Portrait photo
Mary Carrington, Ph.D.

Upon hearing earlier this year that she was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences, cancer scientist Mary Carrington wished she could share the news with her beloved late father-in-law, a former law school dean at Duke. 

She had only discovered Paul Carrington’s academy membership after he died last year, when she and her husband found the certificate among his things. “I never got to talk to him about it at all,” said Carrington, director of the Basic Science Program at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research. “I wish I could let him know how fortunate I feel to join him in such an honor.” 

Academy members are world leaders in the arts and sciences, business, philanthropy, and public affairs. Nominated by colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale, Carrington is a member of the microbiology and immunology section in the biological sciences class. 

She is an internationally recognized expert in immunogenetics, the way in in which individual genetically encoded differences in the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) expressed by cells in the body, and the way these molecules control interactions with cells of the immune system, can influence susceptibility to different diseases, and disease severity. 

Her work has implications for cancer, and she has long collaborated with colleagues at the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research. Carrington has also bridged disciplines, making discoveries in HIV and COVID-19.  

“Increasingly, we need scholars who are not confined by their field but reach beyond their field,” said Ethan Dmitrovsky, M.D., FNL director and president of Leidos Biomedical Research, Inc. “Dr. Mary Carrington is such a rare and talented scholar.” 

Bridging scientific fields is the focus of Carrington’s role as a visiting professor at Harvard University and head of genetics at its affiliated Ragon Institute. At Ragon, Carrington collaborates with scientists and engineers from diverse fields to better understand the immune system and support human health. The group has made COVID-19 a priority and has published multiple studies on the topic. 

Group portrait in lab
Carrington lab on NIH campus in Bethesda. Front row, from left: Arman Bashirova, Lin Zhansong and Marjan Akdag. Back row: Mary Carrington and Pat (Maureen) Martin.

Out of the classroom and into the lab 

A desire to become a better high school science teacher led Carrington to discover the career for which she’s now known across the world. She enrolled in an Iowa State University master’s degree program designed for teachers and had the opportunity to explore multiple scientific fields. 

The lab proved to be a much better fit than the classroom. Carrington realized she’d much rather perform the science than teach it, so she stayed on to earn her Ph.D. in immunobiology. 

“I didn’t know I’d like working in a lab so much,” she said. “Science was really great fun.” 

Carrington moved to Duke University for a post doc position in the laboratory of Jenny Ting, who then focused on HLA gene expression in human disease. It was a new topic of inquiry for Carrington but working with Ting anchored her interest in the field she has pursued ever since. 

At Duke, Carrington met her husband, Clark Carrington, and grew to love his parents as her own. Clark’s father, Paul Carrington, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ social and behavioral sciences area and law specialty in 2000. 

A 1989 move to Maryland for her husband’s job with the FDA landed Carrington at the organization that is now FNL and provided an opportunity to direct the Basic Science Program.  

Sought-after collaborator, generous mentor  

At FNL, Carrington is recognized not only for her scientific expertise, but also for her eagerness to share it. Jeff Lifson, M.D., director of FNL’s AIDS and Cancer Virus Program has collaborated with Carrington for two decades, and notes she brings so much to the table. 

She has “thoughtful, creative ideas, along with an open mind, always ready to critically assess experimental results and consider novel explanations for unexpected results,” he said. 

“Passionate” and “kind” are words used to describe Carrington. Chief Science Officer Leonard Freedman, Ph.D. called her “a gem of a person” and a “rock star scientist.” Colleagues note her kindness and mischievous sense of humor add to the enjoyment of working with such an accomplished investigator. 

As a mentor, Carrington puts the spotlight on others. Maureen “Pat” Martin has worked in her lab for 25 years and has witnessed her commitment to trainees at all levels. Mentees become friends and collaborators.  

“Her willingness to acknowledge achievement though praise and authorship on manuscripts has had a significant impact on the personal and professional growth of those who have had the good fortune to work with her,” Martin said.  

Carrington will be officially inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences sometime in 2023. 

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