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Interviewing Dr. Sujuan Ba

Written by CAPA JRC Reporters Alvin Tong, Sophie Huang, Sky Zhang, Daniel Li, Benson Chan, Kenneth Shue


On May 19th, 2024, the JRC interviewed Dr. Sujuan Ba, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR), who stands at the forefront of pioneering efforts in the fight against cancer. With a mission to fund groundbreaking research initiatives, NFCR, under Dr. Ba's leadership, has become a beacon of innovation and collaboration in the global cancer research community. In this exclusive interview, the JRC delves into Dr. Ba's insights, achievements, and vision for the future of cancer research.


Background and Early Career

Dr. Ba grew up in China and immigrated to the United States in 1986 after graduating from Peking University, majoring in radiochemistry. She enrolled in a graduate program in inorganic chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on thermodynamic and kinetic-mechanistic studies of carbon-hydrogen bond activation. Instead of pursuing an academic career, she decided to develop her career path in the chemical industry. She was hired as a senior chemist by ARCO Chemical Company upon graduating from Penn in 1991. She started her career by training in various sectors within the chemical industry, facing numerous challenges,including language barriers and cultural differences. With advice from her mentor, "Always pay attention; never feel restricted by your inner fear, and never feel shy to highlight your accomplishments," she intentionally worked hard to overcome these difficulties. Dr. Ba recounted how her accent caused her to lose some opportunities early on in her career, as people would just hang up on her when she reached out to potential new customers, but once she realized that she could start introducing herself as Dr. Ba, she was able to garner much more respect from the people she tried to reach and was able to accomplish her goals. It was an enlightening realization that people give respect and notice to education.


Joining NFCR and Early Contributions

When Dr. Ba joined NFCR in 1999, she started as the Chief Scientific Officer (CSO), bringing inher scientific and business experiences and expertise. She immediately recognized areas for improvement within NFCR. Although NFCR was highly regarded in the cancer research community, the lack of marketing hindered the organization from gaining public visibility, especially with the intense competition for donor support in the charity sector. Like many other funding providers, NFCR gave individual grants to researchers, making it difficult for the organization to stand out and effectively articulate its impact.

The first few years of Dr. Ba's role as CSO also came with many technological advancements, including the emerging field of computational tools and drug screenings. Dr. Ba believed that NFCR should play an active role in bringing experts from diverse fields together, facilitating broader collaboration, and speeding up drug development. Dr. Ba took this opportunity toorganize the ScreenSaver LifeSaver project. This innovative initiative allowed idled personal computer owners to download the drug screening software and participate in peer-to-peer computing, effectively creating a massive global supercomputer by linking more than 3 million personal computers' idle computing times. Researchers used this distributed computing power to study billions of molecules. The ScreenSaver LifeSaver project was successful for researchers, which identified many potential drug molecules for cancer and other diseases, and for NFCR, as it brought significant public attention to the organization. This project was written up as one of the innovations by Shira P. White in her book "New Ideas about New Ideas, Insights on Creativity from the World's Leading Innovations" in 2002. A biotech company was spanned out from this technology platform in 2002 to commercialize the technology and drug screening platform.  


Founding AFCR

During Dr. Ba's earlier days at the NFCR, the scientific community became increasingly interested in fostering international collaboration. However, Dr. Ba observed a significant gap: many Asian scientists, particularly those in China, lacked the resources to conduct biomedical research despite their eagerness to learn and collaborate. As Dr. Ba sought ways to bridge this gap, she founded the Asian Fund for Cancer Research (AFCR) as the gap-bridging solution. In founding AFCR, Dr. Ba hoped to create a global collaborative platform where previously inaccessible resources and ideas could be exchanged between Asian and Western scientists, working together to address cancers prevalent in Asian countries.

In addressing the unique challenges and opportunities for cancer prevalence in Asian populations, Dr. Ba emphasizes that cultural barriers prevent the early detection and treatment of cancers. Dr. Ba highlights the reluctance within Asian cultures to discuss cancer and the lack of support groups within the Asian populations. Dr. Ba's personal experience with her mother's late-stage colon cancer emphasizes the immediate necessity for these initiatives where AFCR can play a role in sharing critically needed information for early detection and precision treatments.She is enthusiastic about minimizing the care gap and hopes to improve these disparities soon.


Dr. Ba's Leadership and Vision

Dr. Ba takes on various responsibilities as the CEO of the NFCR and founder of the AFCR, in addition to her responsibilities for other organizations she advises and helps. She oversees fundraising, scientific programs, marketing and communication, partnership building, and strategic financial planning for both NFCR and AFCR. She relies on the support of her dedicated team members and many brilliant and caring pro-bono advisors and supporters, to whom she expresses deep gratitude.

