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Physician-scientist navigates own health challenges to reach heights of 25-year career | News Center

Physician-scientist navigates own health challenges to reach heights of 25-year career | News Center

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With about 475 students in the medical school at any one time, Sibley — one of four academic advising deans — supports between 110 to 120 students. “It ends up being possibly hundreds of one-on-one or group meetings with students over the course of the year, which is remarkable given that he’s also doing research and clinical practice,” said Neil Gesundheit, MD, MPH, professor of endocrinology and senior associate dean for medical education.

Sibley has a unique flair for supporting medical students, not only in routine academic, research and career guidance, but also when things aren’t going well. “Sometimes students who are struggling in school begin to isolate themselves. We call it cocooning,” Gesundheit said. “A student who is self-isolated because of not meeting a deadline starts to compound the problem by being ashamed that they haven’t met the deadline. This makes matters worse.” 

Sibley has a way of reaching out to those students sympathetically and putting them at ease, Gesundheit said. “He’ll say, ‘I know it’s hard for you to communicate back with me and maybe you’re a bit ashamed of what’s happened, but let’s just start over and get things moving in a positive direction.’ He’s excellent at that, at really disarming a student and helping them address those kinds of issues.”

With students who are the most vulnerable — those with physical or mental health challenges — Sibley found he could be the most helpful. “That’s one area where my own health issues have made it a little bit easier for students to approach for the support they need,” he said.

Gesundheit agreed. “He’s vulnerable, and he’s saying to you: If you’re vulnerable, I can understand that and help you.”

Mentoring the next generation

In the spring of 2018, Maïté Van Hentenryck, a first-year medical student, and her roommate Claire Rhee launched a group for medical students with disabilities and chronic illnesses. A blood infection when Van Hentenryck was a baby had resulted in the loss of her right leg and other orthopedic issues. Their new group would need an academic adviser to meet official requirements, and Van Hentenryck, who had been randomly paired with Sibley as her academic adviser, knew just whom to ask. 

“I reached out to Dr. Sibley to see if he’d like to be the group adviser,” Van Hentenryck said. “And he responded immediately that he’d be really happy to.” Rhee and Van Hentenryck were encouraged by Sibley’s participation and what it held for the group’s future. “I think he’s going to be a tremendous resource for us,” Van Hentenryck said.

Sibley had excelled in biomedical research, clinical care and education, but as a mentor and role model he provided something distinctive. Sibley could identify with students in ways that few other faculty could, and proved that there was a place for them in the highest ranks of medicine. 

“It’s inspiring to see someone who looks like me in a position I aspire to be in one day, especially because it’s so rare,” said Brian Boursiquot, a medical student at Stanford who is also African-American. “Dr. Sibley has helped me make important decisions about my academic pursuits and my choice of a clinical specialty.”

It’s inspiring to see someone who looks like me in a position I aspire to be in one day, especially because it’s so rare.

Sibley’s focus was also on advising fellows and aspiring physician-scientists in the pediatric gastroenterology department. Bass, who also worked closely with the fellows, heard from them about Sibley’s engagement in their work. “He comes to their research talks, he asks them hard questions. He’s fully engaged, and they’re quite aware of that,” Bass said. 

One of those fellows was Zachary Sellers, MD, PhD, now an instructor of pediatric gastroenterology at Stanford. “Eric opened up his lab to me and really allowed me to use all of his equipment and supplies as if they were my own, which has been beneficial to me in having a platform to perform research that is specific to my interest in gastrointestinal complications that occur in cystic fibrosis,” Sellers said. “I think in some ways it’s a kind of pay-it-forward from the mentorship that he received early on in his career.”

When she was new to Stanford Medicine’s faculty, Aida Habtezion, MD, associate professor of gastroenterology and hepatology, was interested in applying for the Robert Wood Johnson program, just as Sibley had done. “It’s nice when you find people who resemble you in many ways — as an African-American, a scientist and specifically a gastroenterologist — and who have been successful in the field that you are just starting. It gives you hope,” Habtezion said. “And the things that they tell you, the encouragement they give you, the support in how you should position yourself, what applications you should look at, how you should improve your CV. These are some examples of things you get from them, and they are invaluable. Eric was a very important mentor who could guide me and give me advice, because he walked that path before me.”

National recognition and responsibilities

Sibley’s efforts as an adviser and mentor at Stanford soon earned him national responsibilities, as well. In 2016, he was named the inaugural director of the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition’s Mentoring Program for Investigative Junior Faculty. The program pairs assistant professors of pediatric gastroenterology with senior mentors at another institution to facilitate long-term mentorship affiliations. “In my communications with the leaders in the society, it is evident that Eric is deeply respected and admired — not just for his research, but also for his citizenship, generosity, teaching and mentoring,” said Mary Leonard, MD, professor and chair of pediatrics.

Sibley has also had to deal with setbacks and challenges. In October 2016, while transferring from his bed to his wheelchair, he fell and broke his leg. “Turns out I have osteoporosis from sitting instead of using my bones,” he said. “A lot of people who use wheelchairs get osteoporosis.”

The bone had to be set with a titanium rod that ran the length of his right femur. After his surgery, Sibley spent two weeks in a rehabilitation facility in Los Gatos. While he was there, Leonard called him to discuss two new departmental roles she hoped he would take: the inaugural associate chair for academic affairs, and liaison to the Office of Faculty Diversity and Development. 

Sibley, who had learned that a physical setback didn’t have to mean a professional one, was delighted to accept the positions.

Sibley’s professional progress seemed to be the inverse of his disease progression. One year later, he received the Distinguished Service Award from the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. This past spring, in his 25thyear at Stanford, Sibley reached a long-awaited benchmark in his career: promotion to full tenured professor. He is the only African-American to begin his career as a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford Medicine and rise through the ranks to the highest faculty position. 

“Eric Sibley has shown an indomitable spirit both personally and professionally,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “Science can be unpredictable and at times discouraging, but Eric demonstrates that leading the biomedical revolution in precision health requires a revolutionary spirit. We at Stanford Medicine are very proud of his many accomplishments.” 

Even as he has become a nationally recognized mentor, he still remains an inspiration to his colleagues locally. For Bass, Sibley represents a standard of medical professionalism that he continually looks up to. “It’s the core of what we’re supposed to really be,” Bass said. “That often gets lost in flashy technology, and although you can get distracted from it easily, it’s about trying to help people, help them develop as much autonomy as they can, and being kind to fellow humans.”

For Sibley, prevailing through adversity had a lot to do with those who’d cleared the path ahead of him, and his awareness that he could do the same. “There were times later in my career when there was no one like me in a role ahead of me, no one to advise or mentor me,” he said. “So it was important to me to be that role model, to be a person students and colleagues with similar challenges could look to for guidance and encouragement.”

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