For bold, imaginative, and diverse contributions to medical science and human rights — she discovered the BRCA1 gene locus that causes hereditary breast cancer and deployed DNA strategies that reunite missing persons or their remains with their families.
The 2014 Lasker~Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science honors a scientist who has made bold, imaginative, and diverse contributions to medical science and human rights. Mary-Claire King (University of Washington, Seattle) discovered the BRCA1 gene locus that causes hereditary breast cancer and deployed DNA strategies that reunite missing persons or their remains with their families. Her work has touched families around the world.
As a statistics graduate student in the late 1960s, King took the late Curt Stern’s genetics course just for fun. The puzzles she encountered there — problems posed by Stern — enchanted her. She was delighted to learn that people could be paid to solve such problems, and that mathematics holds their key. She decided to study genetics and never looked back.
Award presentation by Marc Tessier-Lavigne
Pioneering scientist, social activist, humanitarian — Mary-Claire King is also foremost a free spirit who for over four decades has marched to the beat of her own drummer, animated by the impulse to solve iconic scientific puzzles, a passion for victims of disease and social injustice, and a warm humility that belies her profound impacts on science, on medicine, and on society.
Perhaps because I’m from Canada, when I think of Mary-Claire, the person who comes to mind is Wayne Gretzky, the hockey great with the most career assists and goals, who was a master of the hat trick — scoring three or more goals in 50 games. Now, all scientists strive to contribute lasting findings to our body of scientific knowledge — important assists, if you will. Most also aspire to make at least one discovery that changes the way we think or that has a direct tangible effect on their fellow humans — to score a goal. Few succeed, of course, in these loftier aims, and even fewer score more than one goal. Mary-Claire is the rare scientist to have scored a hat trick, with major impacts in at least three fields — evolutionary genetics, medical genetics, and molecular forensics. Like the Great One himself, Mary-Claire is in a league of her own.
Acceptance remarks by Mary-Claire King
One of the many pleasures of being chosen for the Lasker~Koshland Award is the realization that I am part of a culture of science and that the community that makes up this culture considers me a part of it. It may be that some scientists come to this realization very young; it has taken me far longer. So as a result, I’ve been musing about this culture, what it means to us, and what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
The central feature of life in science is that we want to be here. We enjoy this life. Science is fun. Genetics is enormous fun. It allows us to be imaginative and creative in an elegant way. It is work for a greater good, yet appeals to our curiosity and to our pleasure with puzzles solved. The work is useful and valued by society. What more could we ask?
Interview with Mary-Claire King
Video Credit: Susan Hadary