There’s Something About Hannah
Reflecting on a Lifetime of Work at the Crossroads of Diversity, Clinical Care, and Research Discovery
On April 28, 2022, Hannah Valantine, MD, professor of cardiovascular medicine, stepped into the bright lights of the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center stage in Boston, Massachusetts, and accepted the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation (ISHLT). As the first in-person ISHLT event held in three years, the ceremony was joy-filled and special for all in attendance.
Spring 2022 was a season of well-deserved recognition for the pioneer in cardiology, as she
also received the 2022 Pamela S. Douglas Distinguished Award for Leadership in Diversity and Inclusion from the American College of Cardiology (ACC). As reported by Stanford Health Care in May, “These honors speak to Valantine’s decades-long commitment to improving heart transplantation outcomes and her vital contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in cardiology.”
The broad strokes of Hannah Valantine’s professional career are well documented and impressive. After receiving her MBBS degree and doctor of medicine from London University, she was appointed assistant professor of medicine at Stanford, rising to full professor of medicine in 2000, and became the inaugural senior associate dean for diversity and leadership in 2004. After serving in this position for 10 years, Valantine was recruited in 2014 by Francis Collins, MD, PhD, then director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to serve as the inaugural chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, as well as a senior investigator at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. She was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2020 and returned to Stanford in 2021 to continue her pioneering work on representation in cardiovascular research and care and help build a more diverse and inclusive campus.
Moving beyond the many high points of Valantine’s illustrious career, there is value in recounting her earliest experiences with DEI and cardiology, and her thoughts — developed over a lifetime of experience — on the true importance of her work and the legacies it will undoubtedly leave for generations to come.
Hannah Valantine represents the best aspects of being a change agent: she’s fearless, visionary, and driven by a sure knowledge of the rightness of the cause.
– Francis Collins, MD, PhD
In the Eyes of the Beholders
This exploration of Valantine’s earliest encounters with DEI, cardiology, and medicine, and of the core concepts she hopes will have lasting impacts on the minds and hearts of researchers, begins with the ways the people who have worked closest with her characterize the special and unique gifts that make her wholly deserving of recognition, and that have enabled her to leave a lasting mark on science and medicine:
- Acting science advisor to President Biden in the White House and former NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, says, “Hannah Valantine represents the best aspects of being a change agent: she’s fearless, visionary, and driven by a sure knowledge of the rightness of the cause.”
- Cori Bargmann, PhD, head of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, thinks back to the time she worked closely with Valantine in the NIH, remembering, “Hannah used her star power in positions of influence to make science better and more inclusive, first at the intramural program at NIH, and then NIH-wide. Her impact on science, medicine, and the practice of science has been exceptional.”
- Robert A. Harrington, MD, Arthur L. Bloomfield Professor and Chair of Stanford Department of Medicine, states, “Hannah inspires us, in the Department of Medicine, to strive every day to make a difference in the lives of patients and the minds of researchers, to embrace necessary change, for the benefit of all, and to not be afraid to reach the limits and beyond of scientific discovery.”
Hannah Valantine was born in Gambia, a small country in West Africa, and lived there until her teen years. One memory that stands out especially clearly in her mind is from early grade school. One day in art class, her teacher gave a special assignment: Students were instructed to take a picture that they especially liked and see how they could recapture it.
She remembers, “In this book, I found a drawing of the circulation of blood by William Harvey, with red blood and blue blood. And I copied that impeccably. I think it was the first time I ever got an ‘A’ because I was thrilled, not so much by the drawing but by the idea of the circulation of blood around the body and picking up the oxygen in the lungs. I think that has stayed with me ever since. So that’s where, I would say, the initial bug for cardiology and medicine began.”
Her family highly valued and prioritized education for young Hannah and her siblings, so her father leaped at the opportunity to take up a post as a first ambassador for Gambia and moved the family to London when she was 13.
Valantine’s parents didn’t realize at the time what she describes as “the stress that my siblings and I would encounter as children moving from an environment where we were part of the majority, to finding ourselves in London as part of a minority group.” She found herself to be the only student of color in an elite girls’ high school in central London, at the formative age she remembers as “when you least want to be different.”
The impact of that early minoritizing experience proved to be foundational, foreshadowing Valantine’s future work. As she says, “I believe that early experience foretold this whole path that I ultimately came round to embracing, which was diversity and inclusion, because what I was experiencing is well known now in the literature. It had to do with a sense of not belonging that limits your performance so you cannot reach your peak.” In 1964, this kind of experience would come to be known as “stereotype threat,” and though Valantine found she was able to “struggle through it,” there was no word to describe her experience at the time.
Intense feelings of isolation and marginalization affected her academics, which suffered by the time she was 18. By the end of high school, she didn’t plan to attend college at all, but rather worked for a year in a microbiology lab, which proved to be fortuitous, as it presented her with the time she needed to fall in love with the science that was being done there.
Years later, Valantine matriculated at London University, where she earned her undergraduate degree, and then at St. George’s Hospital in London, where she attended medical school. Reflecting on that formative period in her life, she recalls the time she spent serving as president of the Medical School Union, which required her to travel all over the country and develop policies of inclusion. “Way back then … there was this activism streak in me. But once I got really down to residency and work, it kind of went away for a while, only to pop up again after I’d been promoted to full professor,” she recalls.
The chance to reignite her commitment to DEI and assume a leadership role at Stanford arrived in 2004, when Philip Pizzo, MD, then dean of Stanford School of Medicine, approached Valantine with a request to set up the school’s first office for diversity and leadership. “And the rest,” she says, “is history.”
There is a distinct link between the diversity of the scientist, the diversity of the clinical care provider, and better research and better clinical care.
– Hannah Valantine, MD
Diversity Leads to Better Research and Medical Care for All
Valantine’s work has led her, again and again, to bring the elements of diversity, inpatient care, and research innovation together, and to uncover the ways in which diversity drives innovations in research and health care that can benefit everyone.
She argues that discoveries based in a broader and more diverse patient population or research subject population (or cells from diverse ancestries) are more likely to provide a full picture of the disease or condition that scientists are trying to study. Those discoveries will, therefore, be more applicable to, and benefit, more people.
She has shown that more diverse representation in medical research also makes it more likely for scientists to produce more innovative ideas, discoveries that may not have necessarily been seen or thought of before, if only considering a homogeneous (i.e., less diverse) population.
Valantine accepts her lifetime achievement award in April 2022. Image courtesy of Dr. Nicole Bart.
When asked what are the key takeaways from her work and what is most important for people to understand, Valantine cites three things.
First, she lists “justice” and “equity,” in terms of “access to all the benefits of biomedical research that have come along very rapidly in the last 50 years or so.”
The second important thing for people to understand is that the “speed of discovery and the innovativeness of discoveries depends essentially on researchers studying a diverse spectrum of patients.”
Lastly, Valantine hopes readers of her work realize the critical importance, when pursuing scientific discovery, to have not just a diverse population of patients, but also a diverse population of scientists (including MDs, PhDs, MD-PhDs, and all of the scientists likely to be doing research with patient populations).
On this final point, Valantine shares, “There is a distinct link between the diversity of the scientist, the diversity of the clinical care provider, and better research and better clinical care.” She explains that it is now known that when patients receive advice from doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals who are of the same racial or ethnic background as theirs, they are more likely to adhere to that advice.
Valantine’s lifetime of work at the crossroads of clinical care and research discovery invites researchers, scientists, and care providers everywhere to embrace diversity as the key to better science and medicine for all.