joined the U faculty in 1986, where she met another powerful influence on her career, renowned biologist Mario Capecchi. "Mario was instrumental in my recruitment to Utah and even hosted me at his mountain home on several occasions."

Beckerle admits that Capecchi's passion for science and teaching helped give her career a boost. Her first weeks at the U were somewhat lonely-she had a large, empty lab and no one to share it with. Capecchi's lab was Innovation Central, humming with activity. Beckerle found herself migrating to Capecchi's lab, and the elder scientist took her under his wing. "I was sort of a refugee," she says. Soon the two were teaching classes together.

Beckerle found that she was virtually granted free rein to conduct her own research, and notes that the U provides fertile ground to do so with far-reaching implications-that is, the possibility of finding solutions to complex problems. "This environment is pretty special," she says. "The U is a remarkable place; people here are not afraid of the hard questions-they go after the fundamental, central questions, and don't putter around the edges."

Her research at first centered on cellular movement and the manner in which cells receive signals from their environment-and how they respond. But gradually she began to work in a more specialized area. "My own research at the U expanded dramatically," she says. "The U's strengths in genetics and biochemistry helped lead me to cancer research." It was a good fit: cancer cells disregard the body's signals, and in the most devastating cancers, the cells begin to spread or metastasize-precisely the type of cellular behavior Beckerle had been working with.

She eventually became the deputy director and senior director of laboratory research for HCI before taking the helm in 2006. Currently she is also a professor of biology and adjunct professor of oncological sciences.

These days, however, she doesn't get to log much time in the lab. Guiding HCI's research and clinical efforts-along with juggling a multimillion-dollar budget-consume most of her waking hours. "The toughest part about this job is balancing your role as an administrator, scientist, mentor, and educator," she says. Now and then she'll snatch a few moments to indulge her passion for cooking, or spend more time with her husband and 12-year-old son.

According to Beckerle, the U and HCI are uniquely poised to make considerable headway in cancer research in the coming years. "Most universities are structured in a traditional way, around the various disciplines," she says, "but it's different at the U. We bring together people with a common passion for curing cancer without regard to disciplines-oncologists, surgeons, clinicians, laboratory scientists, population scientists-all here to tackle the problem."

She foresees gradual progress toward a "cure" for cancer (although the term cure is somewhat misleading, because the disease is actually a family of ailments with varying causes), with greater emphasis on early detection, prevention, and treatments geared specifically toward the individual, thanks to advances in genetics. A cancer patient's genetic makeup will most likely eventually determine the levels and combinations of drugs and treatments enlisted to combat the disease, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Beckerle readily defers to the spirit of teamwork infusing the labs at HCI as the greatest tool for finding cures. "Cancer is a complicated disease," she says. "But I have so many incredible colleagues here working on the problem. I'm thrilled to work in a place where we can bring together people with a common passion for curing cancer."

And with some 1,500 Americans dying from cancer daily, there's no time to lose.

Jason Matthew Smith is editor of Continuum.

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