2021 Award for Leadership in Promoting Diversity Recipient: Deepika Darbari, MD
A standard-bearer for mentorship and champion for young investigators will be lauded during the 2021 ASH Annual Meeting, as Deepika Darbari, MD, accepts the 2021 ASH Award for Leadership in Promoting Diversity. Dr. Darbari is a professor of pediatrics at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and is affiliated with the Children's National Health System. Her primary clinical and research area is in sickle cell disease (SCD), with a focus on managing the pain of individuals living with SCD.
Dr. Darbari has demonstrated a longstanding dedication to ASH and to the hematology community, especially to the Society’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Her passion for advancing DEI in the field has led to Dr. Darbari’s significant contributions to the mentorship and training of young investigators. She acknowledges the far-reaching implications of hematologists from diverse backgrounds in the workforce and serving as role models for those new to the field. “A diverse workforce brings diverse perspectives, ideas, and talents together, thereby enabling us to conquer blood disorders in the United States and globally with outside-the-box solutions,” she said. “We need a diverse health care force that looks like the patients we treat to overcome the disparities that many of our patients continue to face.”
Dr. Darbari’s emphasis on complications from SCD emerged from caring for patients with frequent pain. “Episodes of acute pain in sickle cell disease can start as early as six months of age … with many adolescents and adults experiencing chronic pain that impacts all aspects of life,” she said. The work to mitigate this pain starts with understanding its pathobiology in SCD, studying disease-related and non–disease-related risk factors for developing chronic pain. “Our group is also evaluating multidisciplinary, nonpharmacologic integrative approaches for pain management,” Dr. Darbari stated, noting that while there is some progress in understanding pain in SCD, much more work is needed, and existing pain management remains suboptimal. However, she recognizes that the present time is still an exciting one for the SCD community, with more available therapies and curative strategies than ever. She also underscores the work of the Society and her fellow ASH members to make SCD a priority, “tackling it with multifaceted approaches, from training more physicians in the field, to policy and research involving key stakeholders.” Dr. Darbari remarked that she is especially excited about the ASH Research Collaborative SCD Clinical Trials Network and its efforts to improve outcomes for people with SCD by expediting treatment development and facilitating innovation in clinical trials.
At a very early point in her career, as a pediatric faculty member at Howard University Hospital, Dr. Darbari nurtured her interest in SCD and also encountered firsthand some of the issues surrounding health care disparities, the consequences of inadequate funding, and the impact of stigmatization and implicit bias on patient care. She also learned through her interactions with Howard University medical students, the majority of whom were people of color, about the barriers they faced in the course of advancing their careers. These personal connections informed the contributions of Dr. Darbari and spur her ongoing commitment to both mentorship and DEI. She has been a longtime, highly engaged member of the ASH Committee on Promoting Diversity, the ASH Women in Hematology Working Group, and the Minority Medical Student Award Program (MMSAP) study section. She has served as the primary mentor for four MMSAP participants, and in 2017, she expanded her mentorship endeavors to the ASH Minority Resident Hematology Award Program. Dr. Darbari also participates every year in the Promoting Minorities in Hematology Reception at the ASH annual meeting as a co-chair for the oral presentation session.
Like so many consummate leaders, Dr. Darbari learned about the merits and power of mentorship from the example of her own mentors. She credits Drs. Oswaldo Castro, Sohail Rana, Victor Gordeuk, and Naomi Luban for their guidance during her career, introducing her to the stimulating world of SCD and “joys of scientific writing,” and also demonstrating the value of perseverance and resiliency. Dr. Darbari also acknowledged the mentors who helped to round out her sense of purpose and career direction. “Dr. Greg Kato taught me about branding and helped me find a niche. Dr. Linda Burns was my ASH Clinical Research Training Institute mentor and gave me the crucial career advice of getting connected with ASH.” Dr. Burns also introduced Dr. Darbari to the ASH Committee on Promoting Diversity, “where I found like-minded people who shared the same passion for hematology and promoting diversity,” she said.
Dr. Darbari expressed the utmost gratitude to her family, mentors, and colleagues, “for their support, which made this possible.” It is her belief that the Award for Leadership in Promoting Diversity is itself a hallmark of the Society’s commitment to DEI, and she encourages those entering the field to identify a team of effective mentors and to get involved with professional organizations. “Engaging with a society like ASH and taking advantage of its many training and career development opportunities is important,” she stated. “In the end, you are in charge of your own professional path, so steer it in a direction that brings you happiness and a sense of fulfillment in your career.”