May 14, 2021
Through her experiences in pediatrics and pediatric hematology/oncology, Susan K. Parsons, MD, MRP, has learned the value in trying new things, even if there is a potential to fail. Dr. Parsons currently serves as the director of The Center for Health Solutions at the Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies at Tufts Medical Center. She is also a professor of medicine and pediatrics at the Tufts University School of Medicine, and is the founding director of the Reid R. Sacco Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Program at Tufts Medical Center. A role model to many, Dr. Parsons continues to find ways to pay it forward and encourage others in her field.
In addition to her work at Tufts, Dr. Parsons has served as a member of the American Society of Blood and Marrow Transplant expert panel on the role of hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) in the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children and adults and served as co-chair of the Health Policy and Psychosocial Working Committee of the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. Since 2015 she has been a member of the National Cancer Institute’s Scientific Council on Cancer Care Delivery Research (CCDR) and serves as the scientific lead for CCDR within the Children’s Oncology Group. An ASCO member since 1993, Dr. Parsons has served as a member of the Health Services Committee and received an ASCO Career Development Award (CDA) to support her outcomes research in pediatric hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.
How did receiving a 1993 CDA impact your career?
SP: During my residency and fellowship training in pediatrics and pediatric hematology/oncology, I was intrigued by the multiple facets of HSCT—the biology, complex clinic care, and the profound impact on the child and family health-related quality of life. Building on my background in health economics, I was also very interested in the financial cost of HSCT, the impact of reimbursement, and emerging payment models.
Over the past 30 years, there has been a growing interest in research on the cost, quality, and access to health care. However, in 1993, this was a nascent field and quite a departure from the typical basic science or translational research pursued in hematology/oncology. With the support of my mentors, I was convinced that it had an important place in our field. Therefore, getting this award provided me with much-needed external validation and got me started!
The timing of the award was also personally memorable. I learned about my selection for the award the day before I gave birth to my son, and I later brought him with me to the award dinner. Although he was resting quietly in his car seat in the corner, two of my table mates graciously and lovingly held him for most of the evening— Ms. Jean Canellos, and my award sponsor, Dr. Gertrude Elion. I was a huge fan of Dr. Elion and was thrilled to meet her in person. The 1988 Nobel Prize Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, Dr. Elion was a brilliant scientist who revolutionized drug development, based on differences in biochemistry and metabolism. Her list of new agents includes drugs such as 6-mercaptopurine, azathioprine, trimethoprim, AZT, and others. Her success was ensured by her perseverance and determination, as she overcame early and recurrent personal losses and confronted gender-based discrimination. Her kindness was palpable and her encouragement was boundless.
What advice shaped your career?
SP: I have received great advice over the course of my life from family, friends, and mentors. The first was encouraging me to pursue medicine as a “second career” after formal graduate training and work experience in health economics, reminding me that it is important to follow one’s passion. A corollary of this is that if we are lucky, life will be long and there’s plenty of time to do good work. The second was to have a plan, spending the time to lay out what I hoped to accomplish and why. The third piece of advice is to consider doing projects that will be impactful and fun!
What is the reward of mentoring?
SP: The rewards of mentoring are many. Watching young people grow and succeed is very rich. Helping others avoid pitfalls and not be derailed is also satisfying. I personally enjoy engaging with people with different personalities, experiences, and goals. It keeps me growing and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.
How is the experience of women in oncology today different from the early days of your own career?
SP: I am struck by how many more women there are now than when I started my career 40 years ago. They are much better organized than we were, and they are so much more technologically savvy than we were (or are). Many more already have advanced degrees and are committed to their careers. All that said, I think they are equally caring, dedicated, and focused.
One additional difference deserves special mention. The extent to which young trainees today are saddled with education debt (both from college and medical school) should concern all of us. It informs career choices, including the willingness to gamble on a research career in which success is not at all a given. If we are truly committed to diversity in our field—by gender, ethnicity, race, and social position—we need to figure out how to create enough of a safety net to allow young researchers to want to enter the field.
What do you learn from early-career researchers, including those you mentor?
SP: The biggest lesson I have learned as a mentor is that it is not about me. It is about them. This is their career. They need to figure out what is important to them and follow their timetable. I also strongly believe that it is good to have a mentoring team, not just one person serving as the wise one. As we do more and more interdisciplinary and translational science, we need to have people on the team representing vastly different skill sets and experience.
From the new researchers, I get a fresh charge of their excitement and discovery, trying new things, even if they might fail. I try to encourage them to take risks, ask questions they care about, and work hard. I try to instill in them a seriousness about our work, but a lightness in our dealing with one another. I think it is possible to be very rigorous, but still have fun.
The field of hematology/oncology has changed a lot over the course of my career, with increased discovery and dramatic changes in diagnostics and therapeutics. In working with my mentees, I am challenged to keep reading and learning. We teach each other constantly.
What are the unique challenges you face working with underserved populations?
SP: The biggest challenge is dealing with the extent of suffering and the magnitude of unmet need. As devastating as a new cancer diagnosis can be, it becomes all the more so in the setting of food insecurity, housing instability, or financial concern. We try very hard to address these issues in our multidisciplinary care model, but we occasionally encounter need that outstrips available resources.
The other challenge we face is working with populations that are culturally and linguistically distinct from our own. Through programs such as our cancer navigation program, we have created cultural bridges to ensure that patients get the assistance they need in communicating with the care team and receiving the additional education and support to deal with Western medicine in a value-neutral way.
Why is it important for donors to support women in cancer research?
SP: First and foremost, it is important for donors to support research. We cannot afford as a society to slow down our research programs. As funding from the federal government becomes increasingly competitive and relatively scarce, programs such as those offered through Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, are essential in getting young researchers launched in their careers. I hope we will see the day when it won’t be necessary to preferentially fund women researchers, but I do believe that it is still not a level playing field when it comes to academic advancement.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
SP: When I look back over my career I am incredibly grateful for the support that I have had from my own mentors, my teachers, my family, and my friends. I am reminded of the quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Mentoring for me is a way to pay forward.
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.