Pulling Back the Curtain: Glaivy Batsuli, MD

Glaivy Batsuli, MD
Assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine and pediatric hematologist at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

In this edition, Glaivy Batsuli, MD, talks about coming to research “late” and the mentor who taught her to think like a scientist.


 

Where did you grow up, and what was your childhood like?

My family is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but we immigrated to the U.S., by way of Belgium, when I was about 1 year old. I don’t remember being in Belgium, but, because DRC was once a Belgian colony, many Congolese people immigrated there.

Although we settled in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I spent most of my childhood there, our home was very much a Congolese household. I spent a lot of time playing outside and coming up with games with my brothers, our cousins who lived nearby, and neighborhood kids from all different cultural backgrounds. Growing up, I loved making things, crafting, and working with my hands.

Dr. Batsuli (fifth from right) on vacation in in Ocean Isle, North Carolina, with her family, several of whom are wearing items sewn by her.

What did your parents do for work?

Although my dad was interested in studying law, and even attended law school for a period in Belgium, he and my mom worked regular, middle-class jobs in the pursuit of a better life for our family in the U.S. My dad was a manager at a grocery store and my mom worked as a medical assistant at a geriatric family medicine practice. Besides my own pediatrician, no one I knew growing up was a physician or in the medical field.

When did you decide to pursue a career in medicine?

Around age 6, I declared, “I’m going to be a doctor.” My aunt still talks about it to this day. I’m not sure where the idea came from, but I never considered other potential career avenues. At the time, adults gave me the typical responses like, “Oh, that’s great,” but I don’t think they realized how serious I was until I graduated high school and was still saying it!

What drew you to hematology, and pediatric hematology specifically?

Hematology was not something I was aware of early on, but looking back, I was exposed to hematology at many different points in my life. The first time I heard about any bleeding disorder was in middle school, while writing a report on Queen Victoria and learning about a bleeding condition that ran in the royal family. It was nicknamed the “royal disease,” but it ultimately turned out to be hemophilia B.

I had another unexpected exposure to hematology as an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where I majored in nutrition in the School of Public Health. The nutrition program had two tracks – one was a clinically focused track for students interested in becoming registered dieticians and a research track for students who were pursuing medical or other health professional careers. This was my first exposure to clinical-based research. For my thesis, I conducted a research project looking at maternal iron status and its effect on preterm birth using a North Carolina pregnancy outcome database.

I had my first practical exposure to bleeding and clotting while in medical school at the University of Pittsburgh. In my fourth year, as I was preparing to go into residency, I took a blood coagulation course organized by Franklin A. Bontempo, MD, and Joseph E. Kiss, MD. It was a small course of maybe five students. This was before electronic medical records, so every week our small group would go to the coagulation lab and pull patient data. We would sit at a huge table and discuss what the lab values meant in the context of patients’ clinical history. Discussing patients with coagulation issues, reviewing labs, and trying to figure out the underlying issues is what really drew me to hematology – it was like looking at puzzle pieces in front of you and trying to fit the pieces together to complete the picture.

During my pediatric residency at Emory University, I spent a week on rotation at a camp for children with bleeding disorders in Georgia called Camp Wannaklot. I gained real-life exposure to what it meant for a child to live with a bleeding disorder outside of clinic. I also worked alongside and learned so much from pediatric hematologists who specialized in hemophilia, von Willebrand disease, rare bleeding disorders, and other disorders, including Amy Dunn, MD, at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Shannon L. Meeks, MD, at Emory University, and our nurse practitioner at that time, Robin L. Chapman, MSN.

For pediatric hematology and oncology fellowships, the first year of fellowship is all clinical, while the second and third years are fully devoted to research. Early on, I never thought I would pursue a career in research. Some of my close friends from medical school were MD/PhD students, and I saw their experiences and thought, “I don’t think I could do that.” But, as part of my pediatric fellowship training, I decided to give basic science research a try and worked on a project studying the role of the C1 domain of factor VIII in inhibitor formation in hemophilia A. On the wards, in clinic, and at camp, I saw the difference in quality of life between patients with hemophilia A with and without inhibitors and wanted to understand why – why we can’t eliminate inhibitors, what more can we learn about them that we don’t already know, and how can we address the effects they have on patients’ lives? That project has been building continuously ever since.

When did you change your mind about pursuing a research career?

