Michael Glodé, MD, FACP, grew up in Chadron, Nebraska, population about 5,000, and always meant to return home after medical school to be one of the town’s doctors. Then after his freshman year at University of Nebraska at Lincoln, a professor who recognized Glodé’s talent coaxed him into a summer job at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The experience opened Glodé’s eyes to the wider world of research and treatment, and instead of staying in Nebraska for med school, Glodé chose Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
“After that, I didn’t want to go back to Chadron to be a local doc. I knew I wanted to do academic medicine,” Glodé says.
After training at the National Institutes of Health and then at Dana Farber Cancer Center, Glodé was the second clinical oncologist hired at what would become the University of Colorado Cancer Center. The first was Bill Robinson, MD, PhD.
“Bill mentored me,” Glodé says. “He gave me a lot of latitude to do my own work, sponsored me in the lab, and then sat down over a beer on Fridays or took me skiing with him and talked things through.”
In the late 1980s, Robinson and Glodé treated every type of cancer that came in the door – “Bill was a hematologist and we sort of did it all,” Glodé says. But then by the early 1990s, the Colorado program had grown under the leadership of Paul Bunn to include enough medical oncologists that doctors became able to specialize. Glodé chose prostate cancer and became a leader in the field. He started running clinical trials and became Chairman of the Technology Committee for the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO).
Glodé also started taking on trainees of his own. In the early 2000s, one of these trainees was Tom Flaig, MD, who had grown up in a small town in Minnesota before earning his MD at University of Minnesota in 1999. Like Glodé, after finishing his fellowship in Colorado, Flaig planned to practice as a community oncologist.
“But I suckered him in,” Glodé says. “Tom was distinguished from any other fellow. He was exceptional in his ability to write. You set the bait out there and reel them in and they become addicted to this wonderful life called academic medicine.”
After completing his fellowship at University of Colorado Cancer Center in 2006, Flaig stayed on, joining the faculty as an assistant professor.
Meanwhile, a college friend of Glodé’s, who had been president of ASCO, asked Glodé if he would head the ASCO Education Committee. One of ASCO’s education initiatives is the International Development and Education Award, or IDEA, meant to help young, international oncologists visit academic medical centers in the United States (recalling the experiences Glodé and Flaig had themselves, initially, in the world of academic medicine).
“I talked to Tom about it and he thought it would be fun,” Glodé says.
The IDEA award funds travel for outstanding international applicants to attend the annual ASCO conference in Chicago, where they are paired with U.S. mentors, and then after the conference return with their mentor to experience the delivery of cancer care at the mentor’s home institution. In 2013, the IDEA program paired Flaig with Maria Teresa Bourlon, MD, a young oncologist from Mexico City specializing in the treatment of bladder, kidney and prostate cancers.
“I was 40 percent retired, just three days a week,” Glodé says. “Tom took it seriously and did a great job of hosting her. Maria fit in with our group so well and people loved her – nurses, fellows, junior faculty. She just fit in like a hand in a glove.”
When Bourlon’s two weeks ended, the group made plans for her return to Colorado to spend a year training with Flaig and the CU Cancer Center genitourinary cancer team.
“A lot of people in that situation would come to Colorado to learn skills, but Maria was already a stellar clinician – she came to us being extremely well trained in the treatment of GU cancers,” Flaig says. “I needed to find something else for her to do and it turned out that she hadn’t had the opportunity to do much research.”
Just as Bill Robinson had done for Glodé and then Glodé had done for Flaig, Flaig helped Bourlon explore the intricacies of research in the setting of academic medicine. Now Flaig and Bourlon have published seven academic papers together, focusing on new developments in the understanding and treatment of bladder, kidney and prostate cancers.
In academic papers, authors are listed in a specific order, with the “first” author often being a trainee or early-career professional, and the “senior” author often being the more established researcher. “In our most recent paper, Maria took the senior author position,” Flaig says, proudly.
The benefits of mentorship go both ways.
“Being Tom’s mentor was one of the most rewarding things in my career. He took the bit in his mouth and worked hard – and has since then become a national and international leader. It’s such a satisfying thing to have Tom as a legacy for my career in Colorado,” Glodé says, speaking while driving back from Lincoln, Nebraska, where he had spent the weekend playing golf with high school friends.
And in 2016, Flaig was able to visit Bourlon in Mexico City, where she works as an oncologist at the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Médicas y Nutrición Salvador Zubirán, which Flaig describes as similar to the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“Visiting Maria in Mexico City gave me a new perspective on the whole thing,” Flaig says. “Maria works extremely hard at a very busy clinical practice. I got to experience a high level of care in a different medical system structure.”
In addition to his clinical duties and recent appointment as Associate Dean for Clinical Research in the CU School of Medicine, Flaig now serves as chair of the bladder cancer committee for the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), the organization that writes the standards of care that are followed by oncologists in the United States and around the world. The perspective Flaig gained through his work with Bourlon has helped him learn to adapt NCCN guidelines for use in developing countries. In fact, Flaig returned in late August 2018 from a trip to Ghana, where he acted as the NCCN representative on a panel of physicians working to harmonize the NCCN bladder cancer treatment guidelines for use in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“I was struck by the thought and the pragmatism of these physicians who were focused on giving high quality care to their patients – their desire to deliver evidence-based care to their patients with the resources available, as thoughtfully as they could,” Flaig says.
Also in 2018, one of Bourlon’s fellows from her institution in Mexico City, Jennifer Dominguez, earned an IDEA grant to attend ASCO and visit Colorado primarily under the mentorship of one of Dr. Flaig’s former trainees, Elizabeth Kessler, MD.
“Even more than your published papers, your legacy is the people you leave behind, the trainees you have the pleasure of working with,” Glodé says. “It’s a pass-it-on kind of thing. And it’s one of the greatest joys of academic medicine.”