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Uplifting Diversity, Strengthening Progress

November 1, 2020

Dr. Edward J. Benz Receives 2020 ASH Award for Leadership in Promoting Diversity

A world-renown advocate of diversity and inclusion in hematology will be honored during the 2020 ASH Annual Meeting, as Edward J. Benz, Jr., MD, is awarded the 2020 ASH Award for Leadership in Promoting Diversity. Dr. Benz is a career hematologist and physician scientist, president and CEO Emeritus of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and the Richard and Susan Smith Distinguished Professor at Harvard Medical School.

Edward Benz, M.D. President and
Chief Executive Officer at Dana-Farber

Dr. Benz earns this prestigious recognition for his steadfast dedication to strengthening workforce diversity in academic medicine and in health care writ large. His ideals found a launch pad at his very own laboratory, where Dr. Benz mentored dozens of young investigators including a vast number of women, but he also appreciated that building a diverse work environment stretches beyond a single individual. “We are rapidly becoming a pluralistic minority-majority society,” he said, “As in all areas of medicine, hematologists need to represent that diversity within our ranks if we are to understand and address the needs and challenges of the patients for whom we provide care.” Armed with this understanding, he sought to change the very culture at Dana-Farber and began a Harvard-wide initiative to coordinate the efforts of every Harvard institution to implement minority student training, recruitment, faculty development, and enhanced cultural competency. He also fostered collaborative relationships with University of Massachusetts Boston and throughout the broader community to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue careers in health and science.

At the foundation of Dr. Benz’s career is a powerful drive to not only manage diseases but to understand them as completely as possible. His growing passion for science and connection with key mentors synced up almost perfectly with the beginnings of the new world of molecular genetics and molecular biology. “As a medical student I was exposed to fabulous teachers and mentors like Dr. David Nathan and Dr. Bernard Forget who opened my eyes to how scientifically exciting and clinically important this specialty was,” Dr. Benz recalled. Eventually, the basis of what he calls his “lifelong love affairs” with red cells, hemoglobinopathies, and other areas would form, as he recognized that so many of the latest technologies of the 1960s and 1970s could be applied quite productively in the field of hematology.

The critical discoveries that began taking shape more than 50 years ago are still reflected in the science that Dr. Benz finds most exciting in 2020. “We are now seeing those breakthroughs in understanding of the origins of red cell and hemoglobin disorders at an extraordinary level of detail being translated into remarkably effective diagnostic and therapeutic tools,” he said. Dr. Benz also spotlighted recent advances in therapeutic agents targeting the mechanisms that aggravate the pathophysiology of thalassemia and improve morbidity and mortality. He also notes a fundamental challenge that is common to so many breakthrough treatments: “These therapies are extraordinarily resource intensive, expensive, and thus available to too few patients,” he said. “This is particularly concerning for hemoglobinopathies because they are most prevalent in many of the underserved areas of the world and among underserved minorities in our own communities.”

It is no coincidence that the strengths and challenges Dr. Benz sees in today’s field align so well with his philosophy when it comes to diversity. The scientific advances of the next generation, in fact, hinge directly on a diverse workforce according to Dr. Benz. “Our field needs all of the talent, brilliance, dedication, and creativity that we can attract,” he stated. “If we do not diversify our “person-force” we will fail to tap into the pools of talent needed to … apply science to meaningful and equitably shared progress against hematologic illnesses.”

Dr. Benz credits his thriving career in large part to the opportunities he was provided early on — to do research in environments that were supportive and relatively risk-free, under the guidance of exceptional role models and leaders. It makes perfect sense then, given Dr. Benz’s strong connections to enthusiastic and encouraging mentors, that he would make the mentorship, visibility, and promotion of others so central as his career progressed. In 2005 he established Dana-Farber’s Committee for Women Faculty, a guiding pillar of the institute’s Office of Faculty Development. In 2017, the committee renamed their annual Advancing the Careers of Women Faculty Award, the Edward J. Benz Jr. Award for Advancing the Careers of Women Faculty to honor the legacy of Dr. Benz. Of note, he is also the only male recipient to date of MD Anderson’s Margaret L. Kripke Legends Award for Promotion of Women in Cancer Medicine and Cancer Science.

When he learned that he had received the ASH Award for Leadership in Promoting Diversity, Dr. Benz expressed gratitude, and also noted that the praise and appreciation belong “rightfully to a group of courageous, creative, and impassioned faculty, staff, and trustees at Dana-Farber.” He cited his colleagues’ diligence and effectiveness in striving to create a workplace that is more diverse, inclusive, and nurturing of everyone working to advance the institute’s mission. “I do feel flattered to be named as the awardee,” Dr. Benz said, “but my association with it should only be to represent those colleagues — the ones whose efforts achieved the progress that merited this recognition.”

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