University of Washington geneticist Dr. Mary-Claire King received the Medal of Science for pioneering work in breast cancer research.

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CAREERS in medical science start with the basics, doing the math and passing organic chemistry. No small steps on a long, rigorous journey.

Somewhere on that arduous trek, those destined for greatness exhibit another trait beyond brain power and grit. The ability to think about things in new ways, and the tenacity of spirit to explore the possibilities.

On Thursday, Dr. Mary-Claire King was in the East Room of the White House to receive the National Medal of Science from President Obama.

The University of Washington geneticist was among the honorees because she discovered the BRCA1 gene linked to breast-cancer risk. As noted by Times reporter JoNel Aleccia, King’s award celebrates a 40-year career that changed the way the world thinks about cancer and pioneered genetic tools used by a human-rights campaign to reunite families.

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King started out crunching numbers studying statistics but was later pointed toward genetics. The two skills melded when she took data from the National Cancer Institute and demonstrated mathematically that breast and ovarian cancer followed a pattern in some families.

This was at a time when the rest of medical science linked cancer to viruses. King’s pioneering work continued and others were able to move ahead with more research discoveries.

King arrived at the University of Washington in 1995, where she has been able to work with colleagues interested in translating research discoveries into clinical use.

Away from the lab, King has worked with human rights organizations to use DNA technology to identify lost and kidnapped children in war zones and return them to their families.

She has more projects on her research horizon for breast cancer, and genetic ties to schizophrenia. Good news for humankind.

King’s achievements are grounded in her intellect, scholarship and hard work. She is also a model for a threshold that is more approachable for the rest of us:

Be open to thinking about old problems in new ways. Explore options, ask questions, take action.