In orthopaedic oncology research, Regis J. O’Keefe, M.D., Ph.D., is a celebrity and Wakenda Tyler, M.D., M.P.H., is a rising star. The pair is a shining example of how topnotch mentoring can attract topnotch talent, ensuring success for an entire program. Rochester Medicine sat down and talked with them about their mentoring relationship.
Rochester Medicine: Rumor has it, you came to the University of Rochester because you could be mentored by Regis O’Keefe.
Wakenda Tyler: Regis has a very strong reputation across the country, if not the world, as one of the leading orthopaedic researchers, so I was excited about meeting him. But I’m from Philadelphia, I went to medical school in Baltimore, and then lived in New York City for seven years of residency and fellowship training. I’ve been a big city girl for most of my life. No way was I going to move to Rochester. But when I got here, I saw what a good department chair he was and how concerned he was about building a successful research facility and supporting young faculty. I realized I needed to rethink my strategy. Personal growth became more important than glitz and glamor and lights. You are often thrown in the lion’s den and left to fend for yourself in those bigger places. I knew I could count on Regis as a mentor, so that was a big push for me to come here.
RM: Do you remember your first meeting?
Regis O’Keefe: I think the most compelling thing when you meet Wakenda is her energy, her enthusiasm. I think people who accomplish a lot tend to be optimistic and very resourceful. She believes she can do it, and so she finds a way to do it.
WT: One of the first things he said was, “What do you need to be a successful surgeon and orthopaedic oncologist?” I think he asked me that during my first interview, and it stuck in my mind because it was such a good question.
RO: We enable people to pursue personal and professional goals, and we give them the tools to achieve excellence. As her mentor, I have to make sure Wakenda receives the right resources and, more importantly, access to the right people and insight. When she came here, we didn’t have a laboratory startup package for her. As I met with her over time, it became apparent that basic and translational science was a strong area of interest for her and potentially a great strength of hers. A year or so after she arrived, we developed a laboratory package for her. At that point, I positioned her with people who could successfully carry out a research program.
WT: He introduced me to Eddie Schwarz (URMC professor of Orthopaedics and assistant director of the Center for Musculoskeletal Research) and some others, and told me I was going to work with them on some projects. It was the right group of people and the right environment for me to learn how to be a good researcher. He must have known, when he was putting the pieces together, it was going to be a good mix.
RM: It’s been 4 ½ years. How are things working out?
RO: Wakenda has gone on and done a remarkable job. She has built a program in understanding the way kidney cancer affects bone and causes bone loss. She has received a KL2 award through the Clinical & Translational Science Institute. She has received an award from the Orthopaedic Research and Education Foundation, and she is currently in the process of submitting a K08 award application.
WT: I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without Regis. The grants I’ve received, the research I’ve done, the papers I’ve written, he has been an integral part of all of that. Either directly, like writing letters of support or making phone calls, or indirectly, by setting me up with the right people so things are done the way they are supposed to be. He’s like a fairy godmother.
RM: She says you’re like her fairy godmother.
RO: (looking mildly embarrassed) Well, that’s kind. I didn’t know she felt that way, but that’s nice to know.
RM: Do you think you are transitioning out of a mentoring relationship to the point where you simply regard each other as colleagues?
WT: He far exceeds me in research, but it’s getting there in our clinical practice. Our approaches are different. I sometimes have a little bit of a cowboy approach to things, which means I’ll take on anything, try to figure it out, and wrestle the bull down at any cost. Regis is a little more cautious.
RM: He’s not a bullfighter?
WT: (laughing) No, not a bullfighter. He’s a quiet genius. I’m curious how he’ll describe my approach. He’ll probably say I’m more spirited.
RO: I think she’s very confident, an outstanding surgeon. We work as a team and discuss difficult cases among ourselves, which is really helpful. We have different approaches, but we understand what those differences are and respect them. The goal is to find the best possible care for the patient.
RM: Good mentors receive as well as give.
RO: One of the most rewarding aspects is to see the impact she has on our residents. When we first bring residents in, our program director and I give presentations. We now ask Wakenda to give one too, because she connects so well with residents. She is an example of what we want trainees to be like. They see her as a very positive role model, especially for the women in our program. It’s very unusual for young faculty to win the department’s teaching award. But out of more than 40 clinical faculty, she was selected by the residents last year. I am proud to see that somebody I mentored, after gaining experience, is now impacting so many other lives in such a real way.
RM: You and Wakenda are not the only ones benefiting from this mentoring relationship, it’s benefiting --
RO: The program, the institution, the patients. That’s right.
RM: Do you have a personal relationship as well?
WT: We have a lot in common, even on social issues. Both of us have a dedication to social inequalities and providing health care to underserved communities. We both came from underserved neighborhoods. I grew up in Philadelphia and was the first in my family to receive a bachelor’s degree.
RO: I grew up in a lower middle class area of Pittsburgh. My father died when I was five, so my mother raised my two brothers and me alone. But I was able to go to Yale for college and Harvard for medical school. Honestly, so many enabling people were part of the process, and I developed skills and talents I can share with others now. Giving back is also important to Wakenda, and she is particularly interested in mentoring high school students form the inner city. I’ve been happy to help her with that and support her when she’s received various awards for it.
RM: You both like to run.
WT: We’re both runners and athletes and definitely bond in that respect. We are probably both out there running at 4 a.m.
RO: (smiling) I can’t run with her. She runs too hard.
WT: I haven’t done a marathon in a year and a half. I just did a half marathon.
RM: Closing thoughts?
WT: I have received so much support here for my career. I have no regrets about turning down other offers. You hear how people are dealing in those glitz and glamor jobs, and there is just no comparison. I couldn’t ask for more.
RO: Young faculty members are our resources for the future. As they come in, we make them full partners right away and take an active role in the success of their careers. Mentoring is part of our department culture, our philosophy. If you have outstanding people and you enable them, programs will always do well.