Five Questions with Catherine Bollard, M.D., for Women's History Month

Catherine Gillespie - March 15, 2021

Catherine Bollard, M.D., talks about how a friend's cancer diagnosis spurred her passion for cellular immunotherapy, her experiences with her own mentors, and her "boots on the ground" approach to mentorship.

In our second interview for Women’s History Month, we talked to Catherine Bollard, M.D., the director of the Center for Cancer and Immunology Research at the Children’s National Research Institute, and director of Children’s National’s program for cell enhancement and technologies for immunotherapy. Bollard is also a professor of pediatrics and microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine at The George Washington University.

How would you say gender has influenced your career path?

I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in medicine, but I was also told at age 15 that I had a uniquely dramatic soprano singing voice. At 18 I was awarded a scholarship to pursue a career in singing in Australia and was accepted to medical school. I was very conflicted, but decided to go to medical school and make my decision after completing my medical degree. I eventually made the very difficult decision to set aside a career in music, which I have never regretted. However, I think because I had to make this decision it really gave me my drive and passion for the profession I chose.

What spurred my passion for cell and gene therapy came from the story of my best friend in high school, Diana, who developed EBV+ Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Treatment comprised multiple cycles of chemo- and radiotherapy, but finally she went into remission. Later, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome—a direct consequence of the Hodgkin’s therapy—and died soon afterwards. It was so cruel, and it became clear to me that we needed therapies that kill malignant but not bystander cells. As a result, I became interested in cellular immunotherapy. I ended up working on Hodgkin’s by chance when I moved to Houston under the mentorship of two inspiring and leading cell therapists in the field, both of whom are female: Drs. Helen Heslop and Cliona Rooney.

As a team, we worked on developing novel T-cell therapies for Hodgkin's lymphoma and I firmly believe that if Diana had been diagnosed today, her outcome would have been completely different. Hence, I would say that this move to Houston under Helen and Clio’s mentorship, and the serendipitous moment when I was able to work on the project to develop a novel and ultimately, successful cell therapy for the same disease my friend had been diagnosed with was truly a pivotal moment in my career.

As a team, we worked on developing novel T-cell therapies for Hodgkin's lymphoma and I firmly believe that if Diana had been diagnosed today, her outcome would have been completely different.

Catherine Bollard, M.D.

How would you describe the importance of mentorship in your career trajectory? 

As a physician-scientist and with the type of translational bench to bedside research that I do, the importance of team science and working in an effective and functional team is critical. This means that it is critical to also have a team of mentors who can support all aspects of my career development in the scientific and clinical realms as well as helping to navigate advice regarding work-life “balance.”

I was therefore extremely fortunate to have three terrific mentors (Drs. Malcolm Brenner, Clio Rooney and Helen Heslop) who were able to support me in all these aspects.

I remember the selflessness of my mentors who were always there to provide career advice, life advice, and scientific advice. They always were prepared to review my grants and papers in detail and not just at a superficial level, so you really knew they truly were invested in your career development. One particularly poignant moment was when my father died just before my first PO1 (as a co-PI) was due to be submitted. I was scrambling to deal with my grief as well as finishing writing my project and all the “Overall” sections so as not to let my co-PI down. Helen, Malcolm, and Clio were so incredibly kind helping edit and even write substantial sections of the PO1 application so that I could meet the NIH deadline. This sort of incredible generosity of time and support is truly unique and has had a major impact on how I “show up” in my role as a mentor.

How have particular obstacles that have come up in your career shaped your role in the field?

I never considered that my gender played any role (either positive or negative) in my career trajectory. Maybe this was because when I was in Texas, I was surrounded by multiple female, as well as male, leaders. However, when I interviewed for a leadership position at another institution in another state it became more obvious to me that this gender balance is not always reflected well at the leadership level. During the interview in question, I was told I “lacked sufficient leadership experience” for the role, despite the fact that I was a co-PI on a funded PPG award, led a lymphoma (clinical and research) program and an NIH-funded laboratory, and co-led a quality assurance program. I subsequently learned that they gave the position to a man whose only leadership role was his NIH-funded laboratory. This experience stuck with me because I genuinely believe that my gender (coupled with, possibly, my age) was the fundamental reason I was not chosen for the job. I have not let this define me, but I have used this experience to make myself a stronger leader and role model for future female leaders in the field.

One piece of advice I would give women coming up in the field would be to get an executive coach! When I moved to my current position in Washington D.C., I realized that many of the executive (male) leaders in the medical field and beyond had “executive coaches” who helped guide them in their leadership roles—not only in terms of developing and grooming your own leadership style, but also for strategic planning and program building. Therefore, I asked my boss early on if he would provide institutional support for me to have my own executive coach and that I wanted to have the freedom to choose my own coach. My request was granted, and I have not looked back since!

How would you describe mentorship “best practices” when it comes to your own style of mentoring junior women?

The mentorship I received taught me to adopt a true “boots on the ground” mentorship to support all my mentees not just with their grant writing and manuscript writing and scientific analysis/design, but also focusing on understanding where they want to be in five years versus 10 years and providing them with the necessary support (including financial and emotional support!) to ensure they are set up for success.

I think the mentee absolutely needs to know that for a successful mentor-mentee relationship you need to: a) have a trusting mentee-mentor relationship, which requires trust in mentor and trust in the mentee; b) “have their back,” meaning that you are prepared to “go to the mattresses” for your mentees;  c) be selfless in putting the mentee’s needs before your own self-interests (e.g., when it comes to authorship); and d) provide “boots on the ground” support (e.g., manuscript and grant planning/writing/editing).

Watching female researchers (clinical, basic, and translational) give their first talks as grad students/fellows and then seeing their rise to symposium speakers at national and international meetings is so rewarding.

Catherine Bollard, M.D.

I think my style of mentoring of junior women is the same as for men, except I do find I need to provide more advice and support regarding “work-life balance” since, it is more often that the female professional in a two-professional household is the one who needs to make more of the choices regarding child and home care, etc. Being sensitive to this and as a physician scientist who is also a wife (of  more than 25 years) and mother of two teenage girls, I hopefully can provide unique insights to help them navigate their individual challenges.

In particular, I have a strong track record of helping inspire female physicians at the fellow level, who have made the decision to follow a physician-scientist path and watching them flourish as they move from career development awards to independent funding from the NIH and promoting their leadership on national and international platforms is especially impactful for me. Watching female researchers (clinical, basic, and translational) give their first talks as grad students/fellows and then seeing their rise to symposium speakers at national and international meetings is so rewarding. But also, at a personal level, listening to the struggles we all face as females in science and medicine and balancing the stressors of home life and work, and just taking the time to listen and supporting them through the process brings true meaning to my role as mentor.

What do you see as ASGCT’s role in promoting strong mentorship or furthering opportunities for networking among women in science?

I think in our field, it was hard to find a critical mass of successful female physician-scientists in the generation ahead of me who had a durable marriage/life partner relationship, children, NIH-funded laboratories, and clinical responsibilities. I think that while we are still in the minority, there are more of “us” in my generation to build that “critical mass,” which I see as so incredibly important as we groom the next generation of female physician-scientists.

ASCGT has a strong mentoring program at the Annual Meeting, but I think providing greater awareness to the community to demonstrate what the Society is specifically doing to promote female researchers in the field would be invaluable.

Ms. Gillespie is a senior scientific editor for the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the ASGCT Communications Committee.

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