Fostering a Global Community of Early-Career Oncologists, Virtually

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In a typical year, the new participants in ASCO and Conquer Cancer’s International Development and Education Awards (IDEA) and International Development and Education Awards–Palliative Care (IDEA-PC) program would arrive at the McCormick Place Convention Center just ahead of the ASCO Annual Meeting. For many of the 20-plus participants, this would be their first visit to Chicago. As the recipients met their colleagues for the first time, ready to begin the prestigious program of mentorship and learning, the room would have the nervous-but-excited buzz of any new cohort.

“I always have this little speech that I give in Chicago on the first day,” said Vanessa Sarchet, who oversees the program in her role as Associate Director in the ASCO International Affairs department. “I tell the IDEA participants, ‘You are all strangers, and you’re from different places and backgrounds, but in 5 days, at the end of your time in Chicago, you’re all going to be really good friends’—and they always are. They’re such a dynamic group, plus the excitement of being at the ASCO Annual Meeting and learning all of the newest research—it’s so fun.”

In a typical year, this is the face-to-face, immersive environment in which the IDEA recipients would embark on their year of mentorship with an ASCO volunteer. The recipients would attend talks with ASCO leadership, go to scientific and educational sessions in their area of interest, network at dinners and receptions, be honored at a ceremony for the year’s grant and award recipients, and get to know each other in person during the ASCO Annual Meeting. At the conclusion of the Annual Meeting, they would depart with their program mentors and travel to their mentor’s institution for several days of onsite learning.

But, as with everything else in 2020, the IDEA experience did not proceed in the typical fashion this year, and ASCO’s International Affairs team had to quickly create a virtual curriculum that would offer the same level of valuable learning and mentorship that would normally occur.

IDEA and IDEA-PC provide support for early-career oncologists in low- and middle-income countries and facilitate the sharing of knowledge among these young professionals and experienced ASCO members who serve as mentors. The aim of the program is for the participants to develop long-term relationships that will help improve cancer care in their home countries.

While many aspects of life were paused due to the pandemic, cancer and its related conditions continued progressing, and the next generation of oncologists must continue to be trained. As past IDEA recipient and current IDEA Steering Group Chair Gevorg Tamamyan, MD, of Armenia, said, “No one canceled cancer and the fight against this catastrophic disease. Moreover, people with cancer [were] more affected by the consequences of shifting priorities in health care globally.”

Dr. Tamamyan described the IDEA as a “life-changer” for young oncologists from low- and middle-income countries, “including myself,” he said. “By changing the lives of physicians, the program has been making positive changes for thousands of patients and their families. A patient in a rural hospital in a low- and middle-income country doesn’t even know that his physician was one of the IDEA recipients, and maybe because of this award, now he is able to get the most updated and appropriate care.”

The 2020 IDEA class is the first to participate in a fully virtual program, and ASCO’s International Affairs team has been working hard to foster community and connection among the award recipients. A survey of this year’s participants revealed that they wanted to meet on a monthly basis to report progress on their action plans, ask questions, and catch up with one another, and ASCO staff have been able to provide and maintain this desired frequency with meet-and-greet webinars, informal chats with past ASCO leadership, a series of mini-sessions on clinical research, and other interactions.

Mentoring: IDEA Cornerstone Goes Virtual

The program kicked off in September 2020 with a virtual introduction call. Afterward, each participant drafted a plan with short-term goals for the program—for example, writing and submitting an abstract to an ASCO meeting, drafting a manuscript, or developing a clinical trial protocol—which their mentors reviewed and signed off on. This Mentoring Action Plan, a new program requirement this year, was due in October; mentor/mentee pairs were encouraged to meet on a monthly basis thereafter so the mentees could report progress on their plans and ask questions.

For example, IDEA recipient Yury Savenka, MD, of Belarus, whose focus is head and neck oncology, is working with his mentor, Mark Agulnik, MD, FRCPC, of City of Hope, on two projects that he outlined in his action plan. “The first is an article about reconstruction of a nasal defect using a cryopreservation costal cartilage allograft,” Dr. Savenka said, and the second is “a review of the literature on bioengineering technologies for the restoration of facial tissue defects. I will do my best to complete both projects.”

Mentorship is the cornerstone of the IDEA program, emphasized 2020 recipient Sami Saleem Omar, MBBS, of Iraq, who is paired with mentor Daniel F. Hayes, MD, FACP, FASCO, of the University of Michigan. “The mentorship program is a great and precious project. It helps and guides us with a more experienced and knowledgeable person, which has its own significance,” Dr. Omar said. As it can be challenging for early-career professionals to recognize and fill in their own knowledge gaps, “I need someone to guide me in focusing my education planning and goal setting. [Hearing] a sentence from an expert is equal to reading a chapter of a book.”

According to mentor Yvonne A. Efebera, MD, MPH, of The Ohio State University, mentorship is an aspect of training that is working really well in the virtual environment. “The virtual mentoring program has helped us to discuss more about long-term projects instead of focusing on all the details involved in visiting—credentialing, vaccinations, and all of that stuff,” she said. Dr. Efebera and her 2020 IDEA mentee, Flor Maria Armillas, MD, of Mexico, along with an Ohio State colleague, have been meeting every 3 to 4 weeks on Zoom as they work on a manuscript in autologous transplant in multiple myeloma.

In light of the pandemic travel restrictions, the 2020 IDEA cohort will have an extended program through 2021. If it is safe to do so, ASCO will support 2020 recipient visits to mentor institutions this year, just as it has for past cohorts.

