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Outside the Lab Cancer, Professional development

Lessons Learned, with Pier Paolo Pandolfi

At a Glance

  • Career changes are possible at any stage – so it’s important to follow your inclinations
  • Don’t be afraid to question the standard protocols or opinions in your field
  • No one can excel at everything, but wise choices mean everyone can excel at something
  • Rewards and honors are wonderful motivation – but don’t forget that they belong to the team
Don’t be afraid to make a U-turn toward your true calling

My first major was actually philosophy. In Europe, you have to choose either medicine or philosophy, so I chose the latter. My family were all in humanities. I really loved philosophy – and still do – but, during my studies, I realized the topics that stuck out to me were based in the core of scientific reasoning: epistemology, philosophy of science, logic, you name it. So, I asked myself: Do I just want to discuss science, or do I want to become a scientist?

Because of my late switch to medicine, I was quite old when I finally graduated. Luckily, the speed at which my early career was propelled made up for it. During my final year of study in medicine, we ended up cloning the translocation associated with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). That discovery was transformative for me, the research group, and patients – but it was just the first step; in the following years, we were able to model the disease in mice. It’s because of this work that I was later recruited by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to run my own lab. While there, my colleagues and I completed the bench-to-bedside cycle by testing drug combinations that might cure APL. A derivative of vitamin A (ATRA) plus arsenic trioxide, or ATRA plus histone deacetylase inhibitors, proved effective and curative.

That early stretch of my career was during the Clinton era in the USA, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was extremely well-off, so it was a fantastic start for me. In subsequent decades, the economy has slowed down, but despite that and the restrictions and issues with this administration, I think the US remains a beautiful place for research (especially Boston!). It really is an exciting environment, full of brainpower, inspiration, and research.

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About the Author

Pier Paolo Pandolfi

Pier Paolo Pandolfi is Director of Cancer Research Institute and George C. Reisman Professor of Medicine and Pathology at Harvard Medical School.

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