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Mentorship From Bench to Bedside and Beyond

December 6, 2023


Mentorship is among the most important determinants of a successful career in hematology, yet — despite being prized by recipients — it is not always celebrated outright. The ASH Mentor Award recognizes two outstanding hematologists each year for their sustained commitment to mentorship across the five domains of intellectual growth, career development, professional guidance, advocacy, and positive role modeling. Recipients of the ASH Mentor Award exert a significant positive impact on their mentees, helping them not only to advance research and/or patient care in their respective fields but also to navigate the inevitable personal and professional challenges that arise along the way. 

Helen Heslop, MD, serves as the director of the Center of Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine and the deputy director of Baylor College of Medicine’s NCI-designated Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Her exceptional work as a physician-scientist has made significant and lasting contributions to the field of hematology, leading to advancements in hematopoietic stem cell transplantation and genetic therapies for cancer.   

Among her mentees, Dr. Heslop is recognized as an ideal leader who is patient, kind, and consistently prioritizes their success. Nomination letters and testimonials from her protégés highlight specific instances of her remarkable mentorship qualities, including her transparency, her ability to remain “acutely aware of her mentees’ career needs (even if they themselves did not know them),” and her desire to empower others by including everyone and promoting a sense of creative freedom. Throughout her own career, she has never missed a chance to create steppingstones for her mentees — from providing advice pertaining to strategic long-term goals, to securing opportunities for publication or international speaking engagements, to facilitating clinical privileges. In one instance, she (on a very short notice) created a position in her laboratory with 80% protected time to ensure continued work for one of her fellows. That opportunity would not have materialized otherwise as the fellow’s application for fourth-year laboratory funding had missed the deadline. In another instance, her advice pushed one of her mentees to save enough to pay off their NIH loan, underscoring a mentoring style that melds an interest in science with real-world practicalities and financial responsibility in academic medicine.  

Story after story reveals the incredibly kind and selfless nature of Dr. Heslop’s approach to mentorship. To help foster the clinical development of one of her international mentees, who did not have a U.S. license at the time, Dr. Heslop nominated her to a clinical protocol review committee, transforming her career by providing hands-on experience in the design of clinical trials for cellular therapies. In the words of Stephen Gottschalk, MD, chair of the Department of BMT and Cellular Therapy at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dr. Heslop is truly a “one of a kind mentor.” She is “incredibly selfless and always ready to give her time to provide salient career development and research advice to all — no matter who they are — from students to fellows/postdocs to junior faculty.” Despite her seemingly all-encompassing approach to training the next generation of hematologists, Dr. Heslop urges aspiring physician-scientists to understand the importance of mentorship as a two-way street that often requires multiple mentors to cover all areas.  

Stephen Sallan, MD, is a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, the former chief medical officer of Dana Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Care, and chief of staff emeritus at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. His research focuses on gaining a deeper understanding of the genetic underpinnings of ALL and the reasons for disease recurrence and drug resistance. His laboratory interactions continue to promote the development of novel therapies while aiming to reduce the toxicity of treatment. 

As a mentor, Dr. Sallan became widely recognized not only for providing his mentees with unparalleled scholarly opportunities but also for actively and selflessly promoting his mentees and propelling them to the next stages of their careers. As noted by Scott Armstrong, MD, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, “Dr. Sallan has guided the careers of aspiring pediatric hematologists/oncologists for some four decades, thus influencing essentially every pediatric hematology/oncology department in the United States and the vast majority internationally. He accomplished this while also directing a clinical research program instrumental to the remarkable increase in the cure rate for children with leukemia.” 

His motivation to mentor others stems from the impressions his own mentors made on him. They encouraged him to push the boundaries of cancer medicine while remembering to find joy in his work and to always pass it forward — even (and perhaps especially) within a field “fraught with failures and death.” 

Dr. Sallan began his journey in pediatric hematology five decades ago, long before the discovery of breakthrough treatments, immunologic cell surface markers, and targeted therapies for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL): “When I started 50 years ago, cancer medicine was in a very steep ascent. In particular, childhood ALL treatments were resulting in cure rates doubling over the first decade of my career. The biology of the disease, enhanced by stellar translational investigators and progressively improved technologies, was at times nearly miraculous.”  

The experience he gained during these pivotal years of his career provides insight into his desire to promote the art of compassionate medicine without compromising tenacity. Loren Walensky, MD, also with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, wrote: “A mentor’s mentor like Dr. Sallan seizes on seminal moments that leave indelible marks. In watching him counsel distraught parents questioning the odds of survival for their young child diagnosed with ALL, I saw how an outreached hand, an arm placed around the shoulder, and words of informed reassurance would transform a parent’s panic into purpose. I have repeated innumerable times to the parents of my own patients his patented phrase: The only odds that matter for your child are 0% and 100%, and we're here to do everything we can to make it 100%. 

When asked to comment on the most rewarding aspects of his half-century career, Dr. Sallan replied, “Given that none of us will singlehandedly cure anyone (possibly the only better feeling), I think that mentoring the next generation is undoubtedly the most rewarding endeavor.  Modeling all that comes from the experiential side of medicine (i.e., that which cannot be Googled) and informing the next generation are the only ways to assure continuous progress.” To those entering the field, he urges, “prepare for a career that will uplift you on a daily basis, enhance the lives of your patients, and if you are lucky (luck is a key element here) allow you to find joy in your work, your colleagues, and others with whom you share your life.” 

ASH President Robert A. Brodsky, MD, will recognize Drs. Heslop and Sallan with the 2023 ASH Mentor Award at 1:30 p.m. Sunday in Hall A of the San Diego Convention Center. 


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