Radiation oncologist Abigail T. Berman, MD, was born and reared in Philadelphia, the daughter of an orthopedic surgeon whose passion for his work was an early influence on her decision to pursue a career in medicine. “My father absolutely adored his job and worked very hard, which inspired me to seek a career I would find equally fulfilling. I was a math and science person in school, so that was also part of my draw to medicine. During high school, I had the opportunity to participate in an organic chemistry program at MIT, which was very exciting, so much so I thought seriously about pursuing a career in drug development,” said Dr. Berman.
Abigail T. Berman, MD
Caring for Patients With Cancer
After graduating high school, Dr. Berman attended Harvard University, where she majored in chemistry. After receiving her degree from Harvard, Dr. Berman returned to her hometown of Philadelphia and entered the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) Perelman School of Medicine. “I discovered that I loved caring for patients with cancer so much that I decided to become an oncologist and forgo my first inclination about drug development,” revealed Dr. Berman.
When asked why she chose radiation oncology, Dr. Berman replied: “I was intrigued by looking at a patient’s tumor and figuring out how best to radiate it with the different tools at my disposal. I also saw radiation oncology as an exciting and expanding multidisciplinary field in which I’d get the opportunity to work with colleagues in surgical and medical oncology. It just seemed like the best fit for me on multiple levels, and I’m very glad to have made the decision.”
Dr. Berman noted that before and after her residency, she was mentored by noted radiation oncologist, Stephen Hahn, MD, current Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Dr. Hahn was my Department Chair and my mentor; he truly taught me about putting the patient first, no matter what direction my career might take. Not only did my mentors teach me how to deliver high-value patient care in the clinic, but from them I learned how to thrive in the robust environment of academic medicine, taking advantage of the multiple opportunities to conduct research, teach, collaborate, and expand my knowledge of clinical care.”
Precision Oncology at UPenn
After completing her residency at UPenn, Dr. Berman joined the institute as a junior faculty member. “When I joined the faculty, it opened up a new window of administrative opportunities. For example, I became involved in the Penn Center for Precision Medicine and am currently involved in a project in lung cancer. The center brings together an interdisciplinary clinical team of experts in data analysis, biomedical informatics, biostatistics, and health economics to measure both biologic and economic outcomes. During that work, it became a passion of mine to figure out and develop better ways to deliver higher-value, precision therapies for all our patients with cancer, not only for our center but throughout our entire health-care system,” she said.
Dr. Berman continued: “I also became intrigued with how our academic center operates and how I could best integrate into the inner workings. Without a skilled and highly functioning administrative organization, the center cannot advance its goals and accelerate progress. Moreover, having physicians involved in administration helps to create a better environment for our patients with cancer.”
COVID-19 Pandemic: Complications and Opportunities
Dr. Berman’s weekly schedule is reflective of the challenging career that academic oncologists face, which has been made more so during the COVID pandemic. “I have 2 long
days in the clinic per week, but even when I’m not in the clinic, my patients are my priority no matter what day it is, so I also spend a lot of time on the telephone, sorting out issues and problems patients may be having. My other days are split doing administrative duties, having calls and meetings. I’m also Director of our residency program. Within that capacity, I am also working to ensure that all of our residents are fully supported to have the best chance of attaining their goals during and after residency. Now, during the COVID upheaval, we had to reorganize how we go about our important work of caring for our patients with cancer,” she explained.
Dr. Berman explained that despite the initial logistical challenges presented at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the center has worked hard in a highly collaborative way to establish guidelines and procedures that have allowed a fairly seamless transition into the new normal. “In that respect, the adversity has also created new opportunities to improve our center. Our clinical studies and virtual telemedicine care initiatives are up and running. Our in-person visits are, naturally, an essential component to our delivery system, so we’ve worked creatively to ensure they remain intact.”
“The best thing for radiation oncology is furthering our knowledge of tumor biology, because that’s how we can tailor therapies for better outcomes.”— Abigail T. Berman, MD
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When asked about recruitment challenges, Dr. Berman said: “Unfortunately, our recruitment efforts will need to be done virtually, which has never been done before, so we’re venturing into new territory in an important area for the center. So much of the recruitment process is based on interpersonal exchanges that take place on recruitment day. It will certainly be different getting to know each other during a Zoom meeting as opposed to sitting across from one another in an office. It’s a stressful process for the applicants, and we are trying to make it as anxiety-free as possible.”
How does a super-busy academic oncologist decompress? “I have two small kids, so that’s a big part of my off-work activity,” Dr. Berman shared. “Being with them and watching them grow up is very cool and fills me with such joy. Nothing helps me decompress more than that. My husband and I really get into doing home improvement projects around the house, which I find very relaxing. We also enjoy yoga, which has become part of our lives. We cook together. Other than that, I don’t need very much.”
Dr. Berman offered a closing thought on radiation oncology moving forward: “Now, more than ever, radiation oncology is extremely multidisciplinary. I believe the role of radiation oncology, for example, is expanding exponentially in the field of metastases. As we better understand a tumor’s molecular profile, we are also getting a better understanding about how local treatments can play into the overall care. If a patient has a known metastasis, in which one area is growing but other areas are being controlled, we are learning about how to put that all together into a precision-based care plan. The best thing for radiation oncology is furthering our knowledge of tumor biology, because that’s how we can tailor therapies for better outcomes. That knowledge is rapidly expanding, so I’m excited for the future and being part of a field that is truly making a difference for our patients with cancer.”
DISCLOSURE: Dr. Berman has received honoraria from Imedex and Varian Medical Systems; has served as a consultant or advisor to AstraZeneca; has received institutional research funding from Merck; and has been reimbursed for travel, accommodations, or other expenses by Varian Medical Systems.