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Leading Ladies of Culture: Mary-Claire King

Leading Ladies of Culture: Mary-Claire King

World-changing women can be found in any field. Whether it’s in medicine, law, business, STEM, or education, there are women who leave their mark and serve as inspirations to people everywhere. This month’s leading lady of culture is Mary-Claire King, a geneticist and professor of medical genetics at the University of Washington.

King first pursued a career in mathematics, earning her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Carleton College at the young age of 20. But after taking a course in genetics, she became fascinated with the idea of using mathematics and statistics to solve genetic problems and decided to get a PhD degree in genetics from the University of California, Berkeley. While studying to receive her doctorate, she worked with Dr. Allan Wilson, a UC Berkeley genetics professor, on a project that analyzed the molecular similarities between human beings and chimpanzees. King examined the DNA sequences of protein coding genes as well as the resulting amino acid sequences and discovered that 99% of amino acid sequences are identical in humans and chimpanzees.

After receiving her PhD, King was then offered a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer epidemiology and genetics at University of California, San Francisco, where she worked with Dr. Nick Petrakis. In her fellowship, she focused her research on breast cancer and believed that because there was an increased risk of breast cancer for people in families that had a history of the disease, there were inherited genetic mutations that made women predisposed to breast cancer. Through her research, she found that a single gene on Chromosome 17, BRCA1, was linked to breast cancer. Her breakthrough allowed women to use their genetic information to see if they were at risk for the disease. Other researchers have also used the method she developed to identify the gene for breast cancer in order to study other illnesses.

King has used her knowledge in genetics in various humanitarian efforts as well. In 1983, she worked with the human rights group Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo) to reunite families with children who were kidnapped during Argentina’s Dirty War. King used mitochondrial DNA to develop the first Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) sequencing assays, which allowed her to identify over 100 kidnapped Argentinian children and reunite them with their families.

With her huge impact in the field of genetics, Barra is most certainly a leading lady of culture.

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