What Can the ASH Trainee Council Do for You? Interview with Sherif M. Badawy, MD, MS, MBBCh

The American Society of Hematology created the ASH Trainee Council to advocate for the issues and concerns of hematology/oncology trainees, including mentorship, publishing, and funding. ASH Clinical News spoke with Sherif M. Badawy, MD, MS, MBBCh, the immediate past chair of the Council, for a look at how the Trainee Council is helping trainees meet today’s challenges. Dr. Badawy is instructor in the Department of Pediatrics and attending physician in the Division of Hematology, Oncology, and Stem Cell Transplant at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL.

Jennifer Saultz, DO, began her tenure as the ASH Trainee Council in July. Look for more with Dr. Saultz at the end of the article.

What are the biggest obstacles facing today’s trainees?

Funding, career-planning, finding a mentor … these are all critical – and challenging – components of starting a successful career in hematology/oncology. For trainees, I think the biggest obstacle is developing a personal vision. This can help trainees overcome other obstacles along the career path.

Outlining a complete vision for your career might seem like an overwhelming concept, but I believe we can start to think about where we are and where we want to be earlier in our careers. Some trainees get busy with their clinical work and don’t set aside the time to sketch out long-term goals until their research time has begun in their second year. Waiting until the second year of training can be late to start that process.

What advice do you give trainees as they sketch out long-term goals?

I would advise trainees to explore other areas of multidisciplinary research early in their careers. Focusing too narrowly on one area can close off other opportunities to learn, while collaborations can broaden your understanding of different research methods and offer new perspectives on your own research. This process may take more time, but that’s why it’s important to start early.

Again, think about what your goals are – both short- and long-term. Knowing what you want will also help you avoid getting “trapped” where you don’t want to be, in a sense. For instance, many trainees get engaged in a fellowship project that doesn’t fully interest them, but, because it was the best option at the time, they stick with it longer than they want to.

The fellowship project should be viewed as a vehicle for what comes next. Think about how what you learn now will help tell your story later. The project helps you collect data, get funded, [and] get a career development award later in your career, so use it wisely.

What should trainees look for in a mentor?

All training institutions have a formal mentorship program to provide trainees with guidance related to clinical work or research. I think trainees should have the courage to reach out to people for help or with questions. They may worry that the person is too busy and that asking for help would be a waste, but taking that extra step works.

A successful mentoring relationship isn’t a burden on the mentor; it’s a win-win situation. As a mentee, though, you should know what you want to get out of the relationship. Be prepared and organized and have an agenda before you interact with your mentor.

The mentoring relationship is different for everyone, but there are a few key elements that trainees should be looking for in a mentor. Importantly, it should be someone with a good track record of mentoring others, and who is known to be a supportive advocate of his or her mentees. Next, look for someone known to be productive, well-published, and well-funded with expertise in your area of interest. It’s also beneficial to have more than one mentor – within your institution or outside – who has expertise in the area that interests you.

Mentoring is a dynamic process. Mentees should be proactive and try to have regular meetings with their mentors. The misconception is that the mentor will just offer words of wisdom that mentees soak up. Also, being a finisher is key: If you said you would do something, do it.

What is not emphasized enough during training?

After patient care, publishing and securing funding should be our highest priorities.

Establishing that track record of publication is what will get you hired, promoted, and funded. You can start anywhere, with case reports or letters to the editor … anything to show that you are committed to your area of interest. Publishing needs to be an objective from the start of your career because, if you don’t consciously make time for it, it won’t happen. And the fact is, as you write more, your writing will improve and your research strategy will be more refined.

Trainees might not be thinking about funding so early in their career, but institutions have a number of opportunities for early-career hematologists/oncologists, such as pilot grants and seed grants available to young researchers. These funds can be enough to get a small project going, which can lead to larger projects and funding opportunities. Trainees should make an effort to find these opportunities at their institutions, as well as potential grant opportunities outside of their institutions. To help with this, the ASH Trainee Council maintains the Grants Clearinghouse (hematology.org/Fellows/Grants), a searchable, online database of more than 100 hematology grant opportunities, with information about the funding mechanism, the award amount, and the eligibility criteria.

What other resources does the Trainee Council provide to trainees?

The goal of the Trainee Council is to provide a forum to discuss issues related to training and career development and the representation of trainees’ needs to ASH leadership and other ASH committees. One of our main activities is planning trainee events at the ASH annual meeting, including Trainee Day. This day consists of didactic sessions focused on different topics related to trainee career development. We also try to include information from different scientific perspectives – from clinical research to translational research to basic science. Trainees’ feedback is always very important to us when planning the day’s program, as well.

Working with ASH and the Trainee Council has been an invaluable experience to learn, network, and grow personally and professionally. I would encourage all trainees to get more involved with ASH and support trainees by considering being a Trainee Council member. Good luck to everyone on his or her career path!

Dr. Saultz is a fellow in the Division of Hematology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, OH.

What should trainees focus on early in their careers?

The earlier you identify a mentor or mentors, the better. I cannot underestimate the importance of this. Make sure you have someone who knows what your career goals are and helps you get to where you want to be.

When looking for a mentor, take an outsider approach to determine how helpful he or she will be to get you to your goals.

Choosing someone just because of his or her personality is a common mistake that trainees and fellows make. Of course, we also need to recognize that it’s okay for our mentors to shift over time. Perhaps you had a great mentor at the beginning of your training, but then you decided to switch tracks; it’s okay to switch your mentors, as well.

That is not to say that what you learned from the first person wasn’t valuable, but, at the same time, having someone who can help you stick to 18 months of clinical work and 18 months of research, typically – is critical.

What areas aren’t being stressed enough in training programs?

Collaboration with peers and “co-fellows” is extremely important, but something that we aren’t focused on during training. We are so focused on writing papers or doing our own projects that we don’t branch out to other avenues of collaboration – with PhDs, with physicians in other fields, with trainees in other countries. Other fellows have great ideas on different projects, and I think we should be looking to our peers more than we do.