Even though Smita Bhatia, MD, MPH, FASCO, began her career in a male-dominated field, she did not let this deter her from finding success. Dr. Bhatia currently serves as the director of the Institute for Cancer Outcomes and Survivorship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Medicine, the vice chair for the Department of Pediatrics at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the Gay and Bew White Endowed Chair in Pediatric Oncology. After 24 years in oncology, Dr. Bhatia continues to make her mark as a mentor in the field.
In addition to her time serving on the ASCO Board of Directors, Dr. Bhatia has also served on the 2016 Cancer Survivorship Symposium Program, Conquer Cancer Grants Selection, and Audit Committees, and was the co-chair of the Survivorship Guideline Advisory Group. An ASCO member since 1996, Dr. Bhatia has served on the Cancer Survivorship Committee, Cancer Prevention Committee, and the Journal of Clinical Oncology Editorial Board. She also received a Young Investigator Award (YIA) from Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation in 1996.
You received a 1996 Conquer Cancer YIA. What kinds of resources did this donor-funded research provide you that you otherwise would have been unable to access?
SB: I received the YIA in 1996, the same year that I started my faculty position as an assistant professor. This award was instrumental in affording me the protected time I needed to conduct my research—since I had to “buy” the protected time. Findings from this study were published in Lancet. I am incredibly grateful for this award.
What advice shaped your career?
SB: I was mentored by Dr. Les Robison at the University of Minnesota. He taught me to think big, to stay focused, and to dig deep in trying to understand the research issue at hand.
How are women in oncology today different from the female peers you had when you began your career?
SB: My career began 24 years ago. As a pediatric oncologist, I was trained by strong female leaders (Dr. Norma Ramsay) and equally strong male mentors (Dr. Les Robison and Dr. Joe Neglia) who ensured that female trainees and junior faculty were supported as they navigated work-life balance. I believe that I was lucky to have such an enlightened and protective environment, and that others may not have been so lucky. Today’s women oncologists differ from my generation by having a more uniformly nurturing environment with respect to needs related to pregnancy, maternity leave, and work-life balance.
What advice do you give to early-career oncologists?
SB: My advice to early-career oncologists is as follows: Identify and develop a strong relationship with a good mentor. Identify a research/clinical focus area that is an inch wide and a mile deep. Ensure that you work on a field that is clinically relevant.
Form strong relationships at work. Stay focused and be super-efficient with your time. Continually evaluate your progress and never be afraid to identify obstacles or challenges. Be honest about your limitations. Make sure that you balance your life outside of work with what you do at work.
How many women/men do you mentor at any given time?
SB: I have about 20 to 25 mentees at any given time; about 75% are women.
What changes do you envision forwomen in oncology in the next 5 to 10 years?
SB: I envision women taking on leadership roles more easily and more frequently than they are currently—i.e., breaking the glass ceiling. This will be because they are seeing other women leaders as role models (although not enough right now).
How do you balance caring for children and supporting their families?
SB: I believe being a mother has increased my ability to care for children and support their families. Taking care of very sick children and their families is taxing, but also very rewarding. I was especially drawn to pediatric oncology for this reason—to provide support to the whole family.
In Her Own Words
“As a pediatric oncologist, I was trained by strong female leaders and equally strong male mentors who ensured that female trainees and junior faculty were supported as they navigated work-life balance. I believe that I was lucky to have such an enlightened and protective environment, and that others may not have been so lucky.” —Dr. Smita Bhatia