Women Who Conquer Cancer: Dr. S. Gail Eckhardt Guides the Next Generation of Women Leaders in Oncology

Jan 14, 2021

S. Gail Eckhardt, MD, FASCO, acknowledges the importance and impact of mentoring women oncologists in the early years of their career. She currently serves as a medical oncologist in UT Health Austin’s Gastrointestinal (GI) Cancer subspecialty clinic and is the inaugural director of UT Austin/Dell Medical School’s Livestrong Cancer Institutes. She also serves as the chair of the Department of Oncology and associate dean of cancer programs. Through these roles she is encouraging more women leaders to serve as peers and mentors to others in the field.

Dr. Eckhardt has served in numerous ASCO volunteer roles, including the ASCO Molecular Oncology Task Force. She is a past member of the ASCO Board of Directors, a past associate editor of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, and served as the lead mentor in ASCO’s Leadership Development Program. She was honored for her volunteer service as a Fellow of ASCO (FASCO) in 2008.

How and why do you personally make room for mentoring along with your leadership position?

GE: Mentoring has always been a major priority for me, so it never gets crowded out by my leadership roles. I enjoy mentoring at all levels, to seek out opportunities to mentor in my routine/daily interactions with faculty and staff. We also have a regular mentoring plan for all of our faculty, and I enjoy participating in that more formal process as well. Also, in the back of my mind as a leader is always who I should be mentoring to take on my leadership roles in the future; I have always believed that leadership should not be permanent and should transition on a regular basis to enable new voices and perspectives.

What advice shaped your career?

GE: In my first faculty position, my mentor was Dr. Daniel D. Von Hoff. He advised me on phase I drug development and he also told me that I should develop a specific disease orientation. Thus, my career has been focused on preclinical and early clinical drug development and GI cancers, both of which have been extremely rewarding to work in.

When I moved to Colorado in 1999, Dr. Paul A. Bunn Jr. was the cancer center director and was also on the ASCO Board, and I distinctly remember a meeting with him where he inquired about my aspirations for leadership positions in ASCO and academia. Actually, I had not thought about either one! Subsequent to this conversation, Paul appointed me as chair of the ASCO Annual Meeting Scientific Program Committee (during his ASCO presidency) which led to subsequent leadership positions in ASCO and at the University of Colorado. To me, this illustrates how important it is for mentors and leaders to initiate conversations about career development and leadership with trainees, faculty, and staff.

How are women in oncology today different from the female peers you had when you began your career?

GE: There are more! I hate to say it, but I really did not have many female mentors or even peers early in my career. In fact, when I had my sons, Blair and Byron, I did not take maternity leave because I did not know it existed in academia! So, despite the fact that women have a long way to go in order to be represented proportionally (50%) in oncology leadership positions, we have made some strides and now there are more women in the field to serve as peers and mentors. However, I think we still have to work to promote more diversity.

What changes do you envision for women in oncology in the next 5 to 10 years?

GE: I think that there are going to be more leadership positions for women and that leadership roles and styles will become more diverse as we diversify the workforce. However, as oncology becomes more complex and resource-intensive, I worry that some women will anticipate difficulties with work-life balance and select another field. This is of course true for men as well, and emphasizes the work needed to ensure that oncologists have access to programs and resources that support their own physical and mental health and minimize burnout. 

How has your career challenged your personal life?

GE: I think with any busy job your personal life is challenged. For me, it was the call schedules, clinical care, travel, and writing papers and grants that often eroded my family time. However, I have been lucky to have a supportive family and, now that my sons are young adults, they assure me that I was not an “absentee” mom and tell me how proud they are of what I do! That’s important to me since early on in my career I was crazy busy and feeling guilty all of the time!

How has motherhood made you a better mentor?

GE: I think that there are similarities between mentoring and motherhood, particularly around nurturing and selflessness. I also think that it is important to have a diversity of women role models; by having two kids, I am able to address concerns about work-life balance within that context and provide some advice and tools that have worked for me.

How does investing in future researchers play a role in your mentoring?

GE: I am involved in both translational (wet lab) research as well as early clinical trials. Most of my mentees are involved in either translational or clinical research, and a large part of what we discuss is how to be successful in a research career. What I have learned—because it applies to me also—is that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for successful research careers. As a mentor, I try to tailor the research mentoring strategy to the skills and passion of the faculty. While I think it’s important to focus, there is a continuum of research that spans bench to bedside, and as oncologists we can play important roles in team science that bridges the two. My job is to help junior researchers assess their strengths and placement on that continuum. I strongly believe in collaborative multidisciplinary research teams which, in my view, will be responsible for the biggest scientific advancements in the future.

Why is it important for donors to support women researchers?

GE: I think it’s important for donors to support research, period. However, the Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Award exists for a reason: to acknowledge the importance and impact of mentoring on the next generation of women leaders in oncology. One way to develop the next generation of leaders is through support of research, which we know is critical to our patients and society.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

GE: We have not really discussed the engine behind all of this, which is the patient with cancer. Early in my career when things would get crazy, I would reflect back on conversations I had with patients that would remind me why I chose oncology. Sometimes that is the best form of mentorship.

In Her Own Words:

“In the back of my mind as a leader is always who I should be mentoring to take on my leadership roles in the future; I have always believed that leadership should not be permanent and should transition on a regular basis to enable new voices and perspectives.” —Dr. S. Gail Eckhardt

The Women Who Conquer Cancer series profiles some of the remarkable nominees for Conquer Cancer’s annual Hologic, Inc. Endowed Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Award, which recognizes role models and mentors to men and women training to be cancer clinicians, educators, or researchers.

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