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Women Who Conquer Cancer: Dr. Jennifer A. Ligibel Believes Mentorship Is a Key Piece to Leveling the Playing Field

Aug 31, 2021

By Melanie Farrell, ASCO Communications

Jennifer A. Ligibel, MD, FASCO, understands that mentoring is critical in developing the next generation of scientists. As an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, the director of the Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies and Healthy Living, and the director of the Center for Faculty Well-Being at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she strives to make mentorship and collaboration key components to everything she does. 
Dr. Ligibel has served as a project leader in the National Cancer Institute’s Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer (TREC) Centers Initiative and has also served as a member of the advisory board of an annual TREC workshop for trainees and early-career scientists interested in energy balance and cancer. This program has allowed her to mentor and train the next generation of researchers. 
Conquer Cancer, the ASCO Foundation, is pleased to honor Dr. Ligibel as the 2021 Hologic, Inc Endowed Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Award recipient. 
Did women in leadership roles inspire your path? 
JL: My mentor and the person who has had the most impact on my career is Dr. Eric P. Winer, who is clearly not a woman, but who has won many women’s mentoring awards. Eric is a phenomenal mentor and taught me not only most of what I know about mentoring, but also how important it is to be a sponsor for people. He taught me to not only give advice to help direct careers, but to give opportunities, which was something that really formed the way that I try to work with early-career faculty. 
I’m very interested in nutrition and physical activity and how they impact cancer, and that was not an area of particular interest when I started this work at Dana-Farber. Eric was instrumental in fostering conversations between me and Dr. Pamela Goodwin, who is not only an authority in breast oncology, but also one of the first oncologists who started thinking about how metabolism impacted breast cancer. Over the years, Pam has been a wonderful external mentor to me. She invited me to be on a steering committee when I was a very junior faculty member and helped mentor me in the development of a large-scale trial testing the impact of a weight loss intervention on disease outcomes in early breast cancer. She’s a phenomenal collaborator now, and definitely helped to shape my career as a woman in oncology. 
What is the greatest hurdle facing women in oncology? 
JL: There are many hurdles that women in medicine more broadly face, and the pandemic has brought many of them to the forefront. When you look at the reduction in first- and last-author publications and grant submissions for women, you recognize how much the pandemic has disrupted women’s careers. But these are not new problems; many women, especially early-career women, struggle to balance family and work. As the pandemic uprooted childcare and so much else, women’s academic careers took a beating. I lead our Faculty Well-Being programs, and we saw that people were really struggling with being able to continue their clinical practice and take care of their kids. Many times, research was the piece that gave. We have to recognize that this is not the case for every woman, and some men experience this, too. Women are not the only people with caregiving responsibilities, but during the pandemic, when push came to shove and somebody needed to take care of the kids, those responsibilities often fell to women. That balance of work and life is often more acute for women than it is for men, and it can hold women back.
What can be done to create more parity among men and women in medicine? 
JL: I do not pretend to have the solution to some of these bigger picture issues. I think that mentorship is a key piece to putting people on even playing fields. We need to make sure that young women have opportunities. We need to make sure that women have the right training, have access to academic opportunities, and are considered for leadership roles. There is a difference between giving people guidance and making sure that they have the opportunities that will help them advance. 
Taking a larger step back, there are also systemic issues that at times undervalue the areas of medicine where women make up a larger volume of the workforce. There was a fascinating article in the New York Times about the health advances that increased longevity over the last couple hundred years.1 The article discussed the brilliant science that was needed to bring things like vaccines into existence, but really focused on the fact that discovering a vaccine didn’t mean that it was used to prevent or treat disease. What made a huge difference were the public health strategies that were employed to vaccinate at-risk populations, and these efforts were often led by women. I think, as a society, many times we value the lightbulb moment—the huge discovery—and what we don’t value as much is what it actually takes to disseminate science into practice. We need to recognize the value in all the different parts of the medical system that are required to get a patient the treatment they need. It doesn’t mean that women aren’t often making the scientific discoveries, too. But we tend to value the one person with the big idea, versus the village that it takes to actually improve the lives of our patients. 
Why is it important to fund the research of female scientists? 
JL: I think that gets back to the opportunity. There are some critical points in a career trajectory; getting research funding early in one’s career can really set someone up to pursue a career in science. Conversely, when funding doesn’t come, individuals will often leave academics to work in industry, private practice, etc. Although these are all certainly good choices, it is essential that we do have women in academic medicine because the diversity of perspectives is so important for coming up with the most innovative solutions. If we only have one type of voice, that really limits our ability to be creative. It’s important that we foster a variety of different voices, and some of that takes funding and research. It is so critical that we maintain a healthy workforce with the diversity of opinions. 
How do programs like WWCC elevate women in oncology?
JL: The funding of the Young Investigator Awards (YIA) is critical in supporting women at the earliest stages of their careers. I also think that having awards to recognize female mentors is important. Mentoring is not something that generally wins you the Nobel Prize, but it is so critical in developing the next generation of scientists. When an organization like ASCO provides an endorsement of an activity by creating an award, it elevates the topic. There’s both an awareness and an opportunity piece that are embedded within what WWCC is able to do. 
What’s your advice to women entering oncology today?
JL: Find a good mentor. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there for an opportunity even if you think it’s a bit of a stretch. I also think it’s important to persevere with your ideas. The funding climate right now is tough. One of the hardest things to come to terms with is that even good ideas are sometimes not met with a lot of enthusiasm initially. But you need to persevere and keep looking for different ways to do the work that you want to do. 
Build strong teams. I think that science has moved beyond the idea that there is one person in a lab working on an idea, to recognizing that we get a lot further together. In my field, I have one perspective as a medical oncologist, but I also work closely with nutrition scientists, exercise scientists, epidemiologists, and behavioral health scientists. Bringing a group of people together to think about a problem, develop a solution, and then implement it is often more successful as it gives you many different ways of looking at the same problem. 
Is there anything else that you would like to share? 
JL: I’m very grateful to ASCO for this award, as well as for the work that the organization does more broadly to improve the lives of people with cancer. I’ve been honored to lead the ASCO obesity initiative over the past 6 years and am very grateful to the organization for bringing so much awareness to this area. 
1. Johnson S. How Humanity Gave Itself an Extra Life. New York Times. Apr 27, 2021.

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. 

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