Passion, Self-Awareness and a Good Mentor: the keys to a successful career

  • Date: 13 Jan 2017

You would be hard-pressed to find someone in oncology who hasn’t heard of José Baselga. Currently Physician-in-Chief and Chief Medical Officer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, he is a world leader in research into targeted therapy for breast cancer. ESMO President in 2008–2009, he was elected as the President of the American Association for Cancer Research for 2015–2016. José Baselga was also a co-founder of the IMPAKT Breast Cancer Conference.

This article appeared in the December 2016 edition of our new digital magazine, ESMO Perspectives, and you can get the entire edition by just clicking on the button below:

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Looking back, what are you most proud of in your career?

There is no greater satisfaction for me than to see that the ideas I have been able to put into action, and the concepts that we have translated from the laboratory into clinical trials, have led to benefits with therapies we have been exploring and even to the regulatory approval of some of these therapies. I am also tremendously proud of being involved with highly functioning teams of people who are all focused on addressing the same research challenge.

Is there anything you would go back to change?
Yes. One of my concerns is that even though I spent years in the laboratory, I still think that I did not devote enough time in the early years of my career to studying basic science. Translational medicine is key to making progress in cancer management and if I had known this when I was younger, I would definitely have spent longer in laboratories learning basic research.

What drove you to get where you are?
For me, the three most important factors for a successful career are passion, self-awareness and mentorship. You need to love what you do, have a sense of purpose and be totally committed to it. You should also learn to know yourself, identify your strengths and weaknesses and always try to play to your strengths. It is absolutely vital to work with, and be trained by, the right people. I cannot overstress the importance of having a good mentor or supervisor. Excellent leaders and scientists train people who eventually become excellent leaders and scientists. I am a prime example of this. I was incredibly fortunate to train in John Mendelsohn’s laboratory [at the MD Anderson Cancer Center] and without this, I really don’t think I would be where I am today.

What advice could you give to someone just starting in oncology?
This first thing I would say is, identify where the science is going and work in areas where you can learn and contribute and where you can see there’s going to be scientific breakthroughs. This will help you to make rapid progress. Secondly, oncology is a close community so you need to build relationships with peers and the people in your institute. Remember that a lot of the work we do is as part of a team, so collaboration is incredibly important. You also have to make sure you deliver the goods. Time and again I’ve seen really smart people fail because they don’t do this. Finally, good writing, critical thinking and planning skills are crucial when you come to prepare primary publications and reviews and, not least important, grant applications. While they are clearly necessary to gain funding, grant applications are also a wonderful way to make you spend time creating a hypothesis and designing effective experiments or clinical trials.

As a European working in the US, why work in a different country?
I don’t think you can succeed in oncology today if you stay in one place, so I think you have to move around, if not change countries. You need to be exposed to different ways of doing things, to different laboratories or clinics, and to different cultures. Moving around also helps you to network and to build long-lasting relationship. Collaboration is vital to research. It is something Europe has been doing for a long time and does well. These co-operative groups are very powerful and we can see this culture of collaboration continuing to grow in strength in European medicine.

What are your future plans? What have you got on the horizon?
I just go where the science takes me, I never think beyond two or three years. Right now, it’s such a great moment. I am trying to optimise the concept of genomic medicine and to launch a series of clinical trials. My hope is that we can bring precision medicine forward. I’m incredibly excited by the possibility of targeting different genes and I think that being able to implement these trials is fascinating.


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