Pulling Back the Curtain: Linda J. Burns, MD

Linda J. Burns, MD
National Marrow Donor Program/Be The Match Donor Medical Services and the Medical Director at Health Services Research and the Senior Scientific Director at the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and president of the American Society of Hematology

What was your first job?

I grew up on a working farm in northern Missouri, so really, my first job was doing chores. My siblings and I were the first ones on the school bus in the morning and the last ones off in the evening, and we did chores before and after school. In the summertime I raked hay. Education was stressed in our household. My parents, farm kids themselves who didn’t have the advantage of an advanced education, were adamant about their children going to college.

How did you find yourself in hematology? Was there any other career you could see yourself in?

Growing up, I loved science and math. I majored in biology at the University of Missouri-Columbia and during that time, a good friend decided to study medical technology. That sounded like a good career, so I completed an extra six months for a medical technology degree. When rotating through the clinical laboratories, I became fascinated by hematology, and, following graduation, accepted a position in the clinical hematology laboratory at the University of Missouri Medical Center. Students and hematologists frequently came to the laboratory to review blood smears, and when hearing them discuss their clinical cases I thought, “I could be one of them.” I became determined to become a hematologist, and was lucky enough to be accepted into medical school. I can’t really think of any other career that I could see myself in — I actually applied to medical school to become a hematologist.

After medical school, I completed my residency, chief residency, and fellowship at the University of Iowa. While I was an intern on the hematology service we had a patient with Hodgkin lymphoma who required a platelet transfusion. In that era, it was not routine to irradiate blood products for immune-deficient patients, and unfortunately, she succumbed to transfusion-associated graft-versus-host disease. I was fascinated by the pathophysiology underlying this case, which became my initial first author publication.

Hooked, I asked to rotate on the bone marrow transplantation service. I had to ask for two years, as residents were not allowed on the service due to its seeming complexity. However, in my last month as a resident, I was allowed on the service, and from that month onward my goal was to become a transplanter.

Was there anyone who acted as a mentor in your career in hematology?

I’ve had wonderful mentors over many years. Michael Perry, MD, a hematologist at the University of Missouri, encouraged me to apply to medical school and remained a lifelong friend and colleague. At Iowa, Craig Howe, MD, and Gordon Ginder, MD, were tremendous mentors in clinical transplantation and research. In 1992, I moved to the University of Minnesota where numerous colleagues have been mentors. James George, MD, helped me envision myself as a future leader in the American Society of Hematology and has been a wonderful mentor and supporter of my career.

What accomplishment in your career are you most proud of?

I haven’t made any major scientific discoveries, but I’m pleased with the contributions I have been able to make to the field of hematology. At the end of the day, I’m most proud to have been a mentor to others. I’m also very honored to be the President of the American Society of Hematology.

In a typical day what is your rose and what is your thorn?

It always comes back to patients for me. The “thorn” is when I have to tell a patient bad news; it hasn’t gotten any easier over time, and I don’t think it will ever get any easier. My “rose” is when I see a patient several years post-transplant who is thriving. There is nothing better than receiving news about my patients’ graduations, weddings, or “giving back” by raising funds for research.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received? Do you have any advice for early-career hematologists and oncologists?

Follow your heart and do what you love. There will be times when, for various reasons, you may need to perform other tasks or serve in other roles to help out your division or colleagues. But, remember to always focus on doing what you enjoy. If you’re not happy going to work each day to do the type of research you’re doing or caring for patients with the types of diseases you’re seeing in clinic, then your career will not be satisfying.

When you interview someone for a job, what question do you ask that gives you the most insight into the candidate, and why?

Usually all candidates have a long-term goal — “I want to become the best researcher or clinician I can be,” “I want to make advances in this area” — but I also like to know what they wish to accomplish in the next year, in the next two to three years. Which goals have a high likelihood of being reached; which goals are riskier? A well-developed short-term, as well as long-term, career plan signifies to me that they are more likely to succeed.

How do you keep a healthy work/life balance? What makes maintaining that balance difficult?

This has definitely been a struggle throughout the years! My wonderfully supportive husband, David, is a nephrologist, and we laughingly tell each other that there’s a decade we really don’t remember when each day we just put one foot in front of the other. We raised two sons without any family in the area, so we primarily relied on before- and after-school care programs and good friends.

Many times we feel we have to do everything for everybody all the time, but I suggest that you do the things that are most important to you and your loved ones and let go of the rest. Here’s a personal example: I always thought I had to make the birthday cakes for our sons, so I would come home the night after being on-call and start making that birthday cake even though I was exhausted. Finally, one year I bought a cake from the local bakery, and my son didn’t care at all whether or not I had baked the cake. Lesson learned.

Along the way I’ve developed another trick: I keep a list at work of those tasks I’m currently doing that I enjoy, those that I may not enjoy that much but are important to my career, and those I’m currently doing that I don’t enjoy or are not adding to my career. Every few months I review the list and work towards transitioning to only the tasks that I enjoy doing or are important to do.

How do you spend your time outside of work?

When I get home in the evening I call the dogs and we go out to “check the crops,” which is something I always did with my dad growing up. Unfortunately, living in an urban area we don’t have a farm, but we have six acres. Most of the property we’ve devoted to growing native prairie, woodland, and lakeshore plants.

In addition to sports, hiking and reading for pleasure, I’m also a seamstress, which dates back to my 4-H club training as a kid. I used to design and make all my clothes, but now I sew for our home and last year taught myself how to upholster furniture. My first semester in college I wondered if there was anything other than science I should explore and signed up for a class in fashion design. However, after enduring an entire hour discussing fabric draping, I ran back to science. I think it all worked out well, though!