Born in Chicago, Lymphoma Specialist Sonali M. Smith, MD, Never Left the Windy City


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Sonali M. Smith, MD

Sonali M. Smith, MD

Nationally recognized lymphoma expert Sonali M. Smith, MD, was born and reared in Chicago to a mother who was a pediatrician and allergist, and a father who was an engineer. Her parents were first-generation immigrants from India who placed the value of education second to none.

“I became used to having a working mom and saw that she found a lot of value in her job. When I was in high school, I did administrative work at my mother’s small private medical practice, paperwork and answering phones, and such. I saw her interactions with patients, who knew and trusted her as well as relied on her for emotional support, which had a profound influence on my decision to become a doctor,” shared Dr. Smith.

Early Experiences With Caretakers

She continued: “My father owned a nursing home, and I did quite a bit of volunteer work there. So between my mother and father, I was exposed to a lot of medical caretaking jobs at a formative age. It is quite common among immigrants from India to push their children to become doctors, as it is seen as such a valued career. However, my parents never showed that impulse; they always told me to do something I enjoyed and to let my passion lead the way forward.”

Given that intellectual free pass from her parents, after graduating high school, Dr. Smith headed to Northwestern University to do her undergraduate work in liberal arts. “I majored in biology but had a minor in Italian studies. I really enjoyed Italian and was also fluent in Spanish and Gujarati, which was the language we spoke at home. So I really expected to pursue a career that had something to do with language, people, and culture, since that’s where my interests were,” she explained. “However, the deeper I got into the biology classes, the more I realized I had a passion for science. And I finally decided to apply to medical school, which bridges people and science,” added Dr. Smith.

Staying in Chicago

Dr. Smith applied to various medical schools but ended up staying in Chicago. “I’ve been in Chicago my whole life. I was born at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and went to Northwestern University for my undergraduate degree in biology and for medical school,” said Dr. Smith.

Asked what drew her toward oncology as a specialty, Dr. Smith replied: “I had originally been interested in female health issues and had not considered oncology as a medical specialty. Then things came together. I became fascinated by the immune system’s ability to turn on itself, which is what lymphoma really is; the cells of the immune system develop into a cancer. That idea was forming in the back of my mind during medical school. In my fourth year, I did a rotation with a female faculty member and a female fellow at the VA doing consults. Up until then, my perception of oncology had been formed around terminal illness and dying. I still remember that rotation; naturally the patients at the VA were mostly men, but I saw all these amazing patients who were living with their cancer as opposed to dying of it. That experience coupled with my two female oncology role models got me to thinking that oncology would be a perfect fit for me. So I applied for internal medicine with the thought of going into hem-onc, and it was at that time when my interest in immunology dovetailed with oncology and eventually blood cancers.”

There is a train of thought that to succeed in academics, you must keep your focus narrow, but I’m kind of living the opposite of that philosophy.
— Sonali M. Smith, MD

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In 1994, Dr. Smith did her residency in internal medicine at Northwestern University Medical School. “During my residency, I worked with some incredible clinicians who taught me a lot about patient care. In 1997, I became Chief Resident and think this is when I truly blossomed, realizing how much I loved teaching. And it was so satisfying in that it confirmed I appreciated and understood a topic enough to be able to teach others. The experience also built my interest in academics and is a reason I stayed in academic medicine,” revealed Dr. Smith.

Dr. Smith began her hematology/oncology fellowship at the University of Chicago. “One of the reasons I went to the University of Chicago was it has a very strong research program, and I wanted to explore the immune system’s ability to turn its T and B cells against itself in the form of lymphoma,” said Dr. Smith. She added: “Plus the University of Chicago also gave the opportunity to pursue my other passions, teaching and clinical research.”

Asked to describe her current work, Dr. Smith replied: “I have a very diverse job and wear a lot of different hats. There is a train of thought that to succeed in academics, you must keep your focus narrow, but I’m kind of living the opposite of that philosophy and enjoying all aspects of my career. The most important part of my job is running the lymphoma program, where I lead a team of physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, and fellows in delivering high-quality care and participate in clinical trials that push the envelope in terms of new options, particularly in immunotherapies. I was just promoted to Professor and received an endowed professorship, and the other important piece of my job is training the next generation of oncologists, getting them excited about blood cancers.”

Outside Activities

Along with her multiple duties at the University of Chicago, Dr. Smith lectures on behalf of the Lymphoma Research Foundation, which is the largest lymphoma patient-advocacy group in the world. “I am on the foundation’s scientific advisory board and chair the patient-education forums here in Chicago. On a national level, I chaired the national educational forum twice, which to me is value-added advocacy because it educates patients,” she added.

We were able to create a biorepository of benign and malignant tissues from patients with lymphoma, and we’re coming up to 1,100 patient samples on the registry.
— Sonali M. Smith, MD

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“The third part of my job is helping to move lymphoma research along, so we can really make the progress our patients deserve,” Dr. Smith continued. “To that end, thanks in part to a very generous gift from Family Video, we were able to create a biorepository of benign and malignant tissues from patients with lymphoma. It has become a big part of my life, and we’re coming up to 1,100 patient samples on the registry. The goal is to partner with scientists to use the tissue to achieve a better understanding of prognosis and to facilitate translational work.”

ASCO’s Women’s Networking Center

Asked for a closing thought, Dr. Smith stated: “I don’t want to sound cliché, but I think we are on the verge of making a major change in oncology with the advent of targeted therapies and the exciting new immunologic approaches. Now we will begin to discover how to maximize these new tools in combination with some level of precision. Since I’ve become an oncologist in 2001, I now have all of these walking miracles; patients who, for instance, would not have had an agent such as rituximab [Rituxan] and ibrutinib [Imbruvica]. I firmly believe that over the next decade, the oncology community will make unprecedented advances, and it is truly exciting to be part of it.

Dr. Smith also mentioned she is honored to lead ASCO’s Women’s Networking Center. “We’ve just had our third meeting this past year with over 700 individual attendees. ASCO has been a terrific way for me to meet female colleagues from all over the world outside of my lymphoma sphere and to discuss shared challenges and interests. I give ASCO leadership credit for making initiatives like this happen.”

What does Dr. Smith do to decompress from the daily challenges of her day? “I have four kids and spend a lot of quality time with them. I also do yoga and read a lot, predominantly nonfiction books on ideas,” closed Dr. Smith. ■

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Smith reported no conflicts of interest.


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