May 12, 2022
By Melanie Farrell, ASCO Communications
Nina Shah, MD, recognizes that women need to make up a greater proportion of the fabric of the scientific establishment at higher levels. As a board-certified hematology and medical oncology physician and a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, she encourages women scientists to seek opportunities to excel in their careers.
Dr. Shah serves as co-chair of the Plasma Cell Disorder and Adult Solid Tumor Working Committee of the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research and is a member of the Scientific Committee on Plasma Cell Neoplasia of the American Society of Hematology (ASH).
Did women in leadership roles inspire your path?
NS: The most inspirational career woman for me has been my first mentor, Elizabeth J. Shpall, MD, who is a leader in the field of cellular therapy. She taught me that no obstacle is too challenging, and that there are always ways to overcome barriers. If there is an idea that seems good and worthy, it should be pursued, rather than be discarded because it’s too challenging. I’ve never heard her say it can’t be done. That was something very inspiring to me. In a way, she really made me not see gender at all. She just worked and inspired me to work, which led me to get excited about cellular therapy. It was never about being a woman as far as what I could or could not do. It was just about science, patients, and innovation. I appreciated that because it just made me focus on the mission and not get distracted.
Dr. Shpall has been a very nice complement to my own family, which is just my sister and me. From the time that I was born, there was no question that [my sister] and I were going to accomplish just as much as men could. I really feel fortunate that as I’ve grown up, I’ve never felt that I can’t achieve something because I’m a woman. I’ve been so fortunate to be surrounded by strong women in almost every part of my life. It’s been a huge privilege.
What is the greatest hurdle facing women in oncology?
NS: There is a 360-degree stress of burnout for women. This is something that has become more apparent as time has gone on. It’s not only that women have to manage their careers, but as many of us know, women do manage things at home. That’s not to say that men have not stepped up to help with these things, but my general sense from having raised children and from talking to my female colleagues is that, ultimately, the planning burden for family matters rests on women. Women are suffering in general from decision fatigue and this spills over into their careers as oncologists. This is a reality, and I think the fact that women are strapped at every level is contributing to global burnout and attrition for women in oncology.
What can be done to create more parity among men and women in medicine?
NS: To have more parity, we must have structural change in how careers are built in medicine. That means beyond things like defined maternity leave. There must be opportunities to have flexible career trajectories so that women can have longer career arcs. I also think that support tactics need to be provided to men and women in medicine, which might be simple things like a fund that contributes to childcare, a personal assistant, or anything that can be outsourced. However, it’s not the same solution for everybody. You must have options available so that people can tailor to what works for their lives and their family situations. Having some of the nonwork challenges swept up a little bit, or siphoned off by some outsourceable resources, could really help women focus on things at work, which will allow them to accomplish what they want to and are capable of accomplishing.
Why is it important to fund the research of women scientists?
NS: Funding research for women scientists is extremely important because once women get that first-level, second-level, and third-level funding, they are more likely to be productive and mentor junior faculty and junior researchers. Having that in place allows for women to, slowly but surely, be a greater proportion of the fabric of the scientific establishment at higher levels. We see many women starting out at the PhD and postdoctoral level, but how many of them actually go on to run a giant lab? Those numbers dwindle as you go upwards. And, ultimately, the more gender, race, and socioeconomic diversity you have at all levels, the richer our research infrastructure is going to be as far as ideas and innovation. We’re really missing out on a resource if we don’t actively try to fund research from women, and we’re wasting a resource that could be another source of inspiration in a way that may not have been possible if it was just a monochromatic collection of senior scientists.
How do programs like WWCC elevate women in oncology?
NS: Women Who Conquer Cancer is a wonderful initiative. First of all, it brings to light all of the wonderful and inspiring women who are working in cancer. Sometimes it’s hard to find these women if you’re siloed in an institution, particularly in a small one. It really brings us together and gives a sense of fellowship, mentorship, as well as peer mentorship. Secondly, there are absolute, tangible outcomes that are supported. For example, funding Young Investigator Awards or mentorship awards highlight and support the development of women in oncology in a variety of research or education fields. Thirdly, it allows for junior faculty to see that there are many women who have progressed through the times. There are women who have succeeded and lived to tell their stories, and that is inspirational for junior faculty. To have an established place where one can easily find these women is really important—this is a known resource that has become increasingly more recognized and popular over the last 5 to 7 years.
What’s your advice to women entering oncology today?
NS: The most important thing for anybody, but particularly for women, is to know yourself and know what makes you happy. This will not always be the same thing at all points in your life. If you want to excel in your career, you shouldn’t feel guilty about that. If there are times when you need to take a little bit of a break, that’s okay, too. Doing what you love will always lead to your success. Don’t do things because someone else told you that you have to, and don’t not do things because someone told you that you can’t. You should do what inspires you to get up every morning, because that will ultimately fuel your productivity and happiness.
Would you like to share anything about your current research?
NS: My current research focuses on immunotherapy, and particularly cellular therapy for patients with multiple myeloma. One of my missions is to merge that research interest with my second research interest, which is patient experience and quality-of-life outcomes. I’m excited that we have novel immunotherapies and cellular therapies that demonstrate both remarkable clinical efficacy as well as promising quality-of-life outcomes. I hope that we can make these therapies more accessible, not only in academic centers, but throughout the United States and the world, for people of all backgrounds. This is an era that we can synergize what we know about science and technology with what we know about society and people, to optimize care delivery for patients with hematologic malignancies.
The Women Who Conquer Cancer series profiles some of the remarkable nominees for Conquer Cancer’s Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Awards, which recognize role models and mentors to men and women training to be cancer clinicians, educators, or researchers.