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Utah’s Mary Beckerle ‘a powerful voice’ on Cancer Moonshot Initiative

First Published      Last Updated Oct 09 2016 11:01 pm

There's something about Utah's uncluttered landscape and expansive blue sky that gives Mary Beckerle a sense of mental space.

It helps her think, she says, and fuels her desire to explore both mentally and physically.

It's the reason the New Jersey native came to the Beehive State in the 1980s to teach at the University of Utah.

Thirty years later, she's found herself in the Huntsman Cancer Institute's corner office as its CEO, with wall-to-wall windows overlooking the geography she loves so much.

And recently, Beckerle, 62, was picked by Vice President Joe Biden to serve on a blue-ribbon panel as part of his campaign to cure cancer.

She gets so animated when talking about the future of cancer research that she can barely remain seated. Her face lights up and her voice rises at the thought of the talented scientists and researchers she leads.

Those who work with her praise her ability to help them collaborate, to tackle cancer as a team. She's driven, they say, and committed.

And she's brought national recognition to an institute that, admittedly, is smaller than MD Anderson Cancer Center, for example —­ "but our aspirations are just as big," she says.

Biden's panel, which completed its report in September, was tasked with advising the National Cancer Advisory Board on new cancer treatments and investments in cancer research.

Working with the panel "was exciting and inspiring," Beckerle says. "I feel like if we can do even a part of what was proposed by the blue-ribbon panel, we can make a huge difference."

'I wanted to do something more' • Beckerle likens her professional journey to sailing. When you look out at the horizon, she says, often all you can see is the line where the sky touches the ocean.

But sail a little farther and you start seeing hints of the future taking shape. The closer you get, she says, the more visible it becomes.

"You have to start going in a direction before you know exactly what it is," she says. "It's an adventure. I just want to have an impact."

Beckerle didn't enter Wells College in New York knowing she would leave as a scientist four years later. She always loved science, but it wasn't until she took a class with a female biology teacher — a rarity — that the idea really took shape.

"Having a female role model who was really a dynamic person and very passionate about biology gave me a sense that, as much as I loved biology, I had an opportunity to do something in that space," she says.

After graduating, she toyed with the thought of going to medical school, but found herself "captivated by biomedical research and teaching." She earned her doctorate in molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder instead.

Beckerle joined the U.'s faculty in 1986. She fondly remembers receiving notes from students who switched to a science major after taking her class. She also was able to set up a research lab.

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