I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been selected for this year’s ASTCT Clinical Research Training Course (CRTC). The funny thing is that, just a year ago, I’m not sure I would have considered myself a “transplanter.” While my mentor, Nirali Shah, and my close friend and co-worker Haneen Shalabi have both completed the course before me, I have to imagine that it is surprising that someone like myself who has completed a sarcoma fellowship of all things would be selected to take part in this course. That I was chosen to participate in this course truly speaks to the reach that the field of cellular therapy has achieved in 2021.
I must say that I was among the last scholars to arrive. My wife had our third child less than 2 months prior to the course. While the course offered an opportunity for professional growth that was simply too great to pass up, the only acceptable choice was to stay home as long as possible to help with the kids and take the last flight in on Tuesday. Still, I greatly enjoyed receiving the WhatsApp messages throughout the day of the other scholars who had arrived before me getting to meet each other. This was an early sign of the camaraderie amongst the group which would become apparent over the coming days.
Wednesday was an exciting introduction to the course and my co-scholars. I was pretty star-struck, sitting between Carlos Ramos of Baylor College of Medicine and Ted Gooley from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, as well as surrounded by a host of other luminaries in the field of transplantation and cellular therapy. As we gave introductions, my “interesting fact” was that my wife has been on Jeopardy, which resulted in me spending the rest of the week with the other course participants (mistakenly) thinking that I knew anything about trivia. After a few introductory talks, the scholars introduced our protocols. I was struck by the wide array of topics which ranged from my own—an early-phase clinical trial of an adoptive cellular therapy for pediatric solid tumors—to a pilot study of an intervention to improve transplant outcomes in elderly transplant recipients, a study to better understand barriers to minority transplant recipients receiving optimal donors, a trial seeking to understand how different antimicrobial prophylaxis might impact gut microbiota, and many others. I honestly left the first day incredibly excited to learn not only from the faculty, but also my co-scholars, who clearly brought a wide range of expertise to the CRTC.
The next two days were a whirlwind of pearls of wisdom which we received from the CRTC faculty. These came in the form of didactic lectures, but also from our small groups where we received personalized advice on our protocols. I was very fortunate to receive mentorship from Dr. Ramos, Dr. Partow Kebriaei, and from Dr. Joycelynn Palmer from a statistical point of view. This kind of one-on-one mentorship is invaluable, and my protocol certainly emerged from this process much more polished after receiving their advice.
Additionally, I truly feel that what made this course an unforgettable experience was how well the entire group of scholars and faculty bonded outside of the formal course environment. I was very fortunate to have some fascinating conversations with Dr. Gooley and my co-scholars at dinner on Thursday at 350 Main Brasserie. Then on Friday we got away from science for an afternoon and split into teams for a cooking competition at Park City Culinary Institute. The record will reflect that the Uncensored Chefs were victorious, but we all know that BBB and our chicken satay was the best dish of the day. That evening the scholars broke off from the faculty and had an outstanding dinner sharing all manner of creative pizzas at the Boneyard Saloon and Wine Dive. Finally, Dr. Daniel Couriel was gracious enough to invite all of us into his home on Saturday evening after the final presentations of our protocols. After spending several days getting to know one another both professionally and outside of work, we had an amazing time eating, drinking, learning about each others’ lives outside of medicine, and for those of us who stayed late, playing party games like “heads up.”
Following the final protocol presentations, I was honored to receive the H. Jean Khoury Award for Scholarly Excellence. Truly, this award could have gone to any of the scholars. Each scholar’s proposal was highly innovative and well thought out, and everyone was incredibly engaged throughout the entire course. I learned as much from my co-scholars as I did from the faculty. Furthermore, it was said several times over the course of the week, everyone was genuinely a good person. There is usually “that person” at any academic conference or retreat who is constantly trying to prove themselves or show up the other attendees, but in this case I was very fortunate to be surrounded not only by some of the most brilliant young minds in our field but also a collection of kind and inquisitive people that I am very proud to now call my friends.
As I said, I’m not sure a year ago I would have considered myself a part of this field of cellular therapy. That a pediatric oncologist with a focus in sarcomas was selected to attend this course speaks to how broad this field has become. I will undoubtedly look back at this week as nothing short of transformative for my career, and after spending this week with my co-scholars, I am excited for the many novel ideas that will be developed in the coming years.