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Hearing bagpipes and watching Scottish dancers, Martin McMahon, PhD, sat proudly in the audience in his tartan tuxedo, ready to step on to the stage to receive his award. Huntsman Cancer Institute’s senior director of preclinical translation and co-leader of the experimental therapeutics program, had returned home to receive the 2022 Society for Melanoma Research Lifetime Achievement Award.
“After not living in Scotland for over 40 years, it was a great pleasure to receive the honor there,” says McMahon, also professor of dermatology at the University of Utah.
The Society of Melanoma Research brings dedicated scientists together to find the causes of this disease and create new therapies. According to the Society of Melanoma Research, the Lifetime Achievement Award, “is presented to an individual who has made major and impactful contributions to melanoma research throughout their career.
McMahon’s research focuses on metastatic melanoma, lung, and pancreatic cancer. Before coming to Huntsman Cancer Institute, McMahon was a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, for 17 years, where he and his team generated genetically engineered mouse models of human melanoma.
“One of my mentors, the Nobel laureate Mike Bishop, advised me to go where I was needed, and I felt that I was needed at Huntsman Cancer Institute, because I had a job and a mission to accomplish there,” says McMahon. “Moreover, in addition to my lab’s research, one of my key missions is training the next generation of cancer researchers.” To that end, McMahon has mentored over 50 trainees in his labs throughout his career. McMahon hopes that this new cadre of scientists and physicians will be the generation that contributes to the eradication of cancer.
McMahon began his career in cancer research because of his keen interest in biology but later came to realize that the disease had a large impact on his life.
“Before I was born, my maternal grandmother passed away from colon cancer at the age of 37. In addition, my adoptive parents also had a daughter who passed away at the age of six, with what was likely retinoblastoma, also before I was born. Later in life, my father passed away of lung cancer.” Given the impact of cancer on his life, it is perhaps a fortunate accident that McMahon gravitated towards cancer research.
“Dr. McMahon is an exceptional scientist and innovative leader at Huntsman Cancer Institute,” says Neli Ulrich, PhD, MS, chief scientific officer and executive director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute. “He has made enormous progress in finding new ways to conquer melanoma—a tremendous challenge in the state of Utah and the Mountain West. His lifelong work is so deserving of this important honor and we are very grateful to the Society for Melanoma Research for bestowing it upon him.”
McMahon points out that awards like this are icing on the scientific cake. “They’re not required for a successful scientific career, but they are definitely sweet if you receive one. It really means a lot that I was nominated by people who know me well and judged worthy by people in the field with whom I’ve worked closely. To be recognized with a lifetime achievement award is very humbling and also very sweet.”