Mary-Claire King put the pieces together

Childhood dreams and ambitions are wonderful things, starting us on our path toward adulthood. Something will move us and make us want to make use of our unique gifts—gifts we may not even be aware of.

At the tender age of 15, Mary-Claire King was so moved by tragedy. The devastation of watching her best friend die of a kidney tumor triggered an unconscious decision to make sure this didn’t happen to anyone else.

Three and a half decades later, she now stands as one of the premier breast can­cer researchers of our time, having found the first gene for hereditary breast cancer in 1990. Her finding was so stunning because it isolated a fairly simple genetic link, and opened the doors to genetic researchers who were trying to find the cause of this and other diseases.

Genetic research is hotter than the summer Atlanta sun, but making the connection between genetic research to people is a difficult task not many can accom­plish. King, though, is one who can. There is always a human dimension to her work. She is a leader in forensic genetics to identify remains of people murdered in South America and help reunite grandparents with the children of their lost sons and daughters. She does research to support victims of war crimes.

And the human side of King herself is deep and complex. She has created a lab her research staff loves. Holidays are celebrated together. Birthdays are special. It is like a family. Yet there are some regrets she feels as a single mother who had to juggle motherhood and a rising career. And there is the ongoing adjustment of moving to Seattle recently after 30 years at the University of California, Berkeley.

Our cover story by Laurie McHale paints a picture of King’s complex but humanistic world. It’s great to know that world-class research into such terrifying diseases as breast cancer is going on at the UW; it’s even better to know the people behind the microscope.