An Adventurous Spirit Led to a Prominent Role in Radiation Oncology for Geraldine Jacobson, MD, MPH, MBA, FACR, FASTRO

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Geraldine Jacobson, MD, MPH, MBA, FACR, FASTRO, founding Chair of the West Virginia University (WVU) Department of Radiation Oncology, was born in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Her father was a military officer, and his various duty posts offered an adventurous childhood for Dr. Jacobson.

“One of my earliest memories is being on a boat in the Pacific Ocean en route to Taiwan. I was 4 years old. We landed in Yokohama, Japan, and I remember being excited to be in a foreign country. During my childhood, I lived in New Jersey, Taiwan, Virginia, and Kansas, which meant I changed schools every few years. I looked forward to change and new beginnings.

Geraldine Jacobson, MD, MPH, MBA, FACR, FASTRO

Geraldine Jacobson, MD, MPH, MBA, FACR, FASTRO

Dr. Jacobson continued: “I spent most of my high school years in Florida but graduated in Pennsylvania. I enjoyed being on the high school debate team and thought I wanted to become a lawyer. It wasn’t common for women to plan careers in that era, but I always knew I would pursue a professional degree.

Dr. Jacobson won a national merit scholarship, and after graduating high school, she was recruited to Michigan State University. “During my undergraduate years, becoming a doctor never crossed my mind. Medicine was largely a male domain. I had no medical reference points in my family. My degree was in Human Environment and Design, which was basically textile design,” she shared.

Seeing the World

After attaining her degree, Dr. Jacobson went to Frankfurt, Germany, where her father was then stationed. “I traveled around Europe with my cousin; then I returned to Frankfurt and got a U.S. civil service job. It didn’t take long for me to realize that was not a career fit. I went to Northern California, worked as a waitress for 6 months, and saved money to travel. In the spring of 1973, I set off with a friend and my brother to travel around the world.”

Their travels took them through Europe, a month-long stay on the Greek island of Paros, Turkey, Iran,  Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and Thailand. “I recall traveling through the Khyber Pass and walking across the border from Pakistan to India. We visited the Taj Mahal. It was serenely beautiful, but the  pre-monsoon heat was oppressive, so we headed to Nepal. We had no maps and a limited idea of geography. Our navigation method was asking travelers coming our way about the route ahead. When you travel through some of the less-developed regions in the world, such as parts of Central Asia, it is impossible not to notice that many of the hardest-working people are the least well paid. When you talk with people in other regions, you learn they have a unique world view, which can be very different from your assumptions.”

To my surprise, I loved the calculus and physics courses. In math, if you do it right, you get the right answer, which isn’t always the case in life.
— Geraldine Jacobson, MD, MPH, MBA, FACR, FASTRO

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Running low on funds, Dr. Jacobson and her companions went to Taiwan, where she worked for a local travel agent. After a year, Dr. Jacobson had what she described as an “aha” moment. “I realized that traveling was great, but if I wanted to find fulfillment in the future, I needed to have a plan. I developed some basic criteria: it had to be something I had the capacity to do, that I would find engaging, and that would be socially useful. Around that time, I encountered a female doctor. Before that, I had not considered medicine an option. But seeing a female doctor clicked, and I realized that I could also be a doctor.” 

By that time, her father had retired from the military and was working as an administrator at the University of South Florida. Dr. Jacobson joined her parents in Florida, took out a loan, and completed her requisite science and math premed courses. “I knew I’d feel comfortable with biology, but to my surprise, I loved the calculus and physics courses. In math, if you do it right, you get the right answer, which isn’t always the case in life.”

Although Dr. Jacobson had been accepted to the University of Miami Medical School, her husband, a research scientist, was offered a position at the University of Utah. So, in 1977, Dr. Jacobson switched plans and entered the University of Utah Medical School in Salt Lake City.

“I liked all of my rotations, but I found it especially satisfying to work with cancer patients. I remember presenting a gynecologic patient case at a tumor board and being complimented by a female radiation oncology resident. She explained what she did, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do as well,” said Dr. Jacobson. “It just seemed like a perfect fit.”