Virtual Education: Webinar Series, ASCO eLearning

Along with mentor/mentee conversations, 2020 IDEA participants connected through a monthly webinar series. The initial sessions focused on clinical research, an idea that arose from a conversation between a recipient and 2020–2021 ASCO President Lori J. Pierce, MD, FASTRO, FASCO. Subsequent topics were selected based on comments and feedback from IDEA participants about areas of interest and educational gaps, including ASCO opportunities for early-career oncologists, biostatistics for investigators, and publishing and presenting research results.

An additional resource newly available to IDEA recipients is the ASCO eLearning module “Fundamentals of Clinical Trials,” given the general interest in clinical research for this cohort. Typically, this module is only available to participants of an International Clinical Research Course, but this year access has been expanded to the IDEA cohort.

Next Steps for the Next Generation of Oncology Leaders

The virtual events created for the 2020 IDEA cohort have helped to forge a sense of community during the pandemic and will continue to support future IDEA classes, even after in-person events resume. A hybrid approach may become the new standard, with meaningful face-to-face interaction supplemented by valuable and convenient virtual opportunities.

The widespread adoption of virtual meetings can also help IDEA participants maintain their relationships beyond the program’s initial year, as a past cohort found—at the participants’ request, the ASCO International Affairs team organized a virtual 2018 IDEA alumni meet-up, which was well received. Similar events may be organized in the future.

“We don’t know how long the pandemic will last, we don’t know what will happen, but we know, certainly, that the IDEA should continue to spread excellence and motivate young doctors from the world’s most difficult areas. We hope that we will get back soon to our previous lifestyle, and that next year we will celebrate the upcoming IDEA winners in Chicago,” Dr. Tamamyan said.

Dr. Efebera echoed this sentiment from the mentor’s point of view. “There is nothing that can overtake the physical human connection. I love it—and cannot wait to get back to normal in 2022,” she said. “For now, we have to do with what we got.”

The 2020 IDEA recipients are a very engaged group who are committed to improving cancer care in their countries and fostering their professional development. ASCO International Affairs staff are examining ways to leverage this enthusiasm and dedication in the future, such as through the establishment of ASCO–supported Oncology Student Interest Groups and involvement in ASCO committees and task forces.

At this time, the 2022 IDEA program is slated to resume its normal schedule, with applications opening on August 1, 2021.

2020 International Development & Education Award (IDEA) Recipients and Mentors

Flor Maria Armillas, MD, Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Médicas y Nutrición Salvador Zubirán, Mexico—Mentor: Yvonne A. Efebera, MD, MPH

Barnabas Atwiine, MBBS, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Uganda—Mentor: Jaime M. Libes, MD, MPH

Ranjana Karmacharya Badgami, MBBS, MD, Nepal Cancer Hospital and Research Center, Nepal—Mentor: Anuja Jhingran, MD

Samvel Bardakhchyan, MD, Hematology Center After Prof. R.H. Yeolyan, Armenia—Mentor: Ghassan K. Abou-Alfa, MD

Biniyam Tefera Deressa, MD, Adama Hospital Medical College, Ethiopia—Mentor: Alex A. Adjei, MD, PhD, FACP

Fedja Radmilo Djordjevic, MD, Institute for Oncology and Radiology of Serbia, Serbia—Mentor: Suresh S. Ramalingam, MD, FASCO

Carolina Gabay, MD, Angel H. Roffo Cancer Institute, Argentina—Mentor: Luis E. Raez, MD, FACP, FCCP

Ann Meredith Garcia Trinidad, MD, Dagupan Doctors Villaflor Memorial Hospital, the Philippines—Mentor: Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP, FASCO

Gustavo Cartaxo de Lima Gössling, MD, Hospital de Clínicas de Porto Alegre, Brazil—Mentor: E. Gabriela Chiorean, MD

Hang Thu Hoang, MD, MSc, National Cancer Hospital Vietnam, Vietnam—Mentor: Gina Villani, MD, MPH

Muhammad Rafiqul Islam, MBBS, MD, National Institute of Cancer Research & Hospital, Bangladesh—Mentor: Naoto Ueno, MD, PhD

Sonia Mathai, MBBS, MD, Tata Medical Center, Kolkata, India—Mentor: Surendra Shastri, MD, MBBS, DPh

Nicaise Nsabimana, MD, Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence, Burundi—Mentor: Temidayo Fadelu, MD, MPH

Adeyemi Adebola Okunowo, MBBS, MPH, Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Nigeria—Mentor: Ira Winer, MD, PhD

Sami Saleem Omar, MBBS, Rizgary Oncology Center, Iraq—Mentor: Daniel F. Hayes, MD, FACP, FASCO

Yury Savenka, MD, Gomel Regional Oncology Clinic, Belarus—Mentor: Mark Agulnik, MD, FRCPC

Assem Suleimenova, MD, PhD, Kazkh Institute Oncology and Radiology, Kazakhstan—Mentor: Judith Wolf, MD

Musliu Adetola Tolani, MBBS, PGCertPH, FWACS, FMCS, Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, Zaria, Nigeria—Mentor: Adam Murphy, MD, MBA, MSCI

Nino Vardiashvili, MD, Medical Center Innova, Georgia—Mentor: Nathalie McKenzie, MD

2020 International Development & Education Awards–Palliative Care (IDEA-PC) Recipients and Mentors

Gauri Chinchalker, MD, Indian Institute of Head and Neck Oncology, India—Mentor: Camilla Zimmermann, MD, PhD, FRCPC

Coumba Gueye, MD, Joilot Curie Institute, Senegal—Mentor: Eric L. Krakauer, MD, PhD

Rucha Patil, MBBS, Tata Memorial Hospital, India—Mentor: Frank D. Ferris, MD

Originally published in ASCO Connection. © 2021. American Society of Clinical Oncology. ASCO Connection, March 9, 2021. All rights reserved.