Alison R. Walker, MD
In 2023, the American Society of Hematology (ASH) Minority Recruitment Initiative (MRI) celebrates 20 years of achievement in training, mentoring, and developing leaders in hematology from underrepresented backgrounds. One such program under this initiative is the ASH-Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program (AMFDP) Award, which provides postdoctoral research support to physicians committed to developing careers in academic medicine. ASH Clinical News sat down with 2009 ASH-AMFDP Award recipient Alison R. Walker, MD, MPH, MBA, of Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, to discuss her experience in the program, the importance of mentorship, and her role as chair of the ASH Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).
What drew you to hematology?
I fell in love with hematology early in my medical career. People have heard me tell the story of being a first-year medical student at the University of Rochester and hearing a lecture by Jane Liesveld, MD, one of the leukemia and bone marrow transplant physicians, and being absolutely mesmerized by the idea that you can look at someone’s blood and figure out the cause of their illness. I also fell in love with how we care for patients with blood cancers and the relationships that we have with our patients. From then on, I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I was fortunate enough to have mentors at the University of Rochester like Dr. Liesveld as well as Ronald Sham, MD, who took me under his wing and inspired me with his absolute love of hematology and the patients that he cared for. I was very fortunate to have mentors early on who were so supportive and encouraging of a very curious medical student who I am sure kept them busy with questions.
How did you first come to be involved with ASH?
During my fellowship training at the University of Rochester, we were able to attend either the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) or the ASH annual meeting, and I always picked ASH because I was interested in hematology more than solid tumor oncology. One of my classmates had completed the Clinical Research Training Institute (CRTI) program and recommended that I apply, which I did, and this was the first time that I became involved in any of ASH’s trainee programs. In retrospect, this was a pivotal moment for me for many reasons. One was that it sparked an interest in clinical research, but it’s also where I met John Byrd, MD, who recruited me to the Division of Hematology at The Ohio State University, where I had my first faculty position.
What prompted you to apply for the ASH-AMFDP Award?
I remember getting an e-mail from Michael Caligiuri, MD, who was CEO of the James Cancer Hospital at the time, and he said, “You should apply for this.” I hadn’t applied for a career development award yet and wasn’t certain how to be successful, but fortunately my research mentor at the time – Guido Marcucci, MD – was willing to work through the application with me. I was perhaps the most surprised of everyone who had helped me that I was awarded an opportunity to participate. It was such an honor and such a prestigious award, a career-changing stepping stone.
Mentorship is such a critical component of the ASH-AMFDP. Can you share what your mentorship experience was like?
I can’t underscore the importance of mentorship enough and how it led me to become the academic hematologist that I am now. From the beginning, Drs. Liesveld and Sham at the University of Rochester instilled in me an excitement about pursuing this as a career. I also was mentored by Bill Blum, MD, while I was at Ohio State. I would look to him to ask, “How do you run a successful clinical trial? How do you take exceptional care of patients? How do you become a leukemia physician that your colleagues feel comfortable referring patients to?” I was very fortunate to work with all the mentors I’ve mentioned. Although we are at different institutions now, these are people who have helped me to become the physician I am today.
The other thing that’s been helpful from these experiences is remembering what it is like to be the mentee. As I have opportunities to mentor early- or mid-career faculty, medical students, and residents, I can remember what it’s like to be in their shoes and the importance of being generous, being kind, and always treating them with respect. These are practices that my mentors taught me.
How did the ASH-AMFDP influence your career development?
The clinical trial that was part of my ASH-AMFDP award was my first clinical trial, and if you ask any clinical investigator whether they remember their first trial, they will look back on it fondly, remembering the bumps and bruises they received along the way. You learn so much, and there’s no better way to learn than to do your own trial and to go through the entire process from trial conception to writing the final manuscript. The ASH-AMFDP helped me to do just that, which helped me solidify my interest in clinical trial development.
This was also my first opportunity to be around other scholars who were part of the program, who looked like me and were having these amazing clinical projects and careers, excelling at their craft. I was humbled to be part of such a group, and it was wonderful to see people doing so well.
What piece of advice would you give to early-career physicians who are considering a career in academic medicine?
I would offer two pieces of advice. The first is that it’s important to follow your passion and to do what is important to you and drives you, not what you think should drive you and be your passion because someone else told you that it should be. Never take on a project that you’re only 50% interested in because you’ll only feel 50% interested in finishing it.
The second is that it’s important to have mentors who can advise different aspects of your career – research, clinical care, and general professional development. Having someone who can help with your clinical work or your research, and then having a mentor who can look at your overall career and personal development, help you define what you want to do moving forward – that’s so important. Identify those people when you become an early-career faculty member, and if you’re struggling to do that, bring it to your division director or department chair’s attention because this will be crucial to your overall success and maintaining a sense of purpose in your work.
You recently became the chair of ASH’s Committee on DEI. What drew you to this leadership position?
I was a member of what was formerly called the Committee on Promoting Diversity for two terms, and what a wonderful opportunity to be able to participate in a committee that’s been led by absolute superheroes in hematology. You not only get to participate in the discussions and work of the committee, but you also make connections and friendships, appreciate different leadership styles, and learn how leaders address important and, at times, challenging topics. It’s an honor to walk in the footsteps of those who have done such important work.
What do you hope to accomplish as committee chair?
I hope to bring attention to topical issues that are relevant to patient care as it relates to diversity, making sure there is representation for all involved. It’s important that we do everything we can as committee members to bring issues to ASH leaders that are relevant across the Society. I’m a middle child, so I tend to approach issues by asking, “Is this fair? Is this equitable? How are we thinking of all the stakeholders?” I have also become even more aware of health equity challenges as they relate to access to many of the new immunotherapies and clinical trials for patients with hematologic malignancies and hope to be able to work on this during my time as chair.
In your opinion, where are improvements in DEI most needed in the fields of hematology and medicine?
That’s a tough question. To me, probably what’s most important is making sure that whatever the issue is, the people affected by that issue are part of the decision-making process and that we are looking at it from everyone’s perspective as much as possible. I also think having leaders who are representative of the patients we care for, whether that is in the people administering the care in the clinic, developing the clinical trial design, or conducting laboratory research, is also important. I am hopeful that one of the sessions on science and race we’ll be doing this year at the annual meeting will help to address some of these issues as well.
How can readers accelerate principles of DEI in their own professional lives?
I would say the first step is to create awareness that these issues exist. We certainly don’t expect everybody to be an expert in DEI, but creating the awareness that this is something to consider, whether it’s with respect to hiring and recruitment, clinical trial design, or basic science research, is something everyone can do in their daily work.
More information on the ASH-AMFDP Award and the MRI can be found at hematology.org/awards/minority-recruitment.
The AMFDP Turns 40!
The Harold Amos Medical Faculty Development Program (AMFDP) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation welcomed its first cohort of physicians in 1983, with the commitment to mentor individuals from historically disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds to become leaders in academic medicine and science. Over the years, more than three-quarters of the program’s alumni scholars have remained in academic medicine, including 116 professors, 87 associate professors, and 54 assistant professors, as of February 2022.
“The thing that I’m proudest of,” reflected James Gavin, MD, PhD, who served as the national program director of the AMFDP for 20 years, “is the degree to which this program has become a benchmark of excellence for faculty development. It has really become the standard by which such programs are judged, and what that means is that it has been successful.”
In 2006, ASH became the first professional society to partner with the AMFDP, leading to the creation of the ASH-AMFDP Award, which has since been awarded to 24 hematology scholars and researchers from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.
For more information on the AMFDP, visit amfdp.org.