Emory University is home to a strong team of researchers in hemostasis and thrombosis. As I was exploring options of potential labs to join with an interest in coagulation, my fellowship director, Michael Briones, DO, told me, “You need to work with Pete Lollar.” After meeting with John S. “Pete” Lollar, MD, I decided to go into the lab, with the initial thought that I would do my two years, gain a foundation in basic research, and then get out and go into clinical practice.

There, I worked with two senior technicians who had 30-plus years of experience in the lab with factor VIII. They taught me the fundamentals of basic science research, from learning how to pipette to tissue culture to different biochemical assays. It was hands-on work, which I loved. As I gathered data, I started having some success in the lab. There were challenges as well, but I pushed through, connecting the clinical aspects to what I was doing in the lab and using the results to form new questions.

From there, I completed my two years of fellowship, staying on in the lab for another year as a post-doc. At the end of my fellowship, I applied for grants and wrote my first paper. To my surprise, that paper was accepted to Blood. From there, my research continued to build on itself and my interest only grew.

Did you have a mentor who guided you down that career path?

Dr. Lollar was a role model whose mentorship helped me think like a scientist and to believe that I am a scientist. Like me, he was an MD without a PhD, but he built an accomplished research career with decades of NIH funding and translational discoveries. He taught me that good science requires due diligence and the perseverance to get past challenges.

Dr. Lollar taught me that a rejection doesn’t mean the end of your career – it’s just a temporary “no.” Also, rejection can open other opportunities. So, acknowledge that it never feels good, then come back and ask yourself, “What can I do better next time? What comments can I address? How can I improve?”

What advice would you give to young researchers?

I still consider myself young in the field! But my biggest piece of advice would be that there’s no one path to a career in research. Even if you start “late,” like I did, without any lab research until fellowship, you can still be successful and develop the skills necessary to be a good scientist.

Also, as Dr. Lollar taught me, science requires persistence. If you are lukewarm about your work, you won’t have the drive to keep going amid the rejection: the paper rejections, the grant rejections, the failed experiments, and all of the other challenges of conducting research.

Passion is what keeps you going in the face of those challenges and difficulties.

What do you see as your greatest career accomplishment so far?

So far, securing NIH grant funding – especially the K99 grant, which is typically given to people with a PhD background – has been a big deal for me. It felt like validation after a few disappointments and rejections that I was a “real” scientist and my work matters, despite coming “late” to research.

However, my greatest accomplishments are the ones that will have a lasting legacy and impact on others. Now I am in a phase where I’m mentoring other people, so motivating trainees and seeing them start to develop their clinical and research interests in bleeding disorders has been amazing. I’m working with an undergraduate student in the lab now, and I’ve enjoyed watching her get her first grant and develop her understanding and interest in hematology and bleeding disorders. When she becomes a physician or professor, I hope she will influence other budding hematologists and researchers and continue that mentorship cycle. I believe this is particularly important for women in science and research.

What do you enjoy doing in your life outside of medicine?

I’m very active in my church. My faith is a big part of who I am, how I move in the world, and how I see things. Because I can’t get enough of kids at work, I volunteer in the children’s church as well, teaching elementary-aged kids.

I am also very close to my family and spend as much time as possible with them. My parents divorced when I was young, so I have a total of six siblings now, and six nieces and nephews. I’m enjoying watching them grow up, as they start to think about what they want to do when they’re older. With COVID-19, spending time together has been challenging, but thankfully we’ve recently been able to visit at our usual vacation spot in Ocean Isle, North Carolina. It was wonderful to finally be able to all come together again. Because of the pandemic, I cherish my time with my family, friends, and loved ones even more.

Dr. Batsuli (second from right) celebrating the holidays with her family.

I still love crafting and working with my hands and during the lockdown, I took a virtual class on reading patterns for clothes and making basic adjustments. With the help of YouTube and Instagram, I’m now sewing clothes for myself and friends. I’ve been learning about different fabrics, garment construction, and measurements. It turns out that sizes for store-bought clothes are completely made up! I love making clothes that actually fit me and that I feel confident wearing. The only downside is that now I have all this fabric in my house, with 50 projects I want to do, but not enough time.

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?

People might be surprised to learn that English is not my first language because I don’t have an accent. Even though my family immigrated to the U.S. when I was younger, we never spoke English at home. My parents speak Lingala, the Congolese primary dialect, and we all speak French, the DRC’s national language. I didn’t learn English until I started kindergarten and was immersed in the language.