ASCO/AACR “Vail” Workshop on Clinical Cancer Research— A Fellow’s Perspective

Feb 26, 2013

By Filipa Lynce, MD

"On behalf of the course co-directors, Drs. Lee M. Ellis, Mary L. Disis, and Mithat Gonen, as well as the workshop faculty, I am pleased to notify you that you have been selected to participate in the 2012 AACR/ASCO Workshop on Methods in Clinical Cancer Research."


This was how the journey began. In reality, it started earlier when I updated my CV, prepared an essay, and worked on the letter of intent with my mentors. But officially, the journey began the day I received the acceptance email. It was the beginning of one of the most memorable opportunities I have experienced during my fellowship. Held once a year in Vail, Colorado, the week-long workshop is geared to help participants master the process of clinical research and fully develop a clinical protocol.


In preparation for the workshop, I received multiple emails but one particularly caught my attention. It was signed by the course directors, and in the midst of other instructions, one paragraph was underlined:

"Will you be making a difference in the lives of our patients? We are not just doing this to advance your career, but we are conducting this course so that you will make a difference in the lives of our patients."

I must confess this was troubling to me. Of course we all became doctors because we want to make a difference in the lives of our patients. We all believe that meaningful research is the best way to improve patient care. But along the way, different voices can pull us in opposite directions, and that which should seem obvious to us may not always be. This awareness was constant through the entire workshop in the small groups and in the main conferences. Does our research question matter? Can this be practice-changing? Will we affect the lives of our patients? Patients should be in the center of this process, and they should be the ones to inspire us to do research that is truly important.

Access to outstanding faculty

On July 28, 2012, participants from throughout the United States and one from Italy met in Vail. We were 100 "students": 77 fellows and 23 junior faculty. Our backgrounds were diverse: 52 from medical oncology, 18 from radiation oncology, 13 from hematology, six from gynecologic oncology, four from neuro-oncology, four from surgical oncology, and three from pediatrics.

Imagine having a world-class faculty available to you—outstanding clinical and translational researchers with different areas of interests, phase I specialists, past and current ASCO Presidents, biostatisticians, and patient advocates. At the Vail Workshop, this outstanding faculty guides the students through an intense schedule of sessions on protocol development, lectures, panel discussions, one-on-one huddles, and small-group and special-interest discussions.

The body of the workshop happens inside the Protocol Development Groups. Each group is composed of three to four faculty members and eight to nine students with similar areas of interest. Faculty for my group included ASCO Past President George Sledge, MD, and Edith Perez, MD (breast oncologists); Katherine Panageas, DrPH (biostatistician); and Barbara LeStage (patient advocate). We were eight students (five clinical fellows, one research fellow, and two junior faculty) sharing the same passion for clinical research in breast cancer and enjoying the privilege of learning from such a team.

On the day we arrived, we were asked to present our project in an informal way and explain why we chose our question, how we planned to make the project happen, and how it could improve patients' lives. We then had to be open to questions and advice from others that ultimately led to the continuous improvement of our protocols. Every evening we had deadlines—"homework" to do, i.e., a section of the protocol to complete, which we would then send to our faculty for review. And when we could finally relax, the faculty started working, reviewing, and giving feedback on eight protocols before the next morning.

The Vail Workshop did not truly end on August 3. Though we all said goodbye in Colorado, we were assured that our group faculty would continue to be available when we got back home. We left with new friends and future colleagues with whom we will be interacting with for the rest of our professional lives. And we are certain that we will be receiving evaluations in the future to appraise the impact of the course, translated into institutional review board submissions, open protocols, academic careers, and meaningful results for our patients.


When I graduated from medical school, I wrote a letter to myself about what made me pursue a career in medicine and my deep desire to affect patients' lives. I sealed this letter and intended to read it again 10 years later, after being exposed to the real world: many patients, research projects, deadlines, and more....I still have a few years ahead of me before I read that letter, but this workshop was an amazing learning opportunity that made me remember my initial motivation. At some point in our lives, we all need to remember what really matters and what we want to keep striving for.

There are many lessons I learned from Vail, which I will do my best not to forget. Patients must be in the center of research; learn how to anticipate problems; seek out funding opportunities; do career planning; persist despite closed doors. But what most amazed me goes far beyond all the acquired knowledge and refers to the generosity of the faculty. In Les Misérables, the French novel by Victor Hugo, a Bishop's compassion for the ex-convict Jean Valjean inspires Valjean to commit himself to helping others for the rest of his life. For seven days in Vail, world-class experts with incredibly busy agendas dedicated their effort, time, and energy to the next generation of clinical researchers. In the future, after we complete our training, it will be our responsibility to give back and invest in the next generation of young trialists starting their careers.


2013 AACR/ASCO Workshop: Methods in Clinical Cancer Research
July 27-August 2, 2013
Vail, Colorado
Application Submission Deadline: March 18


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