A Conversation with Dr. D. Wade Clapp
Lori Hart Apr 10, 2023
A good mentor is a role model, a coach, an advocate, and a teacher. The value of a good mentor cannot be overstated; many lessons learned stay with you for life. I recently sat down with one of the best, longtime Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) mentor D. Wade Clapp, MD, and three of his current mentees to discuss what they’ve learned from him and his advice for the future.
Dr. Clapp is physician-in-chief at Riley Hospital for Children, Indiana University Distinguished Professor, IU School of Medicine chairman of the Department of Pediatrics with an NIH-supported laboratory in neuro malignancies, and a member of the leadership team at the IU Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center. As an accomplished and highly in-demand professional, mentorship is a role that he could easily leave to the younger generation; yet he embraces it. During Dr. Clapp’s twenty-five-plus years at the IU School of Medicine, he has mentored dozens of students, including many future physician-scientists.
“I love training physician-scientists. It is probably one of the most fun things I do. I get to work with some of the smartest people I have ever met, and we get to learn together. You get the chance to see your mentees grow professionally when you are with them and later. And when you have been at it as long as I have, you have people who are full professors, associate deans, and run their own companies.”
Dr. Clapp has three current mentees: Hayley Drozd (MS3), Breanne Burgess (GS2), and Emily White (GS1). They agree that collaboration is what they appreciate most in their mentor.
Emily shared, “Collaboration is a big thing. His primary focus whenever he talked to me about designing a project was my interest in it and wanting me to develop my project from a scientific perspective. He said that while we have a lab with a specific focus, it also has the breadth and the ability to have you explore what you want to explore within that. That was awesome!”
Hayley added, “And you end up with such interesting collaborative projects. For example, I did my PhD in Neuroscience through a cancer lab. That doesn’t happen.”
They also appreciate his willingness to sit down and listen to students’ goals and assist them in achieving them however he can. Dr. Clapp believes joint problem-solving is an important skill set to learn, as is asking for help and drawing in external expertise when needed. Breanne learned this quickly in committee meetings which she admitted were overwhelming at first, but she quickly realized they were an excellent opportunity for feedback and reflection.
“Due to the relationships Wade has fostered, I have an amazing group of people who sit down with me every few months to listen to me talk and read my things. That’s a gift and an opportunity to learn to improve. Even when they roasted my grant, I was thankful for the feedback. Honestly, I was surprised they took the time to read it!”
Breanne added, “Wade is always willing to share his resources. Wade is like, ‘How can you get in contact with top programs you’re interested in? I know this person here, that person there, and he’ll put you in contact with them. And he’s always down to write a grant. He’s spent hours with me going over my proposed texts section by section, which has had a tremendous impact on how I critically think and write.”
Dr. Clapp has created and fostered an atmosphere in his lab where students are fearless in asking and answering questions and see failure not as a setback but as a step in the right direction. He believes that’s how students become scientists. They know that even if a project doesn’t work, they can present the results to him objectively, have a good conversation, and continue to move forward.
Emily said, “I am not afraid that he will not support my project if something doesn’t go right. I just come in and do science. If it doesn’t work, I go home and come back the next day and start fresh, knowing I’ve accomplished something, even if it wasn’t what I had hoped to accomplish. It’s refreshing to be in an academic space like that.”
Hayley noticed that as a third-year medical student, she is well prepared for pimping on clinical rounds. “I did that for four years with my PhD, so it doesn’t bother me if I get those questions wrong or need to look something up afterward.”
Dr. Clapp: “Having a differential diagnosis and the problem-solving around it is old home week for MSTP students because they’ve done it for four years with their PhD. Being willing and comfortable with not knowing and engaging with something you know something about, but not everything, is a real professional-development skill.”
When discussing work-life harmony and balancing the demands of career, family, and personal wellness, Hayley remembers advice from Dr. Clapp’s spouse, Nancy Swigonski, MD, PhD, who refers to it as “juggling.” Of course, you can’t always have a full load of balls in the air. Still, you can pass them off and pull them back when ready. In addition, exercising, socializing, sleeping, and doing other things outside of being a student is essential. She is thankful for the sense of family in his lab and the autonomy given to them, allowing them to juggle more.
Find Your Place
Dr. Clapp shared his advice for future and current physician-scientists, “Enjoy the time of training. Get yourself in good situations. Places will be clamoring for you. Find the right environment in a place that will allow you to succeed. Make certain that you do, because once you break through the “K” and get an “R,” you’re like a tight end in an open field. Work with people you like and have fun!”
Enjoy the Ride
Dr. Clapp predicts the next twenty years will be fun for team science with new technologies that are better, broader, and more accessible. “We’ll be able to do so much more for patients because we’ll be able to translate it faster.” And he plans to be in the thick of it treating patients, researching, and training the next generations of physician-scientists.
Hayley Drozd is an MS3. She completed her PhD in medical neuroscience with Dr. Anantha Shekhar and Dr. Wade Clapp, studying Neurofibromatosis type 1, a genetic disorder often presenting with neurocutaneous lesions and developmental disorders
Breanne Burgess is a GS2 who joined Dr. Clapp’s lab in the summer of 2020. She passed her candidacy in October 2022. Her research project involves elucidating mechanisms of tumorigenesis in NF1-associated malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumors, an aggressive form of sarcoma, and the leading cause of death in patients with NF1.
Emily White is a GS1 in Dr. Clapp’s lab. Her research project is titled “Evaluating the role of T cells in NF1- peripheral nerve sheath tumor progression.”