Uncoiling the conundrum of breast cancer and other genetic mysteries is but one consuming interest for Mary-Claire King. She plays many other roles, as teacher, mother, mentor and human rights activist (See The Woman as Scientist).

Professor Mary-Claire King examines a piece of film that has puzzling genetic information. Photo by Mary Levin.
Politically active since her days as a Berkeley graduate student in the Vietnam-era, she worked briefly for Ralph Nader's consumer interests group before earning her Ph.D. She taught science in Chile on a Ford Foundation grant and participated in research programs funded by the Salvador Allende government. In the aftermath of the 1973 military coup and assassination of Allende, some of her friends and students were murdered or forced to flee.

Today, with the rise of democracy in Latin America, investigators use her lab's expertise in forensic genetics to identify the remains of people murdered in El Salvador, Mexico and especially in Argentina.

King has an ongoing project to assist the "Abuelas," the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. During Argentina's military dictatorship of the 1970s and early 1980s, thousands of activists disappeared and their children were consigned to orphanages or illegally adopted by military families. Today, the grandparents--the parents of "the Disappeared"--seek to be reunited with the children of their lost sons and daughters. A genetic test, one of the same techniques used in criminal trials to identify perpetrators of crimes, is often the only way to confirm that link. The test matches mitochondrial DNA sequences which are maternally inherited.

King recently invited a new post-doctoral fellow into her lab, Michele Harvey, to further her work in identifying the victims of human rights abuses, with funding from the organization Physicians for Human Rights. As well as continuing work in Argentina, they will work to identify the remains of murdered war victims in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, amassing genetic evidence for use in international war crimes trials.

"There is a human aspect to Mary-Claire's scientific work that transforms it," says Harvey, "whether it's with breast cancer patients and their families, or with the families of the Disappeared. She knows the families, and the stories behind them. She realizes that in Argentina people have risked their lives to give blood samples for her work."

"Mary-Claire's scientific interest is more an outcropping of her humanism than of a natural bent toward science," says her younger brother, Paul King, who is CEO of Vanalco, an aluminum smelter in Vancouver, Wash. "She always had a quantitative bent and scientific ability, but she was very good at everything. She had the desire to take her math ability and apply it to do some good."

Berkeley's Loss, UW's Gain
A Eureka Moment ... Someday
The Woman as Scientist

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