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Cultivating Hematology’s Future

December 10, 2022


The ASH Mentor Award acknowledges hematologists who have excelled in mentoring trainees and colleagues. Each year, two individuals working in the areas of basic science, clinical investigation, education, or clinical and community care are recognized by the Society for their positive impact on the careers of their mentees, many of whom have gone on to advance research and patient care in hematology through their own work.

Dr. Caligiuri is president of City of Hope National Medical Center and the Deana and Steve Campbell Physician-in- Chief Distinguished Chair. He has devoted much of his career, which spans three decades, to mentoring future generations of physicians, scientists, and physician scientists. As a scientist, Dr. Caligiuri has nurtured his sustained interest in natural killer (NK) cells. “My laboratory mentor, Dr. Jerry Ritz at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, allowed me to explore NK cell biology at the bench,” he said, “while at the same time exposing me to immune therapy (transplantation) for the treatment of leukemia.” And 36 years later, more than 1,000 patients with cancer have been treated by Dr. Caligiuri with immune based therapies that he himself developed or co-developed.

Dr. Caligiuri’s journey through the medical field began in an unexpected way perhaps. “I was not a science major in college, so when I arrived at medical school a lot of the science was new and confusing,” he explained, sharing that immunology just made sense to him. On clinical rotations, he helped reverse kidney rejection in a renal transplant patient using the experimental (at the time) drug cyclosporine. “The whole experience was like a lightning bolt,” he said, as he realized that he wanted to study transplantation immunology. This was during the 1980s, and during those years, the only nonsurgical disease where transplantation was showing promise as a treatment modality was leukemia. The focus for Dr. Caligiuri then became clear: studying immunology for the treatment of blood disorders.

Over time, and as his career progressed, Dr. Caligiuri’s approach to teaching and mentoring became abundantly clear as well. “In regard to teaching, I require things to be explained simply and clearly to me— something I noticed some teachers did well and others did not do well,” he said. Dr. Caligiuri stated that he had to teach himself what he was unable to decipher from the teacher, and once he did that, he was able to do a better job explaining things to others. “In medical school, I was so confused by the lectures on the autonomic nervous system of the heart that I spent months researching the topic and preparing my own lectures,” he said. The chair of the department then let him deliver the lectures on the topic to the first-year medical students for his remaining time in medical school, and those lectures always received the highest scores in the physiology class. “I realized at that time that I had an ability to explain complex matters in a way that most would understand,” said Dr. Caligiuri.

Regarding mentoring, Dr. Caligiuri discussed his open-door policy and the great satisfaction he derives from sharing advice based on his own experience, whether in science, medicine, or life’s journey. As an ASH Minority Medical Student Award Program mentor, he learned about subconscious bias of faculty toward students of color, and in response he and his wife started an evening series in their home called “Dialogue, Diversity and Dinner,” which offered Black medical students access to Black physician faculty to learn how to deal with this issue and other issues.

Much of his approach comes from emulating his own mentors, such as Dr. Jerry Ritz of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, whose advice as Dr. Caligiuri’s lab mentor was to develop his own projects rather than “expecting to be spoon-fed,” he shared. “I still do the same with my mentees today.”

The late Dr. Clara Bloomfield was his mentor from 1989 until she passed away in 2021. “The best advice I received from Clara was not advice; it was how to lead,” he began. “Clara was a selfless leader… I do my best to emulate her style of selfless leadership. I define leadership by one word — selflessness — and it was Clara who taught me that.”

Dr. Flowers is a professor of medicine and chair of the department of lymphoma/myeloma at MD Anderson Cancer Center, and his commitment to the recruitment and mentorship of underrepresented minority hematologists culminated when he co-developed the ASH Minority Recruitment Initiative (MRI) — a 13-year pathway of awards, extending from first-year medical school students to hematologists with faculty positions. With a focus on lymphoma clinical and outcomes research, Dr. Flowers used his training in informatics and clinical research methodology to pursue clinical trials that led to high impact publications and approval of new therapies for lymphomas.

One can trace Dr. Flowers’ career path as a hematologist back to his early mentors, the late Dr. Oliver Press and Dr. Rainer Storb. The former is widely recognized for excellence in mentorship (he was presented with the 2017 ASH Mentor Award), and as Dr. Flowers notes, his legacy lives on through the many Fellowships named for him and through the more than 70 physicians and scientists he has mentored. “I am lucky enough to have been among those,” he said.

Many know Dr. Storb as a pioneer in allogeneic stem cell transplantation, and in Dr. Flowers’ words, “he continues to be the single most-amazing human being and relentless scientist I have ever met.” Dr. Storb demonstrated the personal side of mentorship for Dr. Flowers when he was fellow, as well as the drive to focus on research questions that can have a meaningful impact on patients.

Dr. Flowers shared that he has been “extremely fortunate” to work with an incredible group of mentors across the formative years of his career, through residency and fellowship, and those mentors provided the foundation and role modeling for clinical and research excellence. “My mentors were critical to career success, and I was compelled to pay it forward by mentoring the next generation of researchers,” he said. Dr. Flowers has demonstrated this commitment to recruiting and mentoring underrepresented minorities as a founding member of the ASH Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (formerly the ASH Committee on Promoting Diversity) and his work on the ASH MRI.

At Emory University, Dr. Flowers was also a research mentor for high school students in the Winship Summer Scholars program and among other honors, he was recognized for mentorship and teaching with the Eckman Award for Excellence in Teaching Hematology/ Oncology Fellows and the inaugural Emory School of Medicine Mentoring Award. “In total,” he said, “my experience at Emory and MD Anderson includes mentoring 17 high school students, 10 undergraduate students, 17 medical students, 13 hematology/oncology fellows, eight other house-staff, and 15 junior faculty members.”

Dr. Flowers communicates at least yearly with most of his former mentees and tracks their ongoing progress, and he noted that many of those whom he has mentored or co-mentored have successfully competed for peer-reviewed funding and are flourishing in academic careers. These include several female investigators, including Drs. Loretta Nastoupil, Melody Smith, Inhye Ahn, Carla Casulo, Jean Koff, Pamela Allen, and Tamara Miller. “I greatly value the deep and long-standing relationships that I have had with many of my mentees across my career,” he said. “It is incredibly rewarding to follow the success and growth of their careers and to see the impact that they have on patients and the field of hematology.”

He closed with a few words of advice for any early-career physician or scientist considering hematology. “Academic hematology offers incredible opportunities or varied and interesting careers,” he said. “I would advise anyone considering hematology to come to the annual meeting and just talk to our ASH members. I’m certain that you will be equally amazed.”

ASH President Dr. Jane Winter will recognize Drs. Michael Caligiuri and Christopher Flowers with the 2022 ASH Mentor Award on Sunday, December 11, at 1:30 p.m. Central time during the Announcement of Awards General Session in Hall E at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

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