Dr. Ba's typical workweek is filled with Zoom calls and personal meetings with supporters, potential donors and partners, advisors, scientists, and entrepreneurs of oncology startups.Although she uses Zoom calls regularly, she emphasizes that she prefers in-person meetings to ensure creative sharing and the best discussion outcomes. She encourages young people to seek opportunities to interact personally with people and peers, not only relying on digital communication. Effective communication is critical for future career success.

The nature of her work across different continents means that her day often starts early in the morning and can extend until late at night to accommodate different time zones. While the demanding schedule presents challenges, Dr. Ba embraces this aspect of her work, as it allows for diverse challenges that keep her work engaging and rewarding.

While the motto "Never give up" emphasizes the importance of perseverance, Dr. Ba recognizes that there are strategic scenarios where shifting focus may be more beneficial to achieving the overall goal.  It's all about planning and prioritizing tasks to achieve your goals effectively. In some cases, strategically giving up on certain tasks may allow one to maximize efforts on the most critical aspects of the goal. This doesn't mean abandoning the goal altogether but rather prioritizing tasks to ensure that energy and resources are directed where they can have the most significant impact. By reassessing and realigning priorities, one can maintain a commitment to the overarching objective while optimizing the path to success.

Throughout her career, Dr. Ba does not dwell on regrets, believing that all her prior experiences, positive and negative, contribute to who she is now and what she has achieved. As a leader, she has learned valuable lessons in interpersonal relations, hiring, and team building. Surrounded by scientists and being a scientist herself, Dr. Ba recognized the need to bring in different types of people to diversify her team, which would strengthen the organization. This realization has encouraged her to push herself and others to be more extroverted and to maintain an open mind toward various candidates during hiring.

She learned that, as a leader, while it is essential to be open-minded, you have to be confident and strong; trusting your gut is crucial, too. When hiring employees, especially for key leadership positions, they must be someone you feel you can trust and fit in with the company culture. Most importantly, their personal goals must align with the organization's mission.

Additionally, in fostering innovation and collaboration at NFCR and other organizations, Dr. Ba cultivates a culture where mistakes are viewed as opportunities for learning, impossibilities are to be challenged, entrepreneurial spirits are to be promoted, and an agile mindset is critical. She believes this approach is essential for achieving breakthroughs and advancing cancer research.


Challenges and Achievements

Cancer care and treatment are especially challenging in impoverished communities where access to healthcare resources is limited. NFCR is dedicated to promoting equal access to cancer treatment for all individuals, regardless of socioeconomic status. Dr. Ba recognizes that many people struggle to navigate the complexities of cancer diagnosis and treatment. She and the organization work to bridge the care gap by ensuring patients receive the right treatment at the right time despite the scarcity of resources.

As the catalyst of hundreds of cancer research projects, Dr. Ba is mostly proud of her involvement in the Glioblastoma Adaptive Global Innovative Learning Environment (GBM AGILE). According to Dr. Ba, current clinical trials for Glioblastoma, one of the deadliest brain cancers, are simply ineffective in addressing this rapidly spreading brain cancer. As a result, Dr. Ba worked with more than 130 scientific leaders to create an alternate approach to clinical trials that would expedite the testing process for Glioblastoma treatments – the GBM AGILEinitiative.

Under the leadership of Dr. Ba, NFCR and AFCR were early founding partners of the Global Coalition for Adaptive Research (GCAR), which Dr. Ba co-founded with a group of dedicated brain cancer researchers, clinicians, and patient advocates. GCAR operationalizes GBM AGILE, now open at 60 sites in 6 countries, with six new drugs in the system and more to come. GBM AGILE has screened over 2,000 patients to date, giving new hope to GBM patients. Despite concerns about no return on investment for building this innovative international clinical platform from many people, Dr. Ba's persistence in developing the project, now over ten years, has provided a revolutionary system for improving clinical trial testing efficiency that can be applied to other deadly cancers such as pancreatic and ovarian cancers.

Dr. Ba's career path has not been easy. As a female minority leader in her field, Dr. Ba recognizes the significant gender and cultural disparity in scientific and cancer research. She explains that while the gender balance in medical school admission is generally even, less than a third of leadership positions in healthcare are held by women. As one of these leaders herself, Dr. Ba has shared that she always likes to view her simply as a leader and a scientist.

On March 15th, Dr. Ba and the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR) were honored with the "2024 Pioneer in Medicine Award" by the World Brain Mapping Foundation and the Society for Brain Mapping and Therapeutics. This recognition marks a significant milestonein NFCR's over 50 years of impactful research funding to find cures for cancer and lead the global fight against cancer.

Recently, Dr. Ba received another Trailblazer Award for her outstanding achievements at the AAPI Women's Gala 2024 on May 14th in New York City. While she prefers not to be labeledby ethnic background, she acknowledges the importance of these recognitions among our communities.

Dr. Ba advises that more efforts are needed, including increasing the willingness of current professionals to mentor young women in the field. She believes that stepping out of one's shell is crucial for significantly impacting our uniqueness.

This article was provided by the Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 25 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.

Instagram: @capa_jrc

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