HMS Surgeon Tapped to Lead National Cancer Institute

Monica Bertagnolli, newly named NCI director, talks biggest challenges, career advice

President Joe Biden has tapped yet another Harvard Medical School faculty member to lead a key U.S. governmental agency, announcing on Aug. 10 that Monica Bertagnolli, the HMS Richard E. Wilson Professor of Surgery in the Field of Surgical Oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, will be the next director of the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. government’s lead agency for cancer research.

Monica Bertagnolli
Monica Bertagnolli. Image: Brigham and Women's

Bertagnolli, a surgical oncologist at the Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, a clinical researcher, and member of the Gastrointestinal Cancer and Sarcoma Treatment Centers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, has dedicated her career to improving the lives of patients with cancer.

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Bertagnolli recently talked about her new role, the biggest challenges in cancer research and clinical translation and how her training and career at Brigham and Women’s have led her on a path to becoming the next director of the NCI.

What does this opportunity mean to you personally and professionally?

Bertagnolli: I have been so fortunate to be able to work with people who care for patients with cancer in the clinic, in the operating room, and in all aspects of health care. It’s been such a privilege. In my new role, I hope to do everything possible to get the very best tools in the hands of those colleagues because that’s what our patients need. The exciting thing about the NCI is that it truly reaches every part of our society. It enables new discoveries in basic science laboratories and it works to translate those into findings that transform patient care for everyone in America, including those in the most underserved communities. It’s the thrill of a lifetime to be able to join the team at NCI in this new role.

What are the biggest challenges facing the cancer clinical and research communities?

Bertagnolli: There is so much promise in oncology right now. Progress from the basic science community and from the biotech industry has been phenomenal in the last decade. What I see as the most critical challenge is getting those results translated directly into benefits for patients and making sure that those benefits get to every single patient, not just people who have advantages. There is both incredible excitement and promise, but it’s also a huge challenge.

How would you describe the culture of Brigham and Women’s and your experiences there?

Bertagnolli: I came to the Brigham right after medical school, and it’s been my home for several decades. The Brigham and Harvard research communities are unparalleled. One of my fondest memories from my training was going to the lab meetings of Dr. Judah Folkman and watching the way Dr. Folkman treated everyone at any level with great respect and great personal interest. He truly believed that the medical student, the intern, or the professor each had a role in the conversation and their voice needed to be heard in the process of basic science and developing new treatments. And he always kept his focus on the patient. He was such an important and early inspiration for me.

From Harvard Medicine magazine: Read more about Bertagnolli's work

Another anecdote that I think exemplifies the value and culture of the Brigham comes from when I was leading a prevention trial and we hit a serious issue that needed the expertise of a cardiovascular medicine team immediately. At the Brigham, all I had to do was go down the hall and find Dr. Marc Pfeffer and Dr. Scott Solomon. Instantly, they jumped on board and were able to bring incredible expertise and energy to solving this urgent problem. That’s what it’s like to be at the Brigham: the expertise is there. And, even more important, the willingness to jump in and help. It’s generosity of academic spirit.

How does the team at the Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center work together to provide patient care?

Bertagnolli: At the Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center, everyone focuses on caring for the whole patient and making their life better. This means that we have to put ourselves in a patient’s shoes and remember how frightening it can be to face cancer. For example, a patient shouldn’t have to figure out who they need at any given time a medical oncologist, surgeon, advanced practitioner, or someone else. All of the necessary providers must be on a single team, and a call to anyone on the team should get the patient to whomever it is that they need. The many medical disciplines that care for patients at DFBCC work together in a special partnership, and I know that this translates into better care and less stress for our patients.

What advice would you offer to the next generation of physician-scientists?

Bertagnolli: The next generation is my great inspiration. They’re so talented and so smart, but they’re also incredibly altruistic and determined to make the world a better place. That is a treasure that you can’t manufacture, and when it’s there, it’s magic. But they often wonder, in this very complex world of ours, where they fit in. I get asked all the time, How do I get my foot in the door? How do I find a mentor? How do I get started? And here’s my best advice to them.

The world of medicine is incredibly welcoming for those who love science. If you want to learn about what physician-scientists do, then seek out researchers working in a field that interests you. Most lab directors are very happy to have a student come to their lab meetings and see what work is underway. If what you find there is exciting to you, then there’s almost always going to be something that you can contribute. So, roll up your sleeves and start working, and you will be amazed at how quickly you will become valuable and on your way to a very successful career.

Adapted from a Brigham and Women’s news release.