They all want what Huntsman has — The woman in charge

Published: Saturday, March 1 2014 9:20 p.m. MST

Graves also had a ringside seat when Beckerle first came to the University of Utah, because both women arrived about the same time as new faculty recruits in the mid-1980s. “I saw very early on that she was an effective communicator and good bridge-builder,” she says. “Universities are full of lots of diverse people and opinions, and you have to navigate that carefully. Mary’s always been very good at recognizing people’s strengths and bringing them together to realize we’re all on the same ship.”

It was fall 1986 when the U. brought Beckerle aboard as an assistant professor in biology. Those were heady times for scientists and researchers at the University of Utah.

A young biophysicist and future Nobel Prize winner named Mario Capecchi was on the faculty, and played a major role in bringing Beckerle to Utah. Surgeons William Devries and Robert Jarvik had recently introduced the Jarvik 7 artificial heart. Geneticists Ray White, Randall Burt and Mark Skolnick and others were at work unlocking the genome map.

The atmosphere was: Shoot for the moon, you just might hit it. “They were good times and I think people did come here thinking it was an open field where they could test themselves and prove things and develop their own ideas,” says Chase Peterson, the university’s president during the ’80s. “Utah couldn’t offer the most money, but we could offer openness and freedom. That was a wonderful situation for so many scientists.”

They gave Beckerle a lab coat, a lab to work in and a handful of 300-student beginning biology classes to teach. She thrived. So much so that it wasn’t long before the Johns Hopkins University Medical School came calling, promising that she could not only teach and have a lab, but also lead an entire department if she’d come to Baltimore.

It was a flattering offer, but as Beckerle seriously considered the move, the Johns Hopkins recruiters made a fatal mistake — calling Dr. Ray White at the U. of U. Medical Center for a reference. White hardly knew Beckerle but decided they better get acquainted. When they met and White quickly sized up what the U. would be losing, he turned recruiter himself. Buoyed by a sizable donation from billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman, he informed the young professor that the university was in the midst of building a cancer institute at the medical school. She could use her background in cellular biology, continue her cancer research, contribute to building the new institute, and not have to leave Utah at all.

When the Huntsman Cancer Institute opened its doors in September 1999, Beckerle was among the first scientists to move into the building.

She led a program specializing in cancer cell biology until 2003, when they added to her duties the title of deputy director to Dr. Stephen Prescott, the executive director. When Prescott stepped down in 2005, the university and cancer institute mounted a nationwide search for a successor. Beckerle’s name was one of many on the list.

“We spent a year looking across the country,” remembers Dr. Lorris Betz, the senior vice president for health sciences at the U., who led the search team. “At the end of the day she seemed like she had it all. Not everybody who is a terrific scientist is naturally going to be a terrific administrator, but Mary quite amazingly does both very, very well. The strong reason for appointing her as director was the collaborative spirit that she brings to her leadership.”

So where does this leadership know-how, this spirit of collaboration, this ability to inspire confidence and the will to do better, come from?

For an answer to that, the search might well end where it starts, in River Edge, N.J., where Mary grew up and where her mom, Mickey, still resides.

Mary, or Mary Catherine as her mother still calls her, is the oldest of three daughters born to Martin and Mickey Beckerle. Barbara, or Bobby, came along two years after Mary, and Jeanne arrived two years after that. The tight-knit family’s world was rocked when Martin, who worked for the New York Telephone Co. across the river in Manhattan, suddenly died of emphysema. He was 36 and never smoked a day in his life. The girls were 12, 10 and 8.

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