Pulling Back the Curtain: Charles S. Abrams, MD

Professor of medicine, pathology, and laboratory medicine; vice chair for research; and chief scientific officer of the Department of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania; director of the Blood Center for Patient Care & Discovery at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; 2016 president of the American Society of Hematology

What was your first job?

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Almost all my childhood was spent there – except for a brief period of time when we moved to Berkeley, California, for my father’s work.

When I was 13 years old, I spent the summer mowing lawns. I slaved for the entire summer, saved my money, and used it to buy a bicycle. Then, about two months later, it was stolen. It was fun for the two months it lasted!

My first job in medicine was during high school; as part of a work-study program, I worked in a clinical pathology department at one of the local hospitals. I don’t remember how I got that job, but I must have called up the lab and asked if they had something for me to do. I worked on a sort of wax-embedding assembly line and my main responsibility was embedding tissue in paraffin wax. It was a great job that gave me a little bit of exposure to medicine and set the stage for the rest of my life.

Did you consider any other professions?

I think I first wanted to be a professional hockey player, but reality set in pretty quickly. For a while, I wanted to become a veterinarian because of my love for animals.

Were your parents involved in science or medicine?

I was the first in my family to work in health care. My father was a nuclear engineer. He was part of a team of people who helped design the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was an early nuclear submarine. Later, he was involved with quality assurance for nuclear reactors. My mother was a medical writer and worked on a variety of projects – from being the editor of a medical school’s paper to writing for popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Harper’s Bazaar.

When did you decide you wanted to focus on hematology?

By the time I entered medical school, I knew I wanted to pursue internal medicine; by a lottery process, the school assigned my subinternship rotation to a leukemia floor. While there, I ended up working with Joe Bertino, MD. He was a fabulous attending and a larger-than-life figure. We often thought of him as “Papa Joe,” and he was kind enough to prep us for the next day’s rounds. He would say, “Here is some medical literature pertaining to your patients’ conditions. So, tomorrow, you ask me a question, and I’ll answer citing this particular article. Then, the next day, I’ll ask you a question, and you’ll answer me by citing this other article. This is how academia works!” He was a very charming and charismatic guy, and working with him whetted my appetite for hematology.

When I was a resident, I worked with Sanford J. Shattil, MD, when he was the newly appointed chief of the Division of Hematology/Oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. At the time, I was doing a month on the hematology consult service to make sure that I really wanted to specialize in this field. I enjoyed hematology in medical school, but I wanted to gain a better perspective. Working with Dr. Shattil was transformative, and he had a tremendous influence in steering me into hematology by showing me what a gratifying career hematology is.

I have had plenty of mentors both then and now – many of whom are close colleagues and friends: Joel Bennett, MD; Lawrence (Skip) Brass, MD, PhD; Sriram Krishnaswamy, PhD; Mark Kahn, MD; Rodney Camire, PhD; Valder Arruda, MD; Morty Poncz, MD, and others. I see us as a team; we help each other, critique each other, and are always there for each other. We’re all better than we would be individually. Mentorship doesn’t stop at a certain point in your career. Having people whom you can go to and who you can trust to give you solid, honest advice is incredibly important throughout your entire career.

What advice do you pass on to early-career hematologists and oncologists?

Don’t be afraid of criticism from your friends and colleagues; it can be constructive. The natural reaction is to recoil from it or get defensive, but I think it’s better to hear a problem from your friends and colleagues than from others. The trick is to be sure to listen to it.

A few years ago, I was at an event with James George, MD, and he gave me a piece of advice that stayed with me. He asked me how old I was – which is a little unusual at my age. I told him, he considered the answer, and he said, “Well, you probably need to reinvent yourself a couple more times over the years.” He probably doesn’t even remember saying this to me, but it resonated with me and has proved to be very sage advice: You shouldn’t be scared to continue to reinvent yourself from time to time.

The field of hematology is always changing, so it necessitates some “reinvention.”

One change that I don’t care for is that I don’t see as many young people getting involved in basic hematology research anymore. On the plus side, I think translational and clinical research have never been more robust. However, the fundamental research on blood disorders is less popular.

I think that hematologists are not going into basic research as much as before because they are worried about funding, particularly from the National Institutes of Health. Because of that worry about dwindling funding, the typical laboratory hematologist looks grayer and grayer each year. This older group of hematologists will need to be replaced by younger investigators. So, in my opinion, there has never been a better time to enter the field of laboratory research.

What lessons has your work life taught you?

It goes back to Dr. George’s comment, that you shouldn’t be afraid of reinventing yourself. There’s no doubt that staying focused is the safe path to success in academia; in fact, the way you get ahead in academia is by narrowing your focus until you become an authority in a very specific field. But throughout my career, I have been reminded of the importance of keeping an eye on the big picture and not being afraid to take chances. It’s something I have to keep reminding myself of, as well. Venturing outside of your comfort zone opens up a whole new world. It’s true that the fastest way to make a name for yourself is to become a guru in one specific field, and that certainly has value, but thinking on a broader level is important, too.

Dr. Abrams with his wife Elisha and their dog in Central Park.
Dr. Abrams with his wife Elisha and their dog in Central Park.

What accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?

The accomplishment I am most proud of is one that I couldn’t have done alone: developing and serving as director of the Penn–CHOP Blood Center for Patient Care & Discovery at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. This is one of the few blood centers in the United States that provides a full spectrum of care for non-malignant hematologic disorders. It encompasses adult and pediatric hematology, and there are three major elements: a laboratory, a clinical component, and translational research. The collaboration between our two institutions means that we have become a much stronger, collective program.

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

My wife, Elisha, is my rose. I’m not sure if I can think of a thorn! I have a charmed life.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

My wife is an attorney. We are both big theater buffs, so we like to attend a lot of shows – particularly offbeat, small theater.

I still love animals. We have a Bedlington Terrier named Jasper.

I grow orchids, and until we moved about a year ago, I kept saltwater fish and corals. But, when we moved, the tanks didn’t. I started keeping fish when Elisha gave me a small fish tank as a birthday present some years ago. Then one fish tank became two, the tanks started getting larger, and the fish started getting larger. Like all hobbies, it eventually became an addiction.

About 20 years ago, we also had an African pygmy hedgehog named Pliny. He was a sweet little guy – about twice the size of my fist. Eventually, we gave him to a retired schoolteacher who would go around to classrooms and Boy Scout troops entertaining them with his menagerie of small animals.

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to know?

I’m 6’6”, but I hide it very well.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I would love to have the ability to cure blood diseases with a single glance.

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