By Melanie Farrell, ASCO Communications
Vered Stearns, MD, FASCO, understands that finding the right team members and institution is essential for women to achieve their career objectives. As director of the Women’s Malignancies Disease Group at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins and inaugural medical director of the Under Armour Breast Health Innovation Center, she shows early-career women in her field that it is possible to pursue their goals.
In addition to her work, Dr. Stearns’s long-term research goal is to improve current therapies by individualizing strategies for the treatment and prevention of breast cancer. Her main research includes the utilization of biomarkers to predict response to standard regimens used to treat and prevent breast cancer and to introduce new interventions.
Dr. Stearns has received numerous grants and awards to fund her innovative research. She was a recipient of early-career awards including a Clinical Research Training Grant from the American Cancer Society, and was one of the first five recipients of the prestigious Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator Award. Subsequently she was the inaugural recipient of the Advanced Clinical Research Award from Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation. She serves as a board member of the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers (NAPBC) for the American College of Surgeons (ACS), and was honored in 2020 as a Fellow of ASCO (FASCO).
In 2017, Dr. Stearns was selected by Forbes as one of 27 top breast cancer oncologists in the United States, signifying that her work continues to have a positive impact on the lives of many women.
Did women in leadership roles inspire your path?
VS: Early in my training, I was privileged to work with outstanding men and women faculty, but most of the leaders were men. During my fellowship and as a young faculty member, I became familiar with women who had assumed significant leadership roles, which opened my eyes to new possibilities. One notable leader is former ASCO and AACR president Nancy E. Davidson MD, FASCO, whom I initially admired from afar and later became my mentor when I joined the Johns Hopkins faculty. Former AACR president Elizabeth M. Jaffee, MD, and many other women at Johns Hopkins and other centers have also inspired and guided me along the way. I am thankful to both the men and women leaders I have worked with over the years who motivated me to become a translational researcher and a leader.
What is the greatest hurdle facing women in oncology?
VS: I believe that every individual has different struggles they must overcome. It can be hard for women to balance the conflicting demands of starting a family during training and early faculty years. Despite having strong support at home, I had to be selective about which academic opportunities I pursued as my husband and I each balanced our careers while raising our young family. I am thankful to my mentor and former ASCO president Daniel F. Hayes, MD, FACP, FASCO, who ensured that I had the support I needed to extend the duration of my fellowship to acquire additional expertise while also meeting these challenges. I was fortunate to receive career development awards over the years, including the Damon Runyon Clinical Investigator Award that both provided me with protected time to pursue an academic career and student loan repayment, and Conquer Cancer’s Advanced Clinical Research Award, which allowed me to transition from the mentored to the independent stages of my career.
Although I am already from a generation in which women comprised half the medical school class, I was not infrequently the only woman faculty in the room as I assumed leadership roles. Women are generally more reluctant to consider or accept leadership positions, especially if they have other demands outside of work. New initiatives to protect the time of investigators or enhance infrastructure will allow more women to consider leadership opportunities. It is important for women to be aware of opportunities early in their careers, and for institutions to enhance programs that support team members at work and at home. Through novel initiatives targeting equitable treatment, women can achieve greater parity in leadership positions, salaries, individual grants, and authorship.
Cancer care is more complex than ever, and our patients are confronting not only their diagnosis, but also symptoms associated with their treatment. Competing demands from patient treatment, administrative or research activities, and home are often stressful to health care providers. We must reconceive work-life balance to reduce burnout and to encourage the best physicians to enter and remain in this important field.
What can be done to create more parity among men and women in medicine?
VS: When I was a junior faculty member, two of my close colleagues were men with spouses in academia. Like me, they had work and home responsibilities requiring a delicate balance. Like them, I have a spouse in academia who shared responsibilities with me and was supportive of my career ambitions. Not everyone is able to have the flexibility that academic medicine schedules sometimes offer, and especially the flexibility of a couple, each with an academic career. I am fortunate to have had a limited clinic over the years and protected research and administrative time, which provided me with greater flexibility in my academic pursuits. An early grant that included loan repayment was also critical for me as it helped offset the costs of quality childcare.
I am concerned that women continue to be more reluctant to consider leadership positions than men with the same level of training and experience. Leadership training can be helpful to both men and women, but some programs may include guidance that specially targets particular groups. Leadership programs can provide women with insights into differences affecting women and men in various professions, and with guidance on seeking advisors at distinct junctures in their careers. All rising academics, but perhaps especially women, should also seek a sponsor, who might or might not be from within the same institution. I would like to emphasize that, while my comments focus on differences affecting women and men physicians, the concerns, to some extent, will overlap for individuals with different gender identities or gender expressions, who also face unique challenges in charting their academic career, or other careers. Fortunately, there are many resources and programs available to women and other specific groups today, and I am hopeful that many more will emerge.
Why is it important to fund the research of women scientists?
VS: Numerous studies demonstrate that diversity in the workforce provides multiple perspectives in confronting challenges and enhancing breakthroughs in basic sciences, translational research, and patient care. Women physicians often provide different insights into research problems, sometimes benefiting women patients specifically, but often benefiting all genders. Unfortunately, it is very difficult today to secure sufficient research funding, and the path to a first presentation or paper can take years. For women especially, the trajectory can be even longer, and it is important that institutions support women from the start of their careers. Women should be persistent and patient as they seek guidance and support. Women need to know what opportunities are available to them and understand their institutional expectations. They also need to be willing to request needed support to be successful. Those who are in leadership roles should provide community outreach as role models to future scientists.
How do programs like Women Who Conquer Cancer (WWCC) elevate women in oncology?
VS: By widely recognizing women leaders and role models in oncology, programs like WWCC highlight and celebrate the achievements of such women, while also encouraging younger women to pursue similar careers. The programs also allow for important networking opportunities. Storytelling of women at different stages of their medical careers, or from other professions, will enable younger women to appreciate the struggles other women have faced and overcome on their way to success. Gatherings also allow junior oncologists to meet with senior leaders, including current and past ASCO presidents, to create new partnerships that will improve their careers, and to help charter the various junctures in the long pathway to success.
What’s your advice to women entering oncology today?
VS: When residents or junior fellows seek my guidance, I tell them to follow their passions. As they develop their academic interests, they should seek a mentor or mentors who will help them achieve their goals. At Johns Hopkins we have mentoring committees for junior faculty members and for fellows. I encourage my trainees to select not only faculty members who are working closely with them on their research or day-to-day activities, but to also consider a faculty member whom they see as a role model, someone whose career or personal path speaks to them. I encourage women to be proactive and to ask senior colleagues to help identify or recommend them for opportunities both within their own institution or on national committees. At the same time, I tell them to be selective and to try not to overextend themselves. It is important to be a good citizen and a team player, but it is critical for individuals in the early years of their career to develop a focused agenda. I also remind my mentees that they should persist in what they believe are important goals that will improve cancer-related outcomes, and that it takes time to obtain funding and develop national recognition. I believe that surrounding yourself with the right team members and selecting the institution that shares your goals, while pursuing national and international opportunities, is essential in achieving your ultimate career objectives. I also remind my trainees that I always learn from them and to cherish these important relationships.