Life and Science

Mary-Claire King ’67Students and alumni celebrated the centennial of Carleton’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter in April with a keynote address by geneticist Mary-Claire King ’67. A professor at the University of Washington and recipient of a 2014 Lasker Award for contributions to medical science and human rights, King offered insight into how she balances intellectual and scientific pursuits with personal meaning.

Don’t be afraid of controversy. As a graduate student at the University of California–Berkeley in 1975, King published a paper with her adviser, Allan Wilson, arguing that humans and chimpanzees are 99 percent genetically identical and that differences between the species arise primarily from changes in the mechanisms controlling the expression of the genes. “As you can imagine, this was not accepted instantly by everyone,” King said—but with the recent completion of the human and chimpanzee genomes, their research has been confirmed.

Treasure small moments. Almost 20 years after publishing the paper with Wilson, King was in Ireland with her teenage daughter. “I was trying to drive on a very narrow road and not [veer] into a ditch, when Emily said, ‘Mommy, stop!’ By the side of the road was a small billboard that said, ‘Scientists have discovered that humans and chimpanzees are 99% the same. Drink Guinness.’ Emily said, ‘That’s you!’ Those of you who are parents will appreciate that. That’s probably the nicest thing she said to me in her entire teenaged life.”

Protect your intellectual freedom and your integrity. After she successfully used genetics to match kidnapped Argentinian children with their grandmothers following the Dirty War, King was approached by the U.S. Army to identify soldiers who were killed in Vietnam and Korea. “I didn’t want to be beholden to the Army or any of the powers that be,” said King. So while she helped identify many soldiers, she used only her own lab and her own student assistants.

Be stubborn. After King described her discovery that the gene BRCA1 is responsible for many breast and ovarian cancers, she said, “It took me 17 years to get to the point of being able to say what I just said to you. I spent 1974 to 1990 chipping away at the problem. You don’t go through an education at Carleton without becoming a very stubborn person, which is exactly what I was.”

Do what you love. “Loving what you do every day is the chance to open a new gift box from nature,” said King. “I wish for you Phi Beta Kappas complete pleasure in what you undertake.”

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