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At the Intersection of Research and Outreach: F. Stephen Hodi ’81

Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
A drive to understand the building blocks of the universe has brought Stephen Hodi ’81 to the forefront of cancer research, treatment, and education as Director of the Melanoma Center and the Center for Immuno- Oncology at Dana-Farber/ Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Growing up, Stephen Hodi debated whether to study science on a macro scale with astronomy or at the molecular level by pursuing biology. However, it was the routines of daily life in the Hodi household that played an equally important role in determining his path. At night, Stephen would pack up his homework and hockey bag and head over to his grandparents’ house. A stroke had left Stephen’s grandmother needing daily assistance, and Stephen, his parents, and two aunts formed her care team. “I gained a real appreciation for the importance of providing care and satisfaction in doing that,” he recalls.
 
After graduating from Fay, Stephen went on to St. Mark’s School and then Harvard University. He earned his medical degree at Cornell University, did his postdoctoral training in internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and completed a medical oncology fellowship at Dana-Farber. Today, he is the Director of the Melanoma Center and the Center for Immuno-Oncology at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, where his time is split between seeing patients, writing and running clinical trials, and overseeing the lab.
 
Adding to his busy schedule, he is also a Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, where he lectures to residents and fellows. Stephen could have made a career in any one of these fields but he has found meaning and success at their rich intersection. “My schedule looks different every week, but there’s a Venn diagram where all these things overlap,” he says. “I bring these different skill sets to a common point to get something done that would be harder to do if I only had one set of skills,” he says. “When I can bring a treatment to a patient for the first time that could improve the outcome, that gives me the most satisfaction you can imagine.”
 
Stephen describes the current moment as a “golden age” for cancer therapeutics, and if so, he is certainly one of its luminaries. Prior to 2010, chemotherapy was the only treatment option for cancer, but research in the areas of gene therapy and immunotherapy has opened up a host of new possibilities. Stephen is an internationally recognized leader in developing gene therapy and melanoma therapeutics. He led the clinical development of immune checkpoint inhibitors, drugs that help the body to recognize and target cancer cells. He also led the first successful clinical trial of a drug therapy using checkpoint inhibitors. Stephen’s research and clinical work continue to identify new uses for checkpoint inhibitors and combination therapies in patient treatment. “I think we’re just beginning chapter one in the long story of cancer therapeutics and how we manipulate the immune system to treat cancer and improve outcomes for patients,” Stephen says. “It’s both an honor and a really exciting time to be a part of it.”
 
While medical research and drug development are highly competitive fields, Stephen notes that communication and collaboration are critical to his success. Stephen spends significant time traveling and sharing his research at conferences and learning from the work of his peers. “I spend a lot of time on airplanes,” he notes ruefully. “I lecture nationally, and I also lecture annually at Harvard, where I teach residents and fellows about patient care.” Stephen finds the student perspective enriching. “The students absorb the information that you are providing, but then they frequently have a different viewpoint or ask a set of questions that go beyond what is currently known. Their perspective keeps me on my toes, and knowing that they will be the ones to build the next iteration of this work is incredibly satisfying.”
 
Stephen notes that Fay set him on a course for success, and he and his wife Juli are pleased to offer the same experience to their children Caroline ’20, Stephen ’23, and Alexander ’23. “Fay molds you to a way of thinking with a desire to make a difference,” says Stephen. “It teaches you to be goal-oriented, thoughtful, and hard-working; to communicate well; and to be respectful of others. That foundation really does carry on profoundly through life.”
 
The care and respect for others that Stephen learned at a young age with his grandparents are still fundamental to the approach he takes with his patients today. Cancer is a systemic disease that can affect many different parts of the body, and the broad range of expertise that is required in fighting it is intellectually appealing to Stephen. However, successful treatment also requires the ability to listen and communicate with genuine care and respect. “When you’re an oncologist, your patient shares everything about their life and family with you,” he says. “You become the primary care provider.” It’s a privilege and a challenge that Stephen readily embraces.

Read about more Fay alumni who are pursuing lives of meaning:

Meet CJ Hunt '00, writer, performer, producer on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah - and this year's Commencement speaker.
 
Dee Poon ’97 is bringing the distinctly modern values of sustainability and simplicity to her work as Managing Director of Brands and Distribution for Esquel Group in Hong Kong.

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