Following a Passion to Improve Patients’ Lives

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Following a Passion to Improve Patients’ Lives

Lindsay M. Morton, PhD, Director of the Radiation Epidemiology Branch and head of the Cancer Survivorship Research Unit in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG) at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), has dolphins to thank for her passion for epidemiology and cancer research.

After growing up in the Midwest, Dr. Morton attended Dartmouth College as an undergraduate, completed her Ph.D. in epidemiology at Yale University School of Public Health, and has called the Washington, D.C., area – and NCI – home for the past 20 years. Being a competitive swimmer and having always enjoyed spending time outdoors connected to nature, Dr. Morton originally had dreams of being a marine biologist. She was thrilled to have the opportunity to volunteer with a dolphin research study in New Zealand as a junior in college and through that experience, gained a meaningful mentor who helped lead Dr. Morton to a career in epidemiology.

“I was explaining to my biology professor, Dr. Thomas Roos, that I loved medicine, I loved math, I loved biology, and I loved research. I was a sophomore just trying to figure out what I might want to do with my life,” recalls Dr. Morton. “He asked me if I’d ever heard of epidemiology because I’d basically just defined it. I was so grateful to learn about this field early in my undergraduate days.”

Cancer epidemiology was of immediate interest to Dr. Morton because the disease impacts so many people’s lives, but she didn’t follow a straight path into cancer research. While applying for a Senior Fellowship to conduct research during her final year at Dartmouth under Dr. Roos’s mentorship, she felt torn between a project related to the dolphin research she’d done in New Zealand and an epidemiology project, so she sought advice from her mentor. “Much to my surprise,” said Dr. Morton, “he told me that I had an entire career to contribute to cancer epidemiology, so I should take advantage of the opportunity to go and be with the dolphins again.”

Dr. Roos emphasized that she would still learn everything she needed to know about the scientific process – it turned out he was right.

“My earliest research experiences really shaped the way I’ve approached some important decisions in my career and the way I mentor fellows. Fundamentally, what really matters is what people are passionate about,” says Dr. Morton. “Through my dolphin research, I learned how much I appreciate precision in measurement and how important it is to understand exactly how data are collected. It also confirmed my desire to work in epidemiology and dedicate my career to improving people’s health.”

An Epidemiologic Perspective

During her Ph.D. program, one of Dr. Morton’s professors offered her the opportunity to research the etiology of lymphoma, which spoke to her interest in immunology as well as her love of medicine, math, biology, and research.

“The immune system’s complexity is particularly intriguing to me, which is reflected in some of my earliest research,” said Dr. Morton. “When a pathologist, clinician, or molecular biologist can identify critical differences in types of lymphoma, what are the implications for epidemiological studies? Epidemiology is at the heart of all I do, but I’ve always been drawn to interdisciplinary projects.” Epidemiologists studying lymphoma help to explain the “who, what, where, when, and why” of lymphoma occurrence, which can provide insights into the disease biology and opens doors for prevention.

Dr. Morton was first excited to join NCI as an epidemiology postdoctoral fellow through its training program. She has stayed at the NCI because of the dynamic colleagues, research mission, and commitment to mentoring. “DCEG (Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics) has a strong commitment to the career development of junior scientists,” says Dr. Morton. “I’ve chosen to stay in part because of the mission, but also because it’s an incredibly collaborative environment. The scientific culture here is all about working together to produce the most rigorous and impactful science we can, and DCEG encourages trainees to contribute every step of the way.”

Prioritizing Survivorship

Dr. Morton’s early interests in interdisciplinary lymphoma research were evident in her work with the International Lymphoma Epidemiology Consortium, known as InterLymph, one of the first large-scale epidemiologic consortia to bring together interdisciplinary collaborators from around the world. Dr. Morton’s research with InterLymph focused on understanding lymphoma etiology and included strong partnerships with pathologists. But she quickly realized that contributing to survivorship research would better speak to her passion for medicine and research with direct impact on patients.

No matter what age one is diagnosed, survivorship research prioritizes the need to follow patients over the long term to better understand how researchers and clinicians can improve patients’ health–not just at the time of diagnosis and treatment, but throughout their lives. According to Dr. Morton, the science of survivorship research is critically important and has substantially evolved in recent decades, shedding new light on both short- and long-term risks and benefits of different treatment approaches so that clinicians and patients can make more informed treatment and clinical care decisions.

With improvements in early detection and survival, the number of cancer survivors in the United States has grown dramatically. To better address patients’ long-term health and capitalize on the diverse expertise in DCEG, in 2022 Dr. Morton helped to establish the Cancer Survivorship Research Unit. The goal of the unit is to encourage the exchange of ideas, develop methodologies related to cancer survivorship, and to help define the scope of survivorship research in DCEG.

“The Cancer Survivorship Research Unit enables us to bring together interdisciplinary investigators from other branches and have a rich intellectual exchange,” said Dr. Morton. “I’m fortunate to be part of a broad research community that is dedicated to helping patients live longer, healthier lives.”

Holistic Support of the Research, the Scientists, and the Patients

Over the course of her career, Dr. Morton has volunteered her time to the Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF) in several capacities. Currently a member of LRF’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) as well as the Adolescent and Young Adult Lymphoma Consortium Initiative, she is consistently impressed with the wide-ranging community of patients, caregivers, clinicians, and scientists that LRF serves.

She is particularly thrilled to be able to bring her expertise and experience with cancer survivorship research to LRF, most recently helping to form and lead LRF’s SAB Survivorship Working Group. “Lymphoma survivors are incredibly diverse because of the complexity of the disease. They may be young or old, survivors of indolent or aggressive disease, in the midst of treatment or many years out – and everything in between. Our hope is that the LRF SAB Survivorship Working Group can contribute to improving all survivors’ lives.”

Initially, the group is reviewing LRF’s patient materials from a survivorship perspective and assessing the
consistency of survivorship guidelines – and potential gaps in those guidelines – from various organizations. This review of clinical guidelines will help prioritize future research in lymphoma survivorship. “As an epidemiologist, I recognize the incredible power of bringing together information from many patients to conduct research, but I never forget that each patient has their own story, and I am so grateful for their willingness to participate in the research process to help advance knowledge and ultimately improve clinical care,” said Dr. Morton.

LRF is unique in Dr. Morton’s view because it not only provides information and support to patients, but also bridges into the science and training of scientists. She recognizes a similar dedication to supporting and mentoring scientists at LRF as she does in her work a the NCI.

“The early portion of a scientist’s career is a critical time and often presents key inflection points,” said Dr. Morton. “Research funding is essential, but it’s also important to build a network of mentors and collaborators. By supporting investigators through the Early Career Grants program, LRF brings the best and brightest into lymphoma research and ensures that they launch their careers on a sure foothold.”

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Pulse is a publication of the Lymphoma Research Foundation, providing the latest updates on the Foundation and its focus on lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) research, awareness, and education