Kimberly Blackwell ’89 could have gone about anywhere to begin her career as a pioneering breast-cancer doctor. After graduating from the Mayo Medical School in 1994, she chose to come back to Duke. Now a clinical oncologist at the Duke Cancer Institute, Blackwell is regarded as one of the top breast-cancer researchers in the country. Her groundbreaking work developing new breast-cancer treatments earned her a place on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2013. Sterly Wilder ’83, associate vice president for alumni affairs, talks with her.
Sterly Wilder: You were a Program II major at Duke— why did you choose that route?
Kimberly Blackwell: I knew I wanted to be a doctor, but someone in high school told me, “Whatever you do, don’t study medicine as an undergrad.” Looking back it made perfect sense because you have four years of medical school to study medicine. I was pretty headstrong when I came here. I really wanted to study what I wanted to study, and Program II just made perfect sense.
SW: What experiences influenced you as an undergrad?
KB: I was interested in bioethics, and I took several courses with [religion professor emeritus] Tom McCollough. I spent a summer traveling through the United Kingdom with him, and that was pretty amazing to go and meet some of the leaders in bioethics at the time. I started the undergrad HIV volunteer association in 1988 as a project for one of his classes. Dr. McCollough encouraged us to do a real project in bioethics—not to just sit in the classroom and talk about what’s ethical and what’s not. HIV was just coming to the forefront at the time, and I picked up the phone and called John Bartlett [a Duke professor of medicine specializing in HIV clinical care]. To have a religion professor say, “Put it into practice,” was really tremendous, and it shaped my whole experience going into medical school.
SW: As an alumna and a Duke doctor, you’re connected here in many ways. What does it mean to you to think of Duke as home?
KB: The Duke community is what kept me here. For me professionally, Duke as home means working with great people. The brain-tumor group at Duke has a slogan: “At Duke there’s hope.” And that’s really true. We do things here that can’t be done anywhere else.
SW: That’s true in the Cancer Institute, too.
KB:We’re pretty progressive in our thinking as it relates to cancer. We don’t rest on something that happened five years ago. And that’s the history of breast cancer at Duke. The first bonemarrow transplant for breast cancer was done right here at Duke in 1987, and that set a tradition of being on the cutting edge.
SW: What do you think hope looks like for your patients?
KB: I tell people that my job is 99.8 percent really good and 0.2 percent god-awful. There are some hard times. I try to offer hope every day by saying, “How can I help you?” It’s just saying, “I’m here to help you.” I think I learned that as an undergrad here. It came from working with HIV patients—back then, if you got HIV you usually died very quickly. And yet Dr. McCollough and John Bartlett never gave up hope. They said, “I might not be able to fix you, but I can help you.” Now we can actually fix people. We have better treatments for cancer. But my work is still coming from that place of saying, “How can I help?”
SW: What’s it like to know that something you developed is helping people fight breast cancer?
KB: It’s pretty amazing. You have to stop and think: Two of the last six drugs approved for breast cancer were developed at Duke. It’s not just making a difference here in the United States; these are drugs used around the world. One of my favorite quotes is about how wellbehaved women rarely make history. Duke taught me that sometimes you really have to reach to make a difference. Being named to the Time list wasn’t about me—it was about this team at Duke that started twenty-five years ago, about asking the right questions and not being afraid to make a difference.