Mentorship From a Past ASCO President and Others Steers a Career to Academic Research

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Stacy L. Moulder, MD

Stacy L. Moulder, MD

Breast cancer specialist Stacy L. Moulder, MD, was born and reared in Brookhaven, Mississippi, a small town southwest of the state capital of Jackson. “I was always interested in math and science, and I had a wonderful biology teacher in high school. It was when the advanced placement courses had just started. There were no specific influences on my decision to become a doctor, but I guess it was a career that fit with my love for science,” said Dr. Moulder.

After graduating with honors in high school, Dr. Moulder enrolled at Mississippi State University, where she thrived in premed studies. After earning her MS degree, she entered the University of Mississippi School of Medicine. “Medical school was a turning point in that I really felt I came into my own. I worked with an outstanding group of students, and I found the problem-solving aspects of medicine fascinating.”

Asked about her decision to pursue the challenging field of oncology, Dr. Moulder responded, “When I was in medical school, my ‘cool’ aunt, who is only 10 years older than me and the first in our family to attend college, developed breast cancer while she was pregnant with her daughter. Her cancer was misdiagnosed and wasn’t caught until it was already stage III disease. She had chemotherapy followed by surgical resection and chemotherapy, and at the end of the day, she is a 22-year breast cancer survivor.”

A Personal Connection With Cancer

She continued: “My aunt is an amazing person, and her story is powerful. She lives in Houston, and because of her cancer diagnosis, all of the women in our family traveled there to do the Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure. I’d never done anything like that before. I remember parking with my family several blocks away from the Walk, and as we approached the start, I began seeing people wearing T-shirts in memory of those lost to breast cancer or in support of survivors. I immediately thought of what my aunt had been through and how, at the time, her prognosis was not that great. As we turned the last corner to reach the starting line, the number of people in T-shirts who were affected by this disease was overwhelming, and we all became tearful. I think that was a pivotal experience in my decision to become an oncologist.”

In 1995, Dr. Moulder did her internal medicine internship and residency at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “I had planned on going into private practice in Mississippi, but after finishing my residency, I decided I needed a change of venue. So in 1998, I began a clinical fellowship in hematology/oncology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. ASCO Past President Dave Johnson, MD, FASCO, was my mentor, and he kept pushing me into research opportunities. I’d remind Dr. Johnson that I planned to go into private practice, and he’d say, ‘Right. Now why don’t you go into the lab and see what you think about this research.’”

She continued, “Dr. Johnson actually supported me in getting one of the first Masters of Science in Clinical Investigation Awards, which had just begun at Vanderbilt. It was a great experience, learning about how to conduct clinical trials and correlative studies.”

ASCO Presentation

Dr. Moulder also credits Carlos Arteaga, MD, another mentor who helped shape her research career. “I ended up in Carlos’ lab, and the support and opportunities I got from him were unparalleled. My first presentation as a fellow at the ASCO Annual Meeting was an oral presentation at a special session. Carlos allowed me to do it, and he coached me through it,” she said.

Dr. Moulder eventually left Vanderbilt for an opportunity at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. “I was at Moffitt for 3 very good years, during which I worked with some amazing colleagues and wrote my first grants. It was a truly rewarding time that helped my career to grow. Then I had an opportunity to join The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and jumped at it. I’ve been here ever since,” she said.

MD Anderson

“When I moved to MD Anderson I had a special interest in early drug development, and I joined the breast program. But as my research interests matured, I became more focused on triple-negative breast cancer. We have a very robust program in which we’re trying to identify patients with chemotherapy-resistant disease, because 40% to 80% of these patients develop a recurrence and die within 2 years,” she said.

When you begin seeing some of your ideas being translated into trials that have the potential to impact the field, it is the fuel that keeps you engaged and moving forward with optimism.
— Stacy L. Moulder, MD

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Dr. Moulder is principal investigator on an innovative clinical trial called ARTEMIS, which involves expertise across multiple disciplines. The study seeks to determine whether molecular testing of tumors can improve the response to neoadjuvant treatment by guiding patients with chemosensitive tumors to standard chemotherapy and those with -chemoinsensitive tumors to clinical trials of agents that target specific molecular drivers.

“We want to try to home in on groups of patients for whom targeted drugs may have the greatest effects,” said Dr. Moulder, adding, “I’m very proud of the team we’ve assembled. To date, after just 2 years, we’ve accrued about 200 patients to ARTEMIS.”

Collegial Environment

Dr. Moulder stressed that while MD Anderson is a world-renowned comprehensive cancer center that attracts talent from around the globe, the environment is energized by its collective mission in research and clinical care of patients with cancer. “You walk into a conference room to present your ideas with famous oncologists like Tom Buchholz, MD, and Gabriel Hortobagyi, MD, FASCO, sitting there, but it’s all about support and results and working as a team. MD Anderson may be an academic powerhouse, but our faculty have real lives, and we all look after each other, making sure, for instance, that if one of us has a sick kid at home, we’re covered,” said Dr. Moulder.

Dr. Moulder also teaches and mentors. “Two of the fellows I mentor—outstanding young doctors—have received Young Investigator Awards from ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation. I’m proud to give back to the community, and it’s rewarding when you see young doctors you’ve mentored move forward to maximize their talents and develop outstanding careers as clinicians and clinical investigators. I know I wouldn’t have such a fulfilling academic career if not for the mentors who helped shape my path, so it is extremely important to mentor those just beginning their careers,” she said.

A Last Thought

Asked to share a final thought, Dr. Moulder replied, “There is nothing more exciting in oncology than being involved in a study that changes the way we practice. When you begin seeing some of your ideas being translated into trials that have the potential to impact the field, it is the fuel that keeps you engaged and moving forward with optimism. And in breast cancer, we’re fortunate to have made tremendous progress, which in turn keeps a steady flow of young investigators eager to spend time in the lab and writing grant proposals. It’s an exciting time in the field, and I’m glad to be part of it.”

What does a busy clinical researcher do to decompress? “I’m taking up the drums. My kids are drummers; they have a fantastic instructor, and I just thought it would be fun, so I started lessons. It’s great to have something like drumming where it takes all your attention. You can’t focus on work or the kids; you’re just there playing. I find it very relaxing,” said Dr. Moulder. ■

DISCLOSURE: Dr. Moulder reported no conflicts of interest.