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A mentor is someone whose hindsight becomes your foresight

Heather Wakelee, MD

Heather Wakelee, MD

Alan Yatagai, photographer

In 2002, during the second year of a three-plus-year oncology fellowship at Stanford, Heather Wakelee, MD, decided to become a clinical investigator in lung cancer. But she knew she needed guidance.

"Lung cancer was an area with significant opportunity to do original research, particularly in new, more targeted therapies. I had many ideas and great enthusiasm for conducting clinical studies and building a lung cancer program. I’d regularly bring up these ideas at our weekly Developmental Therapeutics Program meeting but, admittedly, I lacked a clear research focus.”

Charlotte Jacobs, MD, recognized the fellow’s potential. The two began exchanging thoughts during and after the meetings and then regularly in Jacobs’s office.

"It was obvious from the start that Heather had a passion to improve outcomes for lung cancer patients,” Jacobs said. That drive, that passion portends for a successful academic career.”

Her mentor’s support was equally auspicious for Wakelee.

"Charlotte was – and still is – my sounding board,” Wakelee said.

Spotting people with promise

Jacobs says that one of her greatest pleasures as a faculty member is identifying junior people with promise and helping them until they’re ready to "fly” on their own. In academic medicine, "help” includes teaching the relatively inexperienced trainee to think originally and to design and implement research projects.

"Mentoring takes an enormous amount of energy, so you want to expend that energy on someone you predict will have a successful career,” Jacobs noted. "Heather displayed a talent for scientific inquiry and the intelligence and fortitude to take on any challenge.”

"Our relationship was successful because we’re similar in personality,” Jacobs continued. "We both know what we want in life, are passionate about our work and not reluctant to enter a new territory.”

Jacobs, the Drs. Ben and A. Jess Shenson Professor of Medicine, is a noted clinical investigator in a wide variety of cancers. She joined the Stanford faculty in 1977, was appointed the first director of the Stanford clinical cancer center and was instrumental in the design and development of the state-of-the-art building that has housed the clinical cancer center for the past five years. Jacobs also served for several years as Senior Associate Dean for Education and Student Affairs at the Stanford School of Medicine.

Longtime colleague Sarah Donaldson, MD, Catherine and Howard Avery Professor of Radiation Oncology and associate chair and director of the residency training program in the department of radiation oncology, considers Jacobs "the ultimate mentor and role model.”

"All female physician-scientists, young and old, strive to emulate Charlotte,” Donaldson said.

As a general oncologist, Jacobs had experience with and was comfortable treating lung cancer, so mentoring Wakelee wasn’t that far afield. She notes that neither of her early mentors in research was a medical oncologist, although both worked in the cancer field at Stanford.

The first was Don Goffinet, MD, emeritus professor of radiation oncology, and the second was Willard Fee, Jr, MD, former chief of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery. Jacobs considers Saul Rosenberg, MD, emeritus professor of medicine and former chief of oncology, who is world famous for his lymphoma research, her career mentor.

Jacobs knew from experience the many potential obstacles along the path to success in academic medicine. And Wakelee already had an idea of the challenges she faced.

"Everything seems clear-cut until the end of a fellowship, and everything seems clear-cut once you attain a faculty position. But that ‘gray zone’ in between is a very difficult time, and some people get discouraged and give up,” Wakelee said.

Networking is essential

Both women acknowledged that Wakelee needed mentoring in lung cancer. That required entrée to the major leaders in lung cancer research around the country.

"If Heather and I were in the same field, at meetings I’d make sure she was introduced to people,” Jacobs said.

Fortunately, there was a national leader in lung cancer not far away -- Dr. David Gandara at UC Davis, a national leader in lung cancer research. Gandara invited Wakelee to work part-time with him for several months.

"That provided the mentoring piece I couldn’t provide, because by then Heather knew more about lung cancer than I did,” Jacobs said.

Wakelee agrees that it is rare that one mentor can provide all a budding researcher requires.

"Charlotte is my primary mentor and the person who helped me see how to put everything together and provided my primary support. But because she wasn’t in the same field, I needed guidance from other people,” she said.

"I consider David Gandara a mentor, and Joan Schiller, another prominent lung cancer researcher active in our cooperative group. So is Stanford researcher Brandy [Branimir] Sikic, who is an expert on early – Phase I and II – clinical cancer studies,” Wakelee said.

With the same enthusiasm she exuded for building a lung cancer research program at the Stanford Cancer Center, Wakelee began to network at lung cancer meetings. Through those networks she formed many collaborations, which helped her establish multiple clinical trials for lung cancer patients and procure funds to run the trials.

A love of writing, a need for funding

Jacobs also helped Wakelee learn how to write more-effective scientific articles.

"I could see that Heather wasn’t only excited about conducting clinical trials but wanted to publish the studies. Publishing is paramount to success in academic medicine. Don Goffinet used to redline all of my papers. He taught me how to write. I focused on Heather’s writing, sometimes editing extensively, to help her learn the joy of writing,” Jacobs said.

Ultimately, Jacobs knew that Wakelee would need research funding.

"This wasn’t just a young physician who wanted only to be a faculty member – she wanted to develop a first-rate program, which is no small feat, even for a more experienced researcher,” Jacobs said.

"I was successful at garnering several generous financial gifts, making it clear to donors that the funds would be used to initiate a lung cancer research program,” Jacobs noted.

"One of those donors is Mrs. Peter Tan, the wife of a deceased lung cancer patient. We credit Mrs. Tan with starting the program at Stanford. John Elway also started a fund for lung cancer research that helped catalyze the program,” Jacobs said.

Breathe California, an advocacy group that promotes lung health, has provided ongoing support for Wakelee’s research for the past three years.

Stand back and let them shine

Bit by bit, with Jacobs’s support, Wakelee mastered the steps required to become a faculty member. She is now seen as one of the leading young lung cancer experts nationally. And, according to her mentor, Wakelee is already assuming the mentor’s role with other trainees in lung cancer.

One of the most positive results of this mentoring experience, both women agree, is their relationship.

"I am no longer Heather’s mentor,” Jacobs said. "We are peers. We are colleagues. We are friends.”

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