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There's something about Utah's uncluttered landscape and expansive blue sky that gives Mary Beckerle a sense of mental space.

It helps her think, she says, and fuels her desire to explore both mentally and physically.

It's the reason the New Jersey native came to the Beehive State in the 1980s to teach at the University of Utah.

Thirty years later, she's found herself in the Huntsman Cancer Institute's corner office as its CEO, with wall-to-wall windows overlooking the geography she loves so much.

And recently, Beckerle, 62, was picked by Vice President Joe Biden to serve on a blue-ribbon panel as part of his campaign to cure cancer.

She gets so animated when talking about the future of cancer research that she can barely remain seated. Her face lights up and her voice rises at the thought of the talented scientists and researchers she leads.

Those who work with her praise her ability to help them collaborate, to tackle cancer as a team. She's driven, they say, and committed.

And she's brought national recognition to an institute that, admittedly, is smaller than MD Anderson Cancer Center, for example —­ "but our aspirations are just as big," she says.

Biden's panel, which completed its report in September, was tasked with advising the National Cancer Advisory Board on new cancer treatments and investments in cancer research.

Working with the panel "was exciting and inspiring," Beckerle says. "I feel like if we can do even a part of what was proposed by the blue-ribbon panel, we can make a huge difference."

'I wanted to do something more' • Beckerle likens her professional journey to sailing. When you look out at the horizon, she says, often all you can see is the line where the sky touches the ocean.

But sail a little farther and you start seeing hints of the future taking shape. The closer you get, she says, the more visible it becomes.

"You have to start going in a direction before you know exactly what it is," she says. "It's an adventure. I just want to have an impact."

Beckerle didn't enter Wells College in New York knowing she would leave as a scientist four years later. She always loved science, but it wasn't until she took a class with a female biology teacher — a rarity — that the idea really took shape.

"Having a female role model who was really a dynamic person and very passionate about biology gave me a sense that, as much as I loved biology, I had an opportunity to do something in that space," she says.

After graduating, she toyed with the thought of going to medical school, but found herself "captivated by biomedical research and teaching." She earned her doctorate in molecular, cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado-Boulder instead.

Beckerle joined the U.'s faculty in 1986. She fondly remembers receiving notes from students who switched to a science major after taking her class. She also was able to set up a research lab.

Beckerle was happy in Utah. But that wasn't enough.

"I'm a little restless in the sense that, as soon as I feel like I'm fully capable of doing what I'm doing, then I get a little bit antsy," she laughs. "I've often questioned why I can't just be content."

So, when Maryland-based Johns Hopkins University began recruiting her for a department chair position at its medical school, she took the offer seriously.

"I wanted to build a program," she says. "I knew I could teach and I loved it but I wanted to do something more."

Once the U. got wind of the offer, however, its leaders countered: the Huntsman Cancer Institute was just getting off the ground, and they wanted her to be a program leader. She decided to stay.

Beckerle was named CEO and director in 2006. She also continues to conduct research on tumor metastasis and Ewing sarcoma, a bone cancer.

A. Lorris Betz, who was senior vice president at University of Utah Health Sciences in 2006, picked Beckerle for the job. She seemed the obvious choice, given her strong national reputation, he says, and her ability to encourage collaboration between scientists at the cancer institute and the U.

Beckerle "has always done everything she could to break down barriers and find ways to bring scientists from different areas together," he says. She "has a reputation of being a collaborative leader and my experience with her ... indicated to me she was going to be a perfect leader."

A campaign to cure cancer • Beckerle sat just two seats away from Biden on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., as he passionately described to panel members an encounter this year with a patient at one of the country's cancer centers.

The patient told Biden his entire family history, saying he would be dead if it weren't for cancer research.

Biden didn't name the Huntsman Cancer Institute as that cancer center, but Beckerle knew. She could barely contain her excitement as she blurted out, "That was us!"

"It was very cool," Beckerle says. "He wasn't just going through the motions; he was struck by what he learned was going on" in Utah.

Biden visited the institute in February as part of his Cancer Moonshot Initiative, which he was tasked with leading by President Barack Obama in his final State of the Union address. The moonshot's goal is "to make a decade of advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care in five years," according to a federal fact sheet.

Soon after Biden's visit, Beckerle was tapped to join the group of 28 individuals on the panel.

The panel released its report in September, with 10 recommendations for cancer research programs to be funded under the initiative. They include developing new technology to characterize tumors and test therapies, and promoting prevention strategies.

Beckerle "really was a powerful voice ... that helped focus discussions around prevention and early detection" of cancer, says Dinah Singer, acting deputy director of the National Cancer Institute.

The panel also suggested three demonstration projects, including one that would establish a national network for individuals with Lynch syndrome, an inherited disorder that increases the risk of many types of cancers. The project would enroll individuals with the disorder into clinical trials and expand genetic counseling services. The Huntsman Cancer Institute has been instrumental in developing guidelines for genetic testing for the disease.

Beckerle's work with the panel is done for now, but Singer says that as the National Cancer Institute determines how to implement the recommendations, it likely will call on her for advice.

She "really led by demonstration" on the panel," Singer says. "She really was enthusiastic and really threw herself into it wholeheartedly and called on others to do so as well."

Twitter @alexdstuckey

Editor's note: The owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune is Paul Huntsman, who is the son of Huntsman Cancer Institute founder Jon Huntsman Sr.

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