Pulling Back the Curtain: Beverly S. Mitchell, MD

Beverly S. Mitchell, MD
Director of the Stanford Cancer Institute


When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in medicine?

As early as I can remember, I knew I wanted to be a doctor. My father was a physician, so I have been around medicine my entire life, really. He was very much someone I wanted to emulate. As a kid, I would go to the hospital with him – he was a gynecologic oncologist – and wait in his office while he did his rounds. The whole idea of medicine was very exciting to me. The first “real” job I ever had was in my career path – when I finished medical school, I was a resident and assistant professor.

Is it worth asking if there is another career you could ever see yourself in?

Not really! Well, I remember back in seventh grade, we were asked to make a list of possible career choices. I was really fishing for something, but I ended up with choices like “X-ray technician” – all were medicine-related. So, I truly did not see myself taking any other path.

Along with your father, who else played a role in shaping your career?

Two people had a major impact on my career – John W. Adamson, MD, and William Kelley, MD. Initially, my desire was to be a physician, and, basically, take care of patients. But both of these mentors helped me to see the value of research in medicine.

Dr. Adamson was a hematologist at the University of Washington when I was a resident in the early 1970s. Overall, this was a fantastic place for hematology at that time; his excitement about research was contagious and drew me into the laboratory. This was an environment that fostered research and tackling complicated questions. Everybody was asking questions and teaching over the microscope. This was also a time when blood diseases were beginning to be better understood at a molecular level, so it was pretty exciting.

During my fellowship at the University of Michigan, Dr. Kelley was the chairman of medicine and was also very committed to research and academic medicine. I would say those two were the most instrumental in deciding to make research such a large component of my career – becoming more of an “academic clinician” than a strict clinician.

Was there any particular piece of advice that you heard during your career that you would like to pass on to hematologists and oncologist just getting started in their careers?

The major thing, especially in this era, is to be persistent. It is important to do what you love, but you might not always love what you are doing at that moment. There are a lot of disappointments awaiting you, so being persistent and keeping that goal in mind is the best advice I can give anyone.

Of course I have experienced disappointments and rejections – a paper was rejected or a grant wasn’t funded – but you have to take it as it comes.

On the other side, what accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?

One of the most rewarding aspects of my career has been recruiting young hematologists and oncologists at the beginnings of their careers – first while I was chief of hematology/oncology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and now at Stanford, albeit a little more indirectly. Getting the opportunity to watch those young people’s careers develop is wonderfully satisfying.

When you were recruiting young doctors, what specific qualities did you look for in a candidate?

I’m a firm believer in physician-scientists, so I always look for people who are equally excited about the clinical side of medicine as they are about research – whether that was clinical research or more basic laboratory-oriented research.

The combination of a passion for caring for patients and pursuing research interests was the main quality I looked for. Also, when I was interviewing candidates, I tended to ask questions to gauge their interest and their passion – rather than just working through what’s on their CV. Talking with someone gives you a much better sense of the person than reading a CV.

Speaking of interviews, have you ever been in a truly strange interview – either on the receiving end or as an interviewer?

I can remember one interview question I was asked that actually left me speechless. It wasn’t for a position, but was a TV interview about cancer research with a local station in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The interviewer asked me, “Do you really care about curing cancer? Clearly, if you were successful and found a cure, you would be out of a job.” From his perspective, being a cancer researcher was a conflict of interest.

I never heard that idea before, and I had no idea how to respond! That was a very peculiar – and rather simplistic – way of thinking about helping patients with cancer and cancer research.

What lessons have you learned from your work life?

I know that I have been incredibly fortunate, but I also think one should not look at the potential barriers and restrictions in a career as impossible to overcome. As with the disappointments and rejections, there will likely be obstacles to doing what you want to do, but you can’t let that stop you from even trying.

Maybe you don’t think you have enough time or enough bandwidth to, for instance, have a family and a job. What you want to do might be very difficult, but I think it is a mistake to start restricting yourself and what you want to do as a result.

Thinking back through my career, I always had a feeling that one could make things work if one tried. I don’t want to be dismissive of the problems that other people face, because some problems may be insurmountable.. But you should never rule something out because you think circumstances won’t allow you to do it.

Changing your thinking – from a negative to a positive outlook – makes many things feasible. That’s the main lesson I have learned.

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

Talking with young scientists – people in the late stages of their training, young faculty, and those just getting started in their careers – about their interests and their projects is the highlights of my day.

Dealing with bureaucracies is definitely the thorn, and I’m sure it’s the same for many others in my field. The frustration comes from administration telling me I can or cannot do something, but not giving me a legitimate reason. When dealing with bureaucracy, it’s never much of a fight; they don’t give you the chance to argue your position! The problem with bureaucracies is that there is frequently no recourse and logic does not work.

If I could get rid of those bureaucratic hassles, life would be great.

What do you do outside of work?

I love to read – biographies and history, in particular. I’m currently working through a new biography about Marie Curie. I also try to exercise every day – walking or going to the gym. I also really love traveling to interesting places and talking with people about their country.
I used to enjoy hiking and skiing, but I don’t do much of either anymore.

Was skiing a big part of your childhood?

I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, but New England wasn’t that great for skiing.

However, I later spent some time in Seattle and Zurich following my residency – both of which were terrific for hiking and skiing.

What brought you to Switzerland?

I was in Zurich for two years performing research. It was actually the result of a compromise with my husband. Personally, I had always wanted to go to Africa to practice medicine in an underdeveloped country and care for people who may not have access to care. My husband is a cell biologist and wasn’t too thrilled with that idea. So, we reached a compromise with Switzerland – it worked out nicely.

Is there a skill that you would like to add to your repertoire?

I would like to be able to understand music better than I do. I listen to music. I love classical music. But I have to say, my ability to truly understand it is somewhat limited. I did take piano for eight years when I was growing up – not always with great enthusiasm – but it was learning by rote, I’m afraid.

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

I love doing things that are somewhat adventurous. Both of my children are ecologists, one working in Africa and the other in Central and South America. I am looking forward to traveling with them along the Amazon as the next big adventure.

What superpower would you have and why?

The ability to stop time sounds really appealing.

If there were a movie being made about your life, who would you cast in the lead role?

Helen Mirren – I would not be disappointed with that decision at all.