5 Questions… with celebrated pediatric oncologist Peter de Blank

Peter de BlankIn June, Peter de Blank, assistant professor in pediatric oncology and hematology, added a new accolade to his collection—the inaugural Francis S. Collins Award to research neurofibromatosis (NF).

He was one of the first two researchers to receive the prestigious honor sponsored by the Neurofibromatosis Therapeutic Acceleration Program (NTAP) at The Johns Hopkins University for exhibiting the potential to become a leader in the field. Johns Hopkins Hospital awards the honor to early-career physician-scientists studying neurofibromatosis type 1 to create a community of research experts.

de Blank’s successes have been widely noted. In addition to the Francis S. Collins Award, he received the St. Baldrick’s Scholar’s Award, which is focused on researching pediatric brain tumors, and the K12 Paul Calabresi Award through the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center. He is the only scientist in the country to have garnered all three awards.

“I am honored and extremely lucky to be supported by such great institutions that have trained wonderful scientists before me,” he said. “It’s a great honor to be in their company. These awards support my research and help pay my salary, but they also mean that the science I pursue has been noticed by these great foundations and scientists. These grants will help support the science, not just by providing funding to the work, but also by helping others take notice of this work.”

He will use the Francis S. Collins Award to research neurofibromatosis, one of the world’s most common but under-researched genetic diseases.

Problems associated with the disease can range widely in afflicted children, from barely affecting some to having devastating cognitive changes, problems with learning and attention, physical deformities, brain tumors or other issues.

“These children are often devastated by the affects of their disease, but their disease is often misunderstood by physicians and ignored by funding institutions,” he said. “Most important, studying NF may not only provide a better understanding of the disease in these children, but a model to understand brain tumors in all children.”

de Blank attributes his career path to his wife—or at least, the most recent stop. His journey has led him in many directions—most recently to an office next door to his wife’s at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital.

de Blank and his wife, Robin Norris, director of the Pediatric Developmental Therapeutics Program at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics in pediatric hematology and oncology, decided Case Western Reserve University was an ideal place for them to practice pediatric oncology. But his career’s course was a bit more indirect.

Pediatric oncology offered de Blank the chance to combine many of the aspects he loved about medicine. Pediatric oncology afforded him the opportunity to maintain a significant and emotionally rewarding relationship with his patients and their families. Yet one other factor had an even stronger influence on his decision.

In medical school, de Blank met and began dating Norris, who was studying pediatric oncology—providing one more reason to choose that field.

Before medical school, de Blank earned a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Masters of Arts and English from Stanford University.

“I didn’t really like the pre-meds in college and thought that I would do anything except medicine,” he said.

So, instead of joining the medical track, he pursued his love of chemistry and English and became a high school teacher. de Blank soon realized the aspect of the work he most enjoyed was advising and watching his students mature.

However, many of his advisees were struggling with depression, cutting, grief and other challenges. That led him to volunteer at an adolescent psychiatric ward, which he considered as a possible new career. That type of work wasn’t for him, he eventually concluded, but the experience pointed him toward medicine.

“Everything I pursue, I pursue because I’m interested in it,” he said. “So it leads me from one educational adventure to another. It’s led me to some really interesting places.”

de Blank’s forays into English and teaching afforded him skills that also carry into pediatric oncology—especially when writing notes, grants and research papers, and advising patients.

“I think that a lot of medicine is much more than just choosing drugs and supporting the body,” he said. “So much of what we do has to do with leading a patient and their family through a really difficult moment in their life.”

Read more about de Blank in this week’s five questions.

1. Who do you consider your greatest role model?

I’ve had a lot of wonderful role models in science and in medicine, but I think the people that affect me the most are clearly my patients. They’re the ones who motivate me to do the science and excite me every day about being a pediatric oncologist.

2. How do you keep up with the news?

I read The Daily. Then I fill in any gaps with NPR news quizzes.

3. What is the most challenging class you’ve ever taken?

The hardest class I’ve ever been in was the first class I taught in AP Chemistry. Every day I would come in with a lesson and they would come back with a brilliant question that I didn’t know the answer to. I would go home and I would figure out what I thought the answer was and I would come back to them and they’d have some other brilliant question and it went back and forth like that all year. I think I learned more from them then they did from me.

4. What do you consider to be the best invention of all time?

When I was training in my residency, they had these drills so in case of utter disaster we’d know how to evacuate patients. They gave us, as residents, these things that were smocks with pockets. We were informed that in the event of a disaster, we were to take these smocks, put them on and run to the neonatal intensive care unit and put babies in the pockets and run out of the hospital.

5. What is your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

I love the people, the collaboration, the science. It’s been an amazing opportunity to be here and work here. It’s been remarkable. I’ve just loved every bit of working with the people here.