How I Became an Assistant Professor of Medicine, a Thoracic Medical Oncologist, and an Active ASCO Volunteer

Mar 02, 2022

Jennifer W. Carlisle, MD, is an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University and the Winship Cancer Institute, where she specializes in thoracic medical oncology. This is her first medical oncology faculty position after completing her hematology and medical oncology fellowship at Emory University in summer 2019. Prior to her fellowship, she served for 2 years as an internal medicine faculty member in the Hospital Medicine Division at Washington University in St. Louis and at Emory University. Dr. Carlisle is a member of the ASCO Trainee and Early Career Advisory Group. Follow her on Twitter @JennyCarlisleMD. Disclosure.

How did you initially choose your current career path? Were there any unexpected detours along the way?

JC: To be honest, I was initially intimidated by the volume of information I would need to learn in hematology and medical oncology training. I chose to focus on a solid internal medicine foundation during my residency until I rotated in outpatient oncology clinic late in my third year of training. I saw how fulfilling the role of the oncologist as a guide could be, caring for patients through a very scary and stressful part of their life, whether treatment was of curative or palliative intent. I hoped that by staying in academic medicine I would be able to excel in a narrower subspecialty. During my time off as a hospitalist I worked on a retrospective myeloma study, which I discussed during the fellowship application process.

As a first-year fellow, I initially thought I would specialize in hematologic malignancies. My first continuity clinic was in lung cancer clinic right after the approval for PD-1 blockade in relapsed non-small cell lung cancer and I saw some amazing and durable responses firsthand. I then had the opportunity to dedicate research time to a translational flow cytometry project in the lab of Haydn T. Kissick, PhD, which exceeded my high expectations. After rotating through clinics with Suresh S. Ramalingam, MD, FACP, FASCO, and Taofeek K. Owonikoko, MD, PhD, where I could see master oncologists in action and experience how important clinical trials were to patients, I knew I had found my full life’s work.

I was and still am fortunate to work with my mentor Dr. Ramalingam. With his guidance, I honed a trial idea that I worked on at the AACR/ASCO Methods in Clinical Cancer Research Workshop in Vail. This was a transformative experience, with incredible small-group leaders who devoted their time and expertise to optimize our trial ideas. I keep in touch with my small group who are now junior faculty specializing in thoracic oncology across the country, and I know our patients are better for the collaboration we share.

Describe your typical work week.

JC: My week varies, with a couple of days devoted to academics and the remainder to outpatient clinic, unless I am the attending on our inpatient oncology primary or consult services. I also rotate as doctor of the day in our phase I unit, overseeing patients with solid tumors on early-phase clinical trials. My academic time is spent writing clinical trial protocols, working with our immunology collaborators on correlative projects, reviewing manuscripts, and preparing educational talks or articles. I often choose to complete some of this academic work at home on weekends, to carve out a block of time to think critically.

If you have to pick one aspect, what part of your job is your favorite? What part is the most challenging or frustrating?

JC: I find direct patient care most rewarding and am fortunate to get to know my patients well. System-level challenges are the most frustrating—including specific documentation needed for billing purposes and prior authorizations/insurance issues—as they take valuable time away from patient care and research.

What do you wish you had known before you chose your career path?

JC: I wish I had known how important communication, both written and verbal, is to academic medicine. I loved science classes, but as diagnostic and treatment decisions become relatively easier with experience, effective and efficient communication becomes the challenge. In the field of thoracic medical oncology, we are blessed with rapid clinical advances that need to be discussed with patients and families as well as scientists and clinical collaborators. I wish I had time to devote to a scientific writing class.

How has your volunteer experience with ASCO influenced your career growth?

JC: Volunteering with the Trainee and Early Career Advisory Group has shown me how a large and influential organization gets amazing things done with small groups of hardworking people. It is really motiving to see other fellows and junior faculty brainstorm ideas that will support the rising generation of oncologists and scientists. I am seeing now how connections with colleagues around the country help with cooperative group and multi-institution trials, and this group helps start making those connections.

I hope that as my skills grow, I can volunteer on other ASCO committees.

Can you tell us a little bit about the composition of the Trainee and Early Career Advisory Group, and some of the work it undertakes?

JC: The ASCO Trainee and Early Career Advisory Group is composed of trainees during their oncology subspecialty education or practicing physicians within 3 years of initial appointment. The group works to foster the professional development and mentoring needs of medical students, residents, fellows, and junior faculty by supporting student interest groups, hosting an annual abstract forum, and developing sessions for trainees at the ASCO Annual Meeting, along with any additional projects developed throughout the year.

Why would you recommend this career, and getting involved with ASCO, to someone starting out in oncology?

JC: I love my job and feel like I get the best of all the worlds: directly caring for patients, advancing clinical trials, collaborating on detailed immunologic correlative studies, and teaching medical students, residents, and fellows about all of the above. This variety allows flexibility and enables me to work on short- and long-term projects. Academic medical oncology and ASCO go hand in hand. Working with a renowned and highly productive international organization is opening doors for me to witness and contribute to a rapidly changing field. Clearly I am a little biased, but I feel especially fortunate to work in thoracic oncology where we had at least eight U.S. Food and Drug Administration approvals in 2020—during a global pandemic, no less.

What kind of person thrives in this professional environment?

JC: I try to emulate my mentors, honing my dedication and drive to make an impact. For patient care issues, sometimes oncologists need to be a little bit relentless—by advocating for a patient who needs diagnostic testing, getting approval for inpatient treatment, or facilitating clinical trial enrollment. Academic medical oncologists must also love working on a team—we rely on our clinical trial coordinators, nurses, advance practice providers, and scientist collaborators to design, run, and report clinical trials and translational studies. Success for me also means cultivating a keen interest in understanding the immune system and learning how we can capitalize on our bodies’ own defenses to improve cancer therapy.

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