Turning thoughts into reality

Dr Adi Zoref2

Turning thoughts into reality
By Dr Adi Zoref (@ZorefAdi)

I am an Israeli physician, trained in internal medicine.

During my residency rotation in hematology at Meir Medical Center, I met a patient who changed my life.

Three years ago, I treated a chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patient that developed an acute appearance of fever and pancytopenia. Professor Martin Ellis, the chief of our hematology institute, and I diagnosed her with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) secondary to her CLL. After treating her for over a month, she died, like most HLH patients. Professor Ellis became my mentor.

HLH is a life-threatening, hyper-inflammatory syndrome that is deadly, especially when it develops in patients with hematologic malignancies. Throughout my patient's treatment, I read many papers written by Professor Michael Jordan, a leading researcher in the field. After my patient died, my interest in the syndrome kept increasing, and I developed an urge to know more about the disease and gain experience in its treatment.

Googling "HLH" led me to the "HLH Center of Excellence" at Cincinnati, Ohio, and to the same Professor Michael Jordan, who wrote all these papers. A crazy idea got into my head: to spend my residency's research period at Cincinnati!

I shared this thought with Professor Ellis who emailed his friend in Cincinnati, a lead that eventually led me to write Professor Jordan a personal email with my story: “How this one patient sent me on a quest after HLH”.

He responded immediately and after a phone call, agreed to accept me to a research fellowship. At that moment, I decided to devote my career to investigating the disease and improving its outcome.

And so, I found myself, moving to Cincinnati with my (amazing) husband and three children, with the youngest only three months old. I was planned to complete one year of research fellowship and come back to Israel to start my clinical fellowship in hematology.

Without any experience in lab research, I joined Jordan's lab. Dr Jordan is a pediatric hematologist who developed the first mouse model for HLH and one of the leading experts in primary HLH. Soon after I started my fellowship, I fell in love with translational medicine. Dr Jordan and I created research collaborations, obtained data, and samples of patients, and planned a translational project to understand HLH in hematologic malignancies.

I joined the American Society of Hematology (ASH) and soon received an invitation to apply for EHA’s Translational Research Training in Hematology (TRTH) program and thought it would be a perfect fit for my planned translational research. 

I attended TRTH's 10-year anniversary symposium at last year's ASH conference and was highly impressed by the presenters. 

Luckily, I met Professor Shai Izraeli, a known Israeli physician-scientist who took part in TRTH in past years. After the symposium, I reached out to him and shared my plans to apply. He shared his skepticism about my chances to get accepted due to my early career status and lack of experience.

He said that to be a physician-scientist, I would need sufficient training.

He encouraged me to extend my research fellowship for another year and pursue a formal PhD. 

I followed his precise directions. Since then, we have submitted a NIH grant to support my project that is very likely to be funded later this year and I have decided to stay another year in Cincinnati. Hopefully, I will start my formal PhD with Professor Izraeli and Professor Jordan as co-mentors(!). 

My journey into research was inspired by a special patient that sent me on the quest after HLH. I realized that if you dare to get out of your comfort zone and, with a little bit of luck, finding the right mentors to guide your way, thoughts could turn into reality.

Last Updated on Monday 02 November 2020.