Behind the Ribbon: The Indelible Mark of Peg Mastrianni

When Peg Mastrianni first arrived at the Breast Cancer Research Foundation in 2001, there were just a handful of employees and a small number of research grants dedicated to the organization’s mission of eradicating breast cancer through research. After working at large academic and medical institutions, she had concerns that BCRF would not challenge her intellectually.

“I was a little worried about moving to a small organization that focused on one thing,” said Mastrianni. “But Myra Biblowit spoke about our opportunity for making an impact here, and that was a determining factor. Right from the start, BCRF’s single mission meant that I could make a direct impact, and the environment allowed for enormous creativity and flexibility. The bureaucracy I had experienced in the past was nowhere to be found.”

Nearly 15 years later, that decision has proven to be a wise one. In 2001, the organization had raised about $30 million since its inception; today that cumulative total exceeds half a billion dollars. It is a legacy much attributed to Mastrianni’s dedication to funding critical cancer research – and to a friendly face that many will miss in January when she retires. 

“Peg Mastrianni, my dear friend and colleague, has helped shape BCRF into the world-renowned grant making organization it is today. She will be missed tremendously,” said Myra Biblowit, President & CEO of BCRF.

During her tenure, Mastrianni and her BCRF colleagues grew an $8.5 million annual grants program supporting 50 researchers in the U.S. to this year’s all-time high of $48.5 million supporting more than 240 researchers worldwide, with an additional $5.4 million committed from the Evelyn H. Lauder Founder’s Fund, making BCRF the largest private funder of breast cancer research in the nation. She has traveled the world meeting the leading minds in the field at their labs, at scientific meetings and in their homes. Her guiding principles have been greatly inspired by late BCRF founder Evelyn H. Lauder.

“I learned so much from her. She spearheaded the idea of one uncluttered purpose: to fund people rather than projects, providing them with the freedom and the stability that results from financial support,” said Mastrianni, recalling Mrs. Lauder’s vision.

“Working hand in hand with founding Scientific Director Dr. Larry Norton, she created an innovative model that trusted the ability of brilliant researchers: rather than prescribing the direction of their work, BCRF instead was designed to give them latitude and intellectual freedom.  I can’t think of anything better or more inspiring.”

This model is the foundation of BCRF’s success. Since 1993, BCRF investigators have been involved in every major breakthrough in breast cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. Significant advances such as the discovery of the importance of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, the understanding that breast cancer is actually a series of diseases–each demanding its own focused treatment, and the development of targeted therapies like Herceptin, are all attributed to BCRF-funded researchers. Many of these took place during Mastrianni’s tenure.

“Since I’ve come to BCRF, incredible research progress has been accomplished,” said Mastrianni. “With the establishment of the Founder’s Fund, we are committed to unraveling the great challenge of metastasis.  We are learning more about genetic mutations than ever before. And thanks to the rapid development of new technology, research can be carried out more quickly and understood faster.”

These research revolutions do not happen in silos. Besides supporting investigators with grants, BCRF is dedicated to breaking down barriers between researchers by building and maintaining a highly collaborative atmosphere where they can exchange ideas to enable faster breakthroughs.

“BCRF has facilitated countless collaborations among our researchers where they have come together to combine different areas of expertise to forge new paths. It doesn’t matter where they are located, and many of them have credited BCRF’s collegial atmosphere for fostering these partnerships,” she said.

While their research projects vary greatly, Mastrianni says all the investigators she has worked with share a common thread.

“They are all incredibly committed and very passionate about what they do,” said Mastrianni. In particular, she credits Dr. Larry Norton and Dr. Clifford Hudis – BCRF’s leading Scientific Advisors – for teaching her everything she knows about breast cancer research.

“It has been a privilege to learn from such inspirational mentors who are brilliant scientists and renowned leaders in the field,” she said.

In many ways Mastrianni shares the researchers’ passion for all things BCRF – making it an even harder decision to say goodbye. And it’s these relationships built inside and outside the office that she will miss the most.

“The people with whom I have worked over the years have all been incredibly talented and dedicated – and we all share a common goal: we are brought to BCRF to do everything we can to put an end to a disease that affects many too many people. I can’t think of a better cause.”

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