Dr. David G. Poplack, Mentor to Hundreds in Pediatric Oncology, Meets the Challenge of Global HOPE

Apr 07, 2023

Dr. Poplack Will Receive the 2023 Excellence in Teaching Award for His Demonstrable Impact on Trainees

By Leah Lawrence

David G. Poplack, MD, professor of pediatric oncology at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Global Hematology Oncology Pediatric Excellence (HOPE) Program at Texas Children's Hospital, will receive the Excellence in Teaching Award on June 4 at the 2023 ASCO Annual Meeting. This award recognizes teaching as a vital part of cancer care and highlights individuals who have had a demonstrable impact on their trainees and who have inspired and shaped the trainee's practice of cancer medicine.

Dr. Poplack’s long and varied career has spanned the growth and expansion of oncology as a specialty, but one thing has remained constant: his passion for mentoring. Over the years he has served as a teacher and mentor to hundreds of pediatric oncologists, many of whom have become leaders in the field.

“I have had a lot of experiences to share with people, and I have always been enthusiastic and excited about teaching,” Dr. Poplack said.

Medicine Is a “Noble Profession”

Medicine was a part of life from a young age for Dr. Poplack, whose father was a physician.

“My dad impressed upon me that it was a noble profession,” he said. “He talked about the importance of having a profession that was steeped in humanity and humanitarian goals. That was impactful on me.”

While on rotations in medical school at Boston University, Dr. Poplack said he was drawn to pediatrics because of the relationships he saw between the kids, the parents, and the health care team.

“I knew that a change in health in childhood could make for a lifelong change,” he said.

As a medical student, Dr. Poplack met the family of a child with leukemia and was struck by the intensity of the experience. It led him to a career in pediatric hematology oncology.

He completed his fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) shortly after the “War on Cancer” was declared. It was an exhilarating environment for learning.

“There was a lot of emphasis on cancer-related issues and the importance of teaching in the field of cancer,” Dr. Poplack said. “The profession of oncology evolved out of that time.”

Dr. Poplack recalled that, as a senior investigator at the NCI, he rounded for the first time with fellows and students.

“I knew it was important to treat students and fellows that way I had wanted to be treated when I was in their shoes,” he said. “I always took the time to not only talk about a particular subject matter but to guide them in terms of their career development.”

After 20 years at NCI, Dr. Poplack was recruited to develop the Cancer and Hematology Center at Texas Children’s Hospital. Under his guidance, it went from having seven faculty and 42 employees to 200 faculty and more than 1,100 employees.

“It was a tremendous building opportunity. The more experience I gained, the more ‘wisdom’ I felt I had to transmit to young people and the more successful I could be as a mentor,” he said.

During his career, Dr. Poplack has trained more than 200 fellows in pediatric hematology oncology. In addition, he has authored 370 original articles and book chapters and is a founding co-editor of Principles and Practice of Pediatric Oncology, the leading textbook of pediatric oncology.

In 2018, Dr. Poplack made the decision to pass the torch at Texas Children’s Hospital and start a new chapter of learning and teaching.

A New Chapter

For the third act of his career, Dr. Poplack has turned an eye to educating and mentoring those beyond the border of the United States through Global HOPE.

Launched in partnership with Baylor College of Medicine, Global HOPE is a program that works in sub-Saharan Africa to strengthen local health care infrastructure and build capacity to provide effective multidisciplinary care for children with cancer.

“In this country [the United States], children with cancer have about an 85% survival rate, and we see about 15,000 to 16,000 children with cancer per year,” Dr. Poplack said. “In sub-Saharan Africa, there are more than 100,000 children diagnosed with cancer each year and 90% of them die. That is a horrific inequity.”

Dr. Poplack has taken his love of teaching and is investing it to help train African physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals in how to care for children with cancer.

“When we started—and even now—many countries had no pediatric oncologist,” he said. “In the last six years, we have trained 26 pediatric oncologists and hundreds of nurses in multiple countries.”

The program is much more than its numbers. Dr. Poplack shared the story of a 6-year-old girl who was diagnosed with and treated for acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in Uganda, where one of Global HOPE’s first fellowship initiatives was started. Before the program, he said, AML was not treated there and children diagnosed with it died. Today, this 6-year-old girl has been cured of her disease.

“It is incredibly gratifying to be teaching these pioneers, who are making such an immediate impact in the field,” Dr. Poplack said. “The 26 people we have trained through Global HOPE are in charge of 12 centers in six different countries. We are mentoring them not only as clinicians but also we are teaching them to be effective leaders.”

Dr. Poplack acknowledged that this type of mentorship and teaching is challenging and much more comprehensive but also very exciting: “The rest of my career is going to be spent on meeting the challenge of Global HOPE.”

Read more about the 2023 Special Awards recipients.

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