As my 2-year privilege as President of the American Society of Preventive Oncology (ASPO) comes rapidly to a close, I am humbled by the immense influence this society has played in my career and by the professional and personal relationships I have enjoyed through service to the organization. ASPO has brought a color and richness to my life as an academic researcher that I could not have dreamed possible back in 1994, when I was first introduced to ASPO's New Investigator's Workshop, or even fully in the summer of 2013, when I accepted leadership of the Cancer Epidemiology Department and Program at the Moffitt Cancer Center (Tampa, FL).
With the hope to inspire ASPO members, particularly students or trainees, as well as instructors or assistant professors just starting down their career path, to become involved in this great organization, I recount how ASPO and its members have contributed to my career and played pivotal roles in my life. Sharing my ASPO story demonstrates how this professional society fostered a young, unfocused college graduate with a degree in biochemistry into a capable cancer prevention researcher. My service with ASPO helped me navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of academia to find professional success and great personal satisfaction.
In 1990, I was working as a technician in a wet lab at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, conducting lympho-proliferative assays. I would introduce bacterially expressed human papillomavirus (HPV) proteins to lymphocytes obtained from women who recently underwent hysterectomies due to cervical cancer and compare tritium uptake to that of lymphocytes obtained from peripheral blood collected from women receiving annual gynecologic care. After 1 year in the laboratory, I realized that pure bench work was not for me and thus entered the Master of Public Health program at Columbia University School of Public Health (New York, NY), as was its name at that time. Unbeknown to me at that time, the first chapter, or perhaps more accurately, the preface, to my relationship with ASPO was about to begin. Luckily my laboratory work in HPV helped to land a research assistant position with Jeanne Mandelblatt on a small cross-sectional study assessing cervical dysplasia among elderly black women living in New York City, which inspired my Master's thesis. My 7-year mentorship with Jeanne, a life-long ASPO member, across multiple projects deeply influenced my career path.
In 1994, the FDA-approved Aleve, Clinton's Universal Healthcare Plan was abandoned, and I was working for Jeanne on a follow-up cervical dysplasia case–control study. I was a predoctoral student at Columbia, with my education supported by the T32 Cancer Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Environmental Health Sciences Training Program directed by Alfred Neugut. This led to my first formal, rather bruising, encounter with ASPO: I was selected to present my PhD research proposal at the New Investigator's Workshop, the brainchild of Al's and then only in its second year of existence. The next year, still recovering from those emotional scars, I stood in front of my first poster at ASPO and reported preliminary dissertation findings on HPV infection and cervical cancer in black women.
These early experiences with ASPO in my academic career provided me a professional home during my graduate years. Thank you ASPO for providing a budding young investigator the opportunity to get his feet wet at conference, proving that eating crow in front of an audience is a necessary and helpful form of growth, and for accepting my abstract.
During my years as a postdoctoral fellow, instructor, and early assistant professor, I was heavily involved in ASPO's Junior Member Group, now renamed as the Early Career Development Special Interest Group. This interest group, conceptualized in 1999 by Shine Chang and given life with the added efforts of Diana Buist, Mary Reid, Mary Beth Terry, and Amy Trentham-Dietz, provides junior members opportunities to plan career development training activities and network with other junior and senior scientists. It also was designed to foster future leadership in ASPO, by creating pathways to positions of responsibility for junior members. Within this Group, I contributed to the selection of session topics, contacted potential speakers to communicate the goals and needs of the group, and helped to disseminate information about topic sessions. ASPO even supported my decision to splurge and dip into reserved funds to bring in and pay for an outside speaker.
In collaboration with others in ASPO, some of whom were seminal to the creation of the Junior Members Group, we highlighted the success story of the Group over its first 6 years in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention (1). We attributed the group's success, in part, to an infrastructure that encourages continuity of junior members on the different planning committees over several years and to the integration of junior members into the Society via representation on the Executive and Annual Program Planning committees. So thank you to my colleagues and friends from the good old days as an ASPO junior member, and thank you ASPO for continuing to support the next generation of cancer prevention and control investigators.
The 31st annual ASPO meeting, held in Houston at the conference center of the Cancer Prevention Building at MD Anderson Cancer Center, was very memorable, in part from donning cowboy hats and heading to the rodeo. For Michael Scheurer and me, that meeting marked the beginning of the short-lived return of premeeting educational sessions at ASPO (2). Over the 3 years of educational workshops, we focused on a variety of areas relevant to molecular epidemiology and provided members the opportunity to learn about related topics, including public policy, health communication, and intervention studies. Thank you, Michael, for helping to develop these sessions and for wrangling the experts needed to lead them. Many thanks also to my ASPO colleagues for your willingness to incorporate a new format of educational training into our already packed meeting timeline.
Ten years ago, while at Penn, I began putting together my promotion dossier under the guidance of my postdoctoral faculty mentor Timothy Rebbeck. A great challenge of my promotion was to name 11 external consultants who might be asked to write letters of recommendation. Penn had fairly strict rules about who could act as external consultant, and I could not include anyone with whom I had ever published. This was difficult for me because most of my research was in the framework of large international consortia, and I had copublished with the majority of individuals in the immediate fields of melanoma and testicular cancer genetic epidemiology. Again it was ASPO, this time coming to my rescue by providing the infrastructure so vital to nourishing my career.
Hoping that I had left a good impression through my service to the society, I turned to the ASPO meeting registration rosters to identify likely consultants, which produced eight of the needed 11, many of whom are still active in the organization today. To this day, I have no idea who in this group was tapped to write a letter of recommendation. Nor, quite frankly, do I know whether anyone wrote a strong letter. I do know, however, the end result was my promotion to associate professor. The positive influences of ASPO and our members are unquestionable. My ASPO professional home, built through service to the ASPO mission and vision, allowed me to become deeply woven into its fabric.
Later in 2013, sitting in my Philadelphia home thinking about my upcoming move to Moffitt, I could not know that it was actually an ASPO member, with whom I had worked and served on several ASPO committees, who nominated me to the Moffitt search committee, again influencing and fueling my career. Looking back at the initial invitation to visit and explore Moffitt as a potential next step in my career, I probably should have connected that e-mail, which arrived just 1 day after the conclusion of that year's Cancer Control and Prevention Associate Director and Program Leader workshop held at the 37th ASPO Annual Meeting, to my good fortune.
So, thank you anonymous colleague, whose nomination was so instrumental to changing my life and introducing me to new challenges in Tampa, including living within a 75-minute drive of my parents for the first time since I left high school. For 30 years, my membership and service with ASPO has propelled my career development beyond expectations, both professionally and personally.
Thank you, fellow ASPO members, for bestowing a community rich in friends and colleagues who not only impact the cancer burden through their cool science, but also nourish each other's careers and personal well-being. Serving as your president has been an honor and my great privilege.
Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest
No potential conflicts of interest were disclosed.
My deepest thanks go to Heidi Sahel, the recipient of ASPO's Distinguish Service award at the 43rd Annual Meeting and outgoing Director of ASPO's National Office, for all of her support and guidance throughout my ASPO years and particularly during my presidency.