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Mary-Claire King: A Pioneer in Science and Social Justice

Every successful scientist seems to have a “once in a blue moon” discovery during his or her lifework: an accident or epiphany that unexpectedly leads to a serendipitous breakthrough. Geneticist Mary-Claire King has had four.

As a student at Berkeley in the 1960s, Mary-Claire King stumbled upon a weapon that could be used to fight social injustice as well as biological injustice—like cancer—in our own bodies. That weapon was genetics. By leveraging this biological tool, King has discovered the fundamental link between chimpanzees and humans, reunited families torn apart by military juntas through the use of mitochondrial DNA, discovered the “breast cancer gene,” BRCA1, and revealed how genes drive susceptibility to disease but also provide a powerful new way to revolutionize treatment. King’s work has not only been groundbreaking, but has changed the lives of countless people.

As part of our Pioneers in Science series, we salute King’s fascinating and singular path to greatness. (Watch the her Pioneers profile video above, and see all videos featuring Mary-Claire King here)

“I think of genetics as the stuff that dreams are made of,” King told students at the Pioneers program last year.

Among King’s most innovative and dogged work was the proof that some breast cancer is hereditary, and that women with specific mutations in the genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 are at higher risk of developing breast cancer at a young age.  As a participant in Cancer’s Last Stand, King describes the challenges faced by a female scientist in the 1970s, and how she gamely overcame them with curiosity, good ideas, collaboration, and the desire to do something useful.