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Spotlight: Betty Pace, MD

Professor, Pediatrics and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Interim Division Chief Pediatric Hematology/Oncology
Francis J. Tedesco Distinguished Chair
Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University

How did you decide to become a hematologist?

Early in my life, I had my first encounter with sickle cell disease that shaped my future. A family in my neighborhood had many children affected by the disease, but one child, Phyllis, was my dear friend. She had a stroke and was left severely paralyzed and bed ridden. I would visit her after school to talk about fun things, but as was common in those days, she died from complications of the disease. My heart was broken. Little did I know my life would forever be impacted by that experience. From that point on, I worked toward a research career in sickle cell disease. After finishing college, on the advice of a good friend, I decided to go to medical school to become a hematologist. He made the case that I could be a scientist and take care of people with blood diseases. There was never a question about pediatrics because I love taking care of children, and my pediatrician was an excellent role model.

Another important reason for choosing sickle cell disease research was it affects mainly African Americans, and research and treatment options were very limited. I had a desire to support my community and improve the quality of life for people with sickle cell disease. Along with caring for children, my career goal was to establish an independent research laboratory and to serve as a role model for new investigators. Throughout my training, I had few African American and women role models; therefore, I decided it would be important to serve in this capacity for underrepresented trainees and women.

Why is it important for more underrepresented minorities to be represented in medicine, particularly in hematology?

I truly believe that diversity of thought and ideas brings about the best science to move the field forward — to develop new therapies and cures that will ultimately be accepted by the community. People tend to accept new ideas and treatments when they are a part of the solution rather than a solution is forced on them. The inclusion of more underrepresented minorities in medicine, biomedical research, and hematology will aid efforts to develop treatments for diseases such as sickle cell disease that affect primarily African Americans. It is important for underrepresented scientists to be at the table and a part of the team to advocate for policies, research focuses, and funding that will move the hematology field forward. With the addition of various cultural perspectives during the planning stages of research development, more successful, culturally competent outcomes arise. Diverse, inclusive teams presenting new therapies to the community can foster acceptance and build trust.

Why is mentoring so important to you? Is there anything that you feel is really important to share with the students you mentor?

I am dedicated to caring for children with hematologic diseases and providing opportunities for mentored research training activities in my laboratory. Since 1994, after entering my first faculty position as a molecular hematologist, I have combined clinical activities with an independent research laboratory open to trainees from all ethnic/racial backgrounds. It is important to serve as a role model for all trainees while teaching the value of diversity to the next generation of new scientists. My goal is to create a culture of diversity that crosses all racial groups and helps lead to improved research outcomes and improved patient health.

One definition of mentoring I favor is a sustained relationship between a trainee and a senior faculty member, whereby successful individuals go out of their normal routines to help others to develop the skills to reach their goals. I view mentoring as an “adoption” of sorts, introducing trainees to paths that I have tried and tested that led to success. As a mentor I provide support, advice, and assistance to trainees. Mentoring is rewarding and beneficial for me as well since I impact the lives of students and early-stage investigators to help them achieve their career goals.

Through my past mentoring experiences, I have grown as a person and developed friendships for a lifetime. There is an inherent feeling of accomplishment associated with mentoring and contributing to the success of other people, which in turn helps me build my legacy as a hematologist. It is also an opportunity to develop long-term collaborations with new investigators who have similar research interests.

My mentoring experiences over the past two decades have been extensive, impacting trainees at the high school through junior faculty levels, with the majority from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. One of the most rewarding aspects of mentoring is opening my lab to underrepresented trainees, since these students often do not have the opportunity to participate in bench research activities. I have designed my lab to foster inclusion and to spark interest in research careers for underrepresented trainees.

Did you have a mentor who had a tremendous impact on you personally and professionally?

After my life-changing exposure to sickle cell disease as a teenager, two individuals served as early mentors, my pediatrician and dormitory roommate in college to further solidify my career path. Always willing to make time for questions, my pediatrician, who was also African American, greatly influenced my decision to pursue an advanced degree. While in college, my roommate made the case for the benefits of being a doctor and conducting research related to sickle cell disease. Her informal “mentoring” advice influenced my career decision to attend medical school and follow a path to becoming a hematologist — the best decision I could have made.

Early in my training, the importance of mentoring new investigators was not as commonly practiced as it is now, but I was fortunate to have senior faculty mentors. During hematology/oncology fellowship, my laboratory mentor solidified my career goal of becoming a National Institutes of Health (NIH) –funded physician-scientist independent investigator. The biggest impact in my career was made by my postdoctoral fellowship mentor, Dr. George Stamatoyannopoulos at the Washington University. In his laboratory, I learned to become a skilled bench researcher and witnessed the immeasurable value of a mentor-mentee relationship. Subsequently, as a junior faculty member, my chairman, Dr. Steven Goodman, facilitated my career growth and served as a mentor to help establish my lab and supported my success as a junior faculty member. Based on my personal experiences and the opinion of numerous experts in the field, mentoring is the single most important factor in shaping the career path of new investigators.

What has been the highlight of your involvement in Programs to Increase Diversity Among Individuals Engaged in Health-Related Research (PRIDE) program?

My long-term goal was to establish an NIH-funded independent research and training laboratory. To achieve this goal, I have continuously accepted trainees in my lab, mentoring more than 70 individuals at the high school through junior faculty levels, with the majority from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. To culminate my effort, in 2006, I was awarded an NIH–National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) R25 grant to establish a Summer Institute Program to Increase Diversity (SIPID). Subsequently, in 2010 and 2014, the program was renewed as the Program to Increase Diversity Among Individuals Engaged in Health-Related Research (PRIDE). We have trained 66 underrepresented junior faculty members from institution across the United States. About 50 percent of participants have received K-awards, R01 grants, and other sources of extramural funding. We are currently recruiting the final cohort of 10 mentees for a total of 76 junior faculty trained by this innovative NHLBI initiative. I am excited that our program has trained a large number of hematologists conducting sickle cell disease research, bringing me a sense of pride and accomplishment. My hope is that providing tools for success will help level the playing field for underrepresented individuals at the new investigator stage and promote their academic success. Not only have I achieved my personal career goal to become an independent research providing leadership for a training lab, I have the honor of mentoring the next generation of sickle cell disease researchers.

What have you learned through your involvement in PRIDE that you have been able to parlay into other mentoring relationships?

The PRIDE program is the joint effort of the leadership staff to provide a unique experience for underrepresented junior faculty to promote career advancement. Through the PRIDE program I have collected invaluable information on the NIH funding process, funding opportunities, and the importance of peer-mentoring to promote academic success. The materials, protocols, NIH policies, and training opportunities made available through the PRIDE program have been freely shared with all trainees I mentor including graduate and medical students and junior faculty members. I have used the strategies implemented in the PRIDE program to establish a second training program, the Hemoglobinopathy Translational Research Development Skills Core. This program was funded as part of a U01 grant from NHLBI, and through it, we have supported five junior faculty scholars in developing their independent research careers. Through this program I serve as mentor for PhD and MD trainees to support different academic advancement opportunities.