Building a Career

Dr. Jacobson, who was a young mother by then, did her radiation oncology residency at LDS Hospital (now Intermountain LDS Hospital) in Salt Lake City. “The radiation oncologists at LDS were involved in cooperative groups, participating in RTOG [Radiation Therapy Oncology Group] and GOG [Gynecologic Oncology Group] clinical trials. They were excellent mentors and  helped shape my career by encouraging me to write papers and attend oncology meetings, which gave me the opportunity to develop a broad view of the field,” she explained. 

Dr. Jacobson’s residency was also enriched by the hospital’s “away rotation” program, which allowed residents to work in other hospitals to broaden their perspectives. “I was fortunate to spend a 1-month rotation at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. This was an education in a different approach to radiation oncology. The Canadian center used shorter treatment schedules and had a different clinic organization. During my residency, my husband was sponsored by the Peoples Republic of China to work at the Shanghai Brain Research Institute for several months. I had the opportunity to join him there and visit radiation oncology centers in China. These rotations further broadened my concept of both the core aspects of radiation oncology and different methods of implementation,” she said.

A Turn of Events

After completing her residency, Dr. Jacobson secured a job on the faculty at the University of Utah. “It was a well-funded and organized radiation program that gave me an opportunity to begin maturing my career. My chair, Dr. J. Robert Stewart, encouraged me to develop projects and write. However, life changes, and I became a single mom and decided to return to Florida to be close to my family. I took a job in a small, hospital-based practice in rural Florida, which was a big change from my previous work setting. During the next 2 years, my staff and I created a thriving practice, and I developed into a more experienced radiation oncologist,” said Dr. Jacobson.

Dr. Jacobson then spent a year at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, before returning to private practice in Clearwater, Florida. After 2 years there, she assumed the medical directorship of Bayfront Cancer Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, a position she held from 1992 until 2000.

“This was a hospital-based private practice. During this period, the hospital developed a CoC [Commission on Cancer]-accredited cancer program. We had excellent oncology specialists and were members of cooperative clinical trials groups. It was a great job and I expected to work  there for many years. However, in the late 1990s, there were systemic changes with the advent of hospital consolidation and health maintenance organizations, and our independent hospital went through a merger that limited our resources. I was ready for a career move and saw an advertisement for a position in Maui. I liked to run and swim, so it was an attractive opportunity.”

Because radiation oncology involved taking care of patients with cancer and involved math and physics, it just seemed like a perfect fit. And it was.
— Geraldine Jacobson, MD, MPH, MBA, FACR, FASTRO

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After a year in Maui, Dr. Jacobson realized that academic medicine was her calling and accepted a position at the University of Iowa in 2002. “It was a time when radiation oncology was transitioning to image-guided therapy. The department chair, Dr. John Buatti, was developing a center of excellence in image-guided radiation. I had gynecologic brachytherapy experience, and was given the  opportunity to develop an HDR [high dose rate] program. After several months, I became the resident program director during the national transition to competency-based assessment.”

Continued Learning

Dr. Jacobson eventually became Medical Director of the clinic and earned an MBA from the University of Chicago. Although her career was thriving in Iowa, she wanted to create her own radiation oncology program in an area of need. In January 2012, Dr. Jacobson became the Founding Chair and Professor of Radiation Oncology at West Virginia University. In 2013, she became Physician in Chief for Radiation Oncology for the West Virginia University Hospital System.

“When I arrived at WVU, the radiation oncology services were very basic, so my initial focus was on program building. In 2015, we achieved our ACR [American College of Radiology] accreditation. In 2017 we launched our residency radiation oncology training program, which is the first in the state of West Virginia. The department currently has ASTRO APEx accreditation [American Society for Radiation Oncology Accreditation Program for Excellence]. I came to Morgantown with the goal of building a solid, state-of-the-art program so people in West Virginia wouldn’t need to travel out of state for high-quality radiation oncology care. We have accomplished that; but continue to focus on improving our care and expanding our services.”

What does a busy leader in radiation oncology do to decompress? “I run and swim and enjoy outdoor activities. I like to quilt and sew. In addition, I enjoy photography, reading, and studying foreign languages. There is always something new to do or learn.” 

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Jacobson reported no conflicts of interest.