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Lift as You Climb: An Interview With Michael R. DeBaun, MD, MPH

December 30, 2021
Michael R. DeBaun, MD, MPH
Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine and Vice Chair of Clinical and Translational Research in Pediatrics, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine; Director of the Vanderbilt-Meharry-Matthew Walker Center of Excellence in Sickle Cell Disease

Michael R. DeBaun, MD, MPH, one of two 2019 ASH Mentor Award recipients, speaks about his family code of serving others, which he passes along to generations of mentees.


When did you decide to go into medicine?

Since early childhood, I knew I wanted to be a physician. I wanted to emulate my pediatrician, Helen Nash, MD, a black woman who was an icon in the St. Louis community – a folk heroine who was full of life. She was our family counselor, authoritative, commanding in her knowledge of medicine, and always had the answer for what would make us better.

Dr. Nash was my family's pediatrician for two generations. She was insightful about the psychosocial component of medicine and committed to serving her community. My mother's sister had cerebral palsy and my grandmother was her sole caretaker for more than a decade. When my aunt died, Dr. Nash recognized that my grandmother was at risk for depression, yet she still needed to be a mother to her other two daughters and wife to her husband. Dr. Nash told her, "If you go to school to become a nurse, I will hire you." She did go to nursing school, and she was eventually hired.

Did you get a chance to tell her that she was the reason you decided to become a doctor?

Oh, she knew. I rotated through her private practice pediatric office as a house officer at Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children's Hospital. Instead of introducing me as Dr. DeBaun, she'd say, "This is one of my well babies who's grown up."

She never lost her sharp mind as a clinician. When I was a chief resident and there was some concern about her lucidity – she had been practicing for five decades at that point – I was asked to address her reasoning for admitting a patient to the hospital. She gave me a good tongue-lashing; the admission was not for the obscure reason that everybody thought but, in fact, for other reasons to support the patient. I'll never forget being scolded by my pediatrician at 32 years of age.

When you started your medical training, what brought you to hematology – and to sickle cell disease in particular?

My motivation to specialize in hematology stemmed from my aspiration to serve my community. I grew up in a predominately black neighborhood and I wanted to give back to the community from which I had received so much support. Sickle cell disease (SCD) predominately affects African Americans in the U.S., and, as a house officer at Washington University's St. Louis Children's Hospital, I witnessed the disparities in resources and medical care for patients with SCD. I also saw firsthand the openly belligerent attitude demonstrated by physicians toward children with SCD and their families. I believed that I could improve and advance the care of these patients through research, while simultaneously mentoring others to extend and improve my efforts.

Did you have mentors who helped you along that path?

That's a challenging question. I had multiple "sponsors," which are distinctly different from "mentors." These individuals helped me to navigate the academic maze and keep my compass pointed true north. My sponsors were tremendous, but, as far as having a traditional mentor with whom I had weekly laboratory meetings and who actively reviewed presentations, manuscripts, and grants … ? No, I did not have that. The first research laboratory meeting that I attended as a fellow or faculty member was my own.

The academic environments in which I was educated as a medical student, resident, and fellow were more important in my career than a mentor. I attended Stanford, a vibrant, intellectually rich medical school where discovery was expected of us. Similarly, I was a pediatric resident, chief resident, and hematology oncology fellow at Washington University School of Medicine, where the leadership expected us to advance our field of study.

Where did you learn how to be a mentor?

My family – I grew up in a family of educators. My grandfather, mother, aunt, and uncle were all teachers, my father was a youth coach of a dozen teams. My sister was a teacher before she passed away, and my brother has been a teacher for two decades. If I wasn't a mentor, I would violate our family code of serving others.

My wife (who has a master's degree in education) and I have continued this focus of mentoring others in our family. We have the same expectations in our two adult children, both of whom embrace the family ethos of lifting as we climb. We are truly blessed as parents.

Becoming a mentor starts by recognizing that you're taking a path that others want to take, you have some knowledge that others would like to have, and you want to make their journey a little easier than yours was. I realized that early in my training: As a resident, I mentored medical students; as a fellow, I mentored residents.

When I was junior faculty, I directed a one-year intensive research program for outstanding medical students at Washington University. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation sponsored the program. I had a ball leading the program for 10 years.

Collectively, these mentoring experiences resulted in me starting a new high school mentoring program at Washington University School of Medicine. At the beginning, they know little about research, but after spending three years in a basic or clinical laboratory at the university, they have a solid understanding about the scientific method. Now, at Vanderbilt, I have focused on mentoring medical students from Vanderbilt and Meharry Medical College, as well as faculty mentees in Nigeria and Ghana. Each passing year, I learn how to better refine the craft of mentoring.

What do you enjoy most about mentoring?

Helping others learn to pursue the craft of research is a gift I love to give. Mentoring provides me with an overwhelming sense of joy and energy. I lose track of time when I'm trying to teach someone how to pursue a clinically relevant, patient-centered problem.

I love the thrill of starting from having almost no knowledge about a problem to understanding its nuances and ultimately finding solutions. With the right mentor-mentee fit, we can do a better job together of advancing the care of children and adults with SCD than we could apart.

Can you describe your mentoring style? What advice do you share with your mentees?

I have a unique mentoring style. For those interested in working with me, I state, "Before you come work with me, meet with the other folks whom I've mentored." I work hard and set high expectations, so, of my 10 cardinal rules in the laboratory (see FIGURE), rule No. 1 is that I will not work harder on your project than you will.

As a mentor, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

My biggest accomplishment is the quality and longevity of the scientific relationships with my mentees who have decided to devote their professional careers to improving the lives of children and adults with SCD. I'm both thankful and proud of the academic family that I've grown – all of whom embrace our family's ethos of "lifting as you climb."

My first cadre of mentees are now senior investigators with their own group of young investigators to mentor. Four of my mentees are now tenured faculty with a full-time professional commitment to advancing the caring for children and adults with SCD. I am ecstatic every time they receive an award, publish a manuscript, or present at the ASH annual meeting.

I have sponsored or co-sponsored 10 mentored faculty awards (7 of which have focused on SCD). Thirteen of my mentees have been scholars in the ASH Clinical Research Training Institute (CRTI), including the first CRTI scholar from sub-Saharan Africa who was from Ghana, and now two awardees from Nigeria. Two of my mentees have been CRTI directors, and one of my mentees' mentees was a CRTI director. Several nurses that I have mentored have gone on to obtain advanced nursing degrees. Many of the research coordinators whom I've worked with have gone on to get additional training.

When I'm no longer full-time faculty, I look forward to staying involved with my mentees' work and celebrating their academic achievements. I'm thankful for the academic family that I've grown, and thankful that I've still gotten to enjoy life with my wife and children.

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