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We'll Make a Hematologist Out of You: My Mentors, My Mother, and How I Became Interested in Hematology

Monica Williams is a third-year medical student at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. She is a two-time participant of the ASH Minority Medical Student Award Program and will present her research during the 2018 Promoting Minorities in Hematology Presentations and Reception at the 60th ASH Annual Meeting and Exposition, taking place from December 1 to 4, 2018, in San Diego, CA.

For me, a career in hematology seems meant to be — my initial interest was sparked after my mother was diagnosed with polycythemia vera (PCV), a rare hematologic disorder that, just a few years ago, was treated primarily via the “letting” of blood. As her condition progressed, however, my mother was fortunate to benefit from genetic testing that qualified her for newly approved PCV pharmacotherapy. My interest in hematology, therefore, began with a desire to learn as much as I could about my mother’s diagnosis.

As a former high school biology teacher and public health student, I immersed myself in learning everything I could about my mother’s illness. With the information I gathered, I educated my mother and formulated questions and “conclusions” for her to discuss with her physicians. Looking back, I can imagine her physicians were quite amused. But my passion was apparent. I wanted to know if the doctors had completed a full workup for all potential etiologies and if they had explored every potential avenue of treatment. Little did I know that need to learn all I could about PCV would become a self-taught introduction to the field of hematology.

Shortly after beginning medical school at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, I was invited to a dinner with Dr. Michael Caligiuri, former CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. I was joining in lieu of a friend who was unable to attend, and I knew very little of Dr. Caligiuri beyond his impressive resume. I quickly learned, however, of his great humility and genuine commitment to mentorship. At dinner, Dr. Caligiuri talked about his involvement with ASH and ASH’s Minority Medical Student Award Program (MMSAP). After learning a little more about MMSAP, I reached out to Dr. Caligiuri to discuss the possibility of his mentorship. The program was a perfect fit; I had a personal interest in hematology/oncology and always imagined myself as a physician-scientist. An experience in Dr. Caligiuri’s lab would be invaluable in helping to bolster my skills and knowledge. He was incredibly supportive and worked with me to ensure I submitted the best application possible. I am forever grateful to have been selected as a 2016 MMSAP participant.

The summer MMSAP experience was critical to my development as an aspiring researcher. I gained exposure to hematology research and general laboratory techniques. Yet, I could not have imagined how beneficial it would be to observe the operation and structure of a highly productive lab like Dr. Caligiuri’s. His approach fuels scientific curiosity and creativity in physicians and scientists at every stage of their training and careers. Through MMSAP, I was also connected to Dr. Alison Walker, my career mentor who has been an amazing support and source of guidance. With her, I have explored my career goals as well as my professional and personal priorities. When ASH introduced MMSAP Flex, I jumped at the opportunity as it would allow me to build on my previous project throughout the third year of medical school. The opportunity to progress from laboratory research to exploring clinical-based outcomes has been significant to my evolving knowledge of hematologic disease, treatment, and biology.

As an MMSAP awardee, I had the opportunity to participate in the ASH annual meeting and hear from experts in various areas of hematology. The diversity of career, research, and clinical practice within the field has been eye opening. For the annual meeting, I was also responsible for preparing and presenting my summer research project to a roomful of hematology experts — no small feat, especially as a medical student. However, the direct assistance and feedback from my mentors during my preparation made all the difference. I have also found genuine support among ASH staff — from emails of encouragement, to check-in lunches, to connecting with others in the field. Medical school is challenging, and ASH has shown a genuine commitment to my development. I am not sure if there is any other program that nurtures the curiosity of future physician-scientists quite like MMSAP. ASH saw the potential in me, and through that, I have been given the tools to visualize my future as a physician-scientist.

During our first meeting, Dr. Caligiuri told me, “We’ll make a hematologist out of you,” and I cannot deny that it is certainly looking that way. In life, it becomes apparent that some things are destined, and a career in hematology seems to be one of those things for me.