Last week, Mary Beckerle — CEO and director of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) — was elected to the American Philosophical Society (APS). Among her class of 32 inductees was former President Barack Obama, the CEO of the New York Times and scientists from Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton universities.
APS is a group of scholars that support and promote the spread of knowledge. It’s the oldest scholarly organization in the country, started by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 while the colonies were still British territories. It was internationally known before the U.S. was officially recognized as a country. Its original goals were to pursue “all philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the Power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or Pleasures of Life.” Original members included many of the country’s founding fathers as well as doctors, lawyers and those interested in science. As the new country took its first steps, the society was involved in the growth of sectors like manufacturing, transportation and agriculture. For nearly a century, APS had a role in national policy, as presidents regularly contacted the organization about matters of science, anthropology and linguistics.
Since then, prominent members of the prestigious organization have included Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, Marie Curie, Gerty T. Cori and Margaret Mead. APS supports a scientific research grant program that is used to help produce scholarly publications or help young scientists just starting their careers.
With her election to the organization, Beckerle joins only two others from the U — former professor of educational leadership and policy David Pierpont Gardner and current distinguished professor of biology Baldomero Olivera.
APS only selects members who are extraordinarily accomplished in mathematics, physical sciences, biology, social sciences, humanities, the arts or leadership — whether public or private. A scholar can only be elected to the society after nomination by someone who is already a member.
Beckerle doesn’t know who nominated her, but said, “When I look at the list of distinguished scholars who are members of the [organization], I would be honored to be nominated by any one of them!”
Members are encouraged to attend public meetings twice a year, where they can present their work before their peers and the public. Beckerle said she is looking forward to those gatherings in the coming years, acknowledging the value others can bring to her work and that her work may benefit others in attendance.
“It is an amazing group of scholars with diverse expertise and perspective,” Beckerle said. “I always learn a lot when I hear from people outside my own field of cancer research and cell biology — we become so specialized and this is a gift to be able to connect with thought leaders across the arts, sciences and public policy. I hope I will be able to provide my scientific perspective on some of the issues that confront our society, whether it be related to healthcare access and costs or the value of investing in discovery research.”
Beckerle is an accomplished researcher, having published over 100 studies since her career began. APS called her “an internationally recognized scientist” and said her research “has made seminal contributions” toward understanding how cells work. She is focused on the movement of cells and discovered one way their movement is regulated. The discovery lead to research on tumor growth, especially in Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that attacks the bones of children and young adults.
Beckerle, the CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Institute, has served on planning and peer review committees for the National Institutes of Health, the Medical Advisory Board of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Board of Directors of the American Association for Cancer Research and the National Blue Ribbon Panel for the Cancer Moonshot Initiative after selection by former Vice President Joe Biden.
She has also won numerous awards including appointment as a Guggenheim Fellow, the Utah Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology, the Sword of Hope Award from the American Cancer Society and the U’s highest honor — the Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence. Beckerle is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
“As an undergraduate, I was a double major in biology and psychology,” Beckerle said. “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 by professional path. 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.”
As an accomplished scientist and beloved administrator at HCI, Beckerle was recently reinstated as CEO and Director after having been dismissed for a short period. What many called an unwarranted decision created a scandal and resulted in the resignations of Vivian Lee as the CEO of University of Utah Health and David Pershing as president of the U. During her brief absence, staff wrote petitions and held protests, noting that the research institute had been on the verge of losing its status as a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, but had grown under her leadership into one of the top-five cancer centers in the nation and the only comprehensive cancer center in the Intermountain West region. At their protest, researchers held signs that said things like “We Need Mary” and “Mary is HCI”. Some even said they would quit if she wasn’t reinstated, saying that the institute’s work doing some of the most important cancer research in the country could not continue without her.
“HCI is recognized by its peers as being one of the finest cancer centers in the world,” said Peter Huntsman, CEO of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation — one of the institute’s sources of funding, in an interview with the Daily Utah Chronicle. “It got there because of the hard work of Mary and all of the wonderful people who have made that institution what it is.”