Conquer Cancer Chair, Tom Roberts, speaks candidly with his colleague and mentor, Bob Mayer, about his unconventional career path and the way in which his passions have directed his work.
MAYER: To me your life has been a marriage between economics and medicine and public policy and medicine. When you went off to college at the University of Pennsylvania, I think you majored in both of those. You were in the Arts and Sciences faculty area as well as in the Wharton School. So where did this dichotomy of interests come from?
ROBERTS: Well, I grew up in a town outside of Pittsburgh called New Kensington. It’s one of those steel towns on the river that you would read about having struggled in the 1970s.
One of the members of the community that became a fulcrum of support and advice going through this challenging time was the pediatrician. He became more than just a doctor in that community. He was somebody that offered free care when people lost their jobs. He was very supportive of my education and he encouraged me growing up.
To see the role that he was playing in the community, I think I decided at a very young age, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to serve the community. Since I was interested in science, that's what I pursued from an extraordinarily young age.
MAYER: So when you graduated from Harvard Medical School and you became a physician, what did you think your life was going to be?
ROBERTS: I didn't know. But every day that I stepped into the hospital and my internship and residency I felt it was a privilege and an honor. Ultimately, medicine to me became a series of stories that were incredibly compelling. The stories were a reflection of people's hopes and fears and vulnerabilities and explanations of why they got to a certain point in life.
You actually came over from the Dana Farber to be a guest attending at the Mass General Hospital. I presented a case to you of a young woman with hematologic cancer and I was blown away by your knowledge, your compassion, and your teaching. After a residence report you gave one day, everyone left the room but I did not want to leave because I felt like my life had just changed. I knew what I wanted to do.
MAYER: You decided to become an oncology fellow. Which meant you were going to learn cancer medicine and all the things that go with it. And you did.
ROBERTS: I did. I went to your program at Dana Farber Partners Cancer Care, of which you were the Fellowship Director, and I loved it. I loved every day of that fellowship. I loved the stories, I loved the teaching, the mentoring, and the research. I remember a neurologist saying you learn about neurology one stroke at a time. That always stuck in my head. I thought to myself that I was going to learn oncology one drug at a time. I was going to learn about the history of every drug and I thought that would then allow me to be a better contributor to try to develop new drugs.
MAYER: So you did all of that and then you decided that you were going to move away from the clinic and use the drug experience and the development of drugs in a different manner.
ROBERTS: Well, I went on faculty and worked with a clinician who focused on lung cancer. My grandfather had died of lung cancer and I saw an area of great unmet need. I became very interested in trying to make drug development more efficient. It seemed like there was a lot of inefficiency in the process and the idea that I was trying to advance was using statistical models to predict outcomes of clinical trials before they were actually completed.
MAYER: Tell us a little bit more about that. It's not like playing the odds or rolling the dice. How do you figure out what the probability is before the actual experiment is taking place?
ROBERTS: So, that's a great question. Most clinical research sees each trial as standing on its own. They look at clinical trials in isolation and there are certain statistical assumptions that are made. There's another branch of statistical science called Bayesian statistics and it allows information from the past to be incorporated into statistical predictions. It allows you to make better predictions. So that was some research that I was doing and I went on national public radio on election night November 2004, and I was also starting to publish some of my research in this area. Then one of the partners of a well-known investment fund called Farallon Capital either read something in the paper, or heard me on the radio, and he called me and he said, “I'm deeply skeptical of your research, but it's actually kind of intriguing, and I would like to hire you as a consultant on some work.”
MAYER: Sight unseen, he was offering you a job.
ROBERTS: Yes, and I thought this consulting work would be a way to actually try to see if my statistical models would work. So I did it and he was obviously happy with the results because he offered me job.
MAYER: So you went to San Francisco for the job and you've prospered. But tell me a little bit about how we were fortunate enough to draw you back into the oncology fold and to this wonderful leadership position that you've been so successful with for Conquer Cancer.
ROBERTS: Well I love the intellectual challenges of what I do predicting the future of events, but not to be overly dramatic, there was a piece of my heart missing. It was really nagging at me. And I think you were the one who recommended that I become part of Conquer Cancer. And when I became involved, I knew it was the right decision. There were people that I profoundly respected and a vision for a future free of the fear of cancer.
MAYER: So you have this amazing schooling and background that positioned you so uniquely and then with the clinical training, you are making such a phenomenal contribution. But you're 45! What are you going to do in the next five or ten years? What is the icing on the cake?
ROBERTS: Wow. I will tell you that I used to say is, “You can have it all, but you can't have it all at once.” But I really feel fortunate. Right now in my life I do have a lot. I have a job where I have great colleagues and intellectual challenges. I have a young family. I have an organization, Conquer Cancer, that I love and that has staff and board members who are really aligned to making a difference in the lives of people with cancer. So, I feel pretty happy right now. I don't think I will plan my next step, but rather will be open to what I'm hearing from the world.
MAYER: Well as somebody who has had a small, but I think a continued and important set of influences on your career, I can't tell you how proud I am to see what you've been doing.
ROBERTS: Thank you. Thank you for being an example, for being an inspiration, and for being my friend and mentor.
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