Pulling Back the Curtain: Stephanie Lee, MD, MPH

Stephanie Lee, MD, MPH
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington

What was your first job?

I was a babysitter when I was younger, like everybody probably was. In elementary school, though, I picked blueberries for a summer – that was very good for character building.

Later, I worked in a law library and as a phlebotomist when I took a year off between undergraduate and medical school. Phlebotomy showed me an interesting cross-section of medicine; we would go to the hospital and deal with patients in all different circumstances – from babies to surgical patients to outpatients and intensive care unit patients. These experiences solidified my interest in medicine.

Is there any career you could see yourself in other than hematology?

During one of my medical school interviews, someone actually asked me what I would do if I didn’t get into medical school, and I hadn’t even thought of that as a possibility. I was so certain that medicine was for me. It may have sounded arrogant, but I was actually quite flustered when he asked me that question – I hadn’t ever considered that I wouldn’t be able to do what I really wanted to do.

I have many interests, so if someone told me I couldn’t be a physician, there are many fields I could see myself in – not necessarily science, either. I actually have a better idea of the careers I definitely wouldn’t want to be in: politics or entertainment. I would not be good at those.

Thinking back on your career, is there any piece of advice you received that has stuck with you?

I’ve received so much insightful advice from so many different people, but early on, my parents gave me the two most helpful pieces of advice. My father’s motto was, “Always compare yourself with the best.” He meant you should always strive to be the best that you can be. You won’t always make it there, but that should be your goal. My mother told me, “You should always be kind.” If you can help, help. Try not to be selfish about your time or your resources.

These are core values that I try to bring to my work and my life. Whatever I’m doing – giving a talk or writing a grant or helping someone with their clinical trial – I try to do my best. But, as my mother impressed on me, I also try to realize that what is important in life is often what you can do for other people.

Is there any advice you would pass on to those just getting started in their careers?

The most important thing is to understand yourself and what you are passionate about – at each step of the way. Having a long-term goal is important, but you should also be thinking about how you will get there. The career pathway is very long, so you need to make sure that you actually enjoy what you are doing now. It’s important to be able to delay gratification and slog through when you have to, but if you find yourself doing too many things that are not meaningful to you, then maybe you should be looking elsewhere.

When you’re in the position of interviewing someone for a position, what questions will you ask to get better insight into the candidate?

I like to ask people about their goals, but also about how they would handle potential barriers they might confront when trying to achieve those goals. If someone has a solid idea of where they want to end up, I want to know what obstacles they foresee – either in themselves or in their environment. This helps me figure out if candidates have insight into their own strengths and weaknesses, and if they have analyzed their own situations. I find that these types of questions can be very helpful in determining how much they have thought about their priorities and goals, and if they really understand their own motivations.

Interviews in general can be strange, and it’s not necessarily an accurate representation of who someone really is. I’m not a fan of people asking questions that are deliberately intended to shake someone off balance, just to see how they react. For example, a colleague of mine was once asked, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” How do you even answer that question? I guess that’s a meaningful way of evaluating a candidate in some respects, but that’s not how I want to start off an interaction with someone.

Are there any mentors or teachers who had a big impact on you as a leader?

I had two wonderful mentors when I was a fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: Jane Weeks, MD, MSc, who was my research mentor, but unfortunately passed away recently, and Joseph Antin, MD, a transplanter who was my clinical mentor. I think of them as my “Mom and Dad in medicine.” They were nurturing, were always available to help, and gave great critical advice, particularly when it felt like things were completely falling apart. These two people were important in setting my career off on the right path.

Having core mentors like I had in Jane and Joe is very important, but honestly, all along the way, there are so many people who have given me critical pieces of advice, before medical school and even now. We all have many mentors in all different areas, and you never know where that critical piece of advice that will stick with you will come from.

Here’s a simple example. As I prepared for my very first oral abstract presentation, the director of my division happened to wander by as I was working on it. He said, “I think when you start doing this, you should always memorize your presentation.” So I did, and it made me more confident and the presentation went well. It was just a little throwaway comment about his experience, really, but it came to me at a critical time. You have to be open to advice from all different perspectives and angles.

In a given day, what is your “rose” and what is your “thorn?”

I always dread the traffic in Seattle, but my biggest thorn is probably the number of meetings I have in a given day. Even if they are productive and effective, simply having six hours of meetings is difficult for me.

My “rose” is participating in collaborative science: working with people on the same projects, pulling on the oars in the same direction, even though everyone is scattered across the globe. Sharing the same interests and making tangible progress is really the “rosiest” part of my day. Some of the advice I offered earlier about sharing and collaboration might not translate well to extremely competitive environments, but I’m fortunate enough to participate in “team science,” which I really enjoy. I also love caring for patients; I don’t do it as much as I used to, but those relationships are incredibly fulfilling and meaningful.

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

One strategy that works for me is to not have too many things to balance. I’m not necessarily advocating this for other people; I love my work and I love my family and there just is not a whole lot of extra time for other things. I know that’s not the party line – you’re supposed to take time for yourself and you’re supposed to have many hobbies – but the downtime is special to me, and I want to spend that with my family.

To help make more time with them, I actually have switched my work schedule. Each morning, I’m in the office by 6:15 and I try to leave by 3:30 in the afternoon to pick my sons up from school. We have dinner together, and then while they’re doing their homework, I’m catching up on some of my own work. I try to be really effective in those early morning hours so I can leave earlier and have that time with them.  My husband is a physician and researcher too, so he gets them off to school and then stays a little later at work.

It is still a struggle. When I think back to when my kids were younger (they’re 9 and 15 now), I can’t even imagine how I did it. Some of my colleagues are having their first or second kids, and I see how crazy it is from my perspective. Maybe sometimes it’s good to not know what’s in store – you just get through it somehow and survive, and then you look back and wonder how you did it.

How do you spend that time outside of work?

Well, reading is always good because it’s something I can do in little pockets of time. I also like taking the kids hiking because it gives us time to talk and tell stories. They may hate it, but I love it!

Growing up in Redmond, Washington, I loved being outside in the woods. During medical school, I was able to take horseback riding lessons and woodworking classes, which are both activities I picked up as a kid, but that was the last time I was really engaged in them. Those are the kind of activities that I put aside while my career and my family were starting. I have a list of things I want to get back to, but for now, I want to take advantage of the limited time I have with my family.

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

People are usually shocked to learn that I didn’t go to high school; I started college the day after I turned 14. I attended regular classes through eighth grade, but I was accepted into the University of Washington’s early entrance program for advanced students. I did go to an outstanding seventh and eighth grade school, so I was very prepared in terms of going to college, but it was an unusual college experience.

The head start also let me take a year off between college and medical school and years later to be a little more established in my career before I started my family. Honestly, I think many people could actually have done the same thing if they had the opportunity. I just had the opportunity and took it.

Because of that, though, I don’t have any high school experiences. My son, who is in ninth grade now, will occasionally ask my advice, but then he’ll say, “You have no idea about this – you didn’t go to ninth grade!”

Just for fun, what superpower would you have – and why?

I would love to be able to slow time down. Time feels like it’s going by too fast; I try to enjoy every minute, but sometimes I wake up and it seems like another year has gone by. I’m very aware that my kids are getting older, and my oldest is going to be going off to college soon. So, if I could slow that down, I would.