Growing up, Huntsman Cancer Institute CEO and Director Mary Beckerle never dreamed of being a scientist. She wanted to be either a fireman or a ballerina.
She wasn't interested in science until college, when she took a biology course from a female professor. Not only did she gain an interest in the subject, but also a sense that she would be able to work in the field as a female. She later said she wanted to take every class the professor taught.
Beckerle’s father, who had never smoked in his life, died of emphysema at the age of 36, so her mother worked two jobs to support her and her three sisters. It's there, she says, that she learned the value of hard work.
After attending high school in New Jersey, she went to Wells College—a small, all-girls school at the time—on scholarship, and double majored in biology and psychology. She worked her way through college with jobs at a bakery, a library, a restaurant, and as a lifeguard.
But when Beckerle graduated from college, she wasn’t sure what to do next. She says, “I always knew I wanted to do something meaningful that would make a difference in the world and that is what motivated me and ultimately defined my professional path.” She took a gap year and worked on cellular biology research at the University of Texas while deciding whether to enter medical school or pursue pure science in graduate school. At the end of the year, she had made her decision: she started at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1977 and earned a PhD in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology. Following that, she started her post-doctoral training in 1983 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When she finished, she was hired at the University of Utah as an assistant professor in the biology department.
At the time, the U’s biology department was in a period of growth and innovation. Accomplished professors had been brought on board, including Mario Capecchi who would later earn a Nobel prize for his work. He played a role in bringing Beckerle to the U. The University couldn’t offer salaries on par with larger research institutions, but it gave its researchers a lot of freedom in regard to what they worked on. When Beckerle was recruited, she was given a lab to work in and a few beginning biology classes to teach. She was quickly promoted to the position of associate professor within 5 years. She did so well that Johns Hopkins Medical School approached her, offering classes, a laboratory, and a position at the head of an entire department.
As Beckerle considered the offer, Johns Hopkins called a doctor at the University of Utah’s hospital for a reference. He didn’t know her well, so he asked to meet her. When they did meet, he decided to try to get her to stay at the U. He told her the U was planning to build Huntsman Cancer Institute, where she could continue her research and help the cancer center grow. Beckerle chose to stay. She moved her work into the institute shortly after the doors opened in 1999.
After running the cancer cell biology program at the institute, she was named as deputy director to Huntsman Cancer Institute in 2003. She was named as director two years later, after a nationwide search.
Through all that, her research continued.
Twelve years later, she has written an academic book and over 100 studies. She not only serves as the CEO and Director of Huntsman Cancer Institute, but also as Jon M. Huntsman Presidential Endowed Chair, Associate Vice President of Cancer Affairs, and still teaches as a Distinguished Professor of Biology. She has held many positions and been awarded with many honors.
Huntsman Cancer Institute is one of the top cancer centers in the country, and is the world’s largest cancer center. The institute’s hospital arm has a 99% overall patient satisfaction rating, the best in the country.
Peter Huntsman is CEO of Huntsman Cancer Foundation, the charity through which private donations reach the institute. He has said, “HCI is recognized by its peers as being one of the finest cancer centers in the world. It got there because of the hard work of Mary and all of the wonderful people who have made that institution what it is.”
There’s a lot to manage as director and CEO of the institute. There’s a hospital, almost 100 research labs, and about 2,000 employees, many of whom are scientists. All those people have to work together without conflict. She also must deal with the university and the state government, and coordinates with the National Cancer Institute. She helps to recruit new scientists. Her research also continues, a full-time job in its own right. She needs to write grants, run clinical trials, and do her own science—testing the limits of what is known.
Beckerle says, “I didn’t have a clear destination to have a certain type of position or job — I have been more focused on what I am doing at the moment, whether I enjoy it, whether it is meaningful, whether it is having an impact.”
“I am a scientist. I’m trying to control Ewing sarcoma, a children’s bone cancer, with a team of people. That’s incredibly exciting for me personally, at a time when we’re positioned to make more progress than has ever been possible. So that’s one job. I could never give that up.”
Her research has helped define a novel molecular pathway for cell movement. She has also helped discover a mechanism of regulation for Ewing Sarcoma, and proposed a possible treatment for the disease based on the discovery. It will enter clinical trials this year.
She continues, “The other job is working with the team at HCI to chart the most effective course for the institute. I feel like the very fortunate conductor of a world-class orchestra. My role is to help them sound their best together, tap into their core desire to do something different and make something special.”
Beckerle wants her scientists to feel like they have the freedom to try anything, and in return she expects great things of them.
Jon Huntsman, Sr., namesake for Huntsman Cancer Institute, has said, “I’ve been on the boards of six or seven of America’s largest companies, and I can tell you I’ve never seen a CEO who has bestowed the self-confidence and the will to do better on an entire organization like Dr. Beckerle has here. She is one of the preeminent leaders and motivators in America today.”
He says recruiters from other institutions regularly try to convince Beckerle to leave the institute.
Huntsman has also explained, “Someone once told me that the most difficult group to lead is one where you’re one of the same. Your own peer group is always the hardest to truly manage. Mary is dealing with her own peer group — a group of highly educated, remarkably outstanding professionals — and she manages them with such tremendous class and leadership. I don’t get any complaints. I just don’t get any. She ought to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.”
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