New Faculty Jessica Hawley: From the Peace Corps to Oncology

July 26, 2020

For Dr. Jessica Hawley, a life-changing experience as a Peace Corps volunteer 18 years ago set her on a path to medicine. Stationed in a remote island in the Republic of Kiribati, Dr. Hawley found herself immersed in the residents’ community working with local nurses and clinicians, who were charged with healthcare outreach and programming.

Jessica Hawley
Jessica Hawley, MD, assistant professor of medicine

“I lived on a four square-kilometer atoll for two years, teaching public health education and running programs in conjunction with the Ministry of Health,” she says. “I enjoyed the work and found it satisfying, fulfilling, and fun, but I wanted to better understand the clinical underpinnings of what I was trying to teach. That’s what prompted me to pursue medicine.”

In 2011, Dr. Hawley completed medical school at the University of Wisconsin and her residency in 2014 at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S), followed by a clinical oncology fellowship at Columbia and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.  This month, she joined the faculty in the Department of Medicine as an assistant professor at VP&S and as a new member in the Genitourinary (GU) Group in the Division of Hematology and Oncology.

Her research aims to advance prostate cancer care through novel immunotherapy strategies, working with mentor, Dr. Charles Drake, a pioneer in the cancer immunotherapy space. She intends to fold in her enduring interest in cancer health disparities research and working with and on behalf of patients who have limited access to adequate treatment or healthcare.

Some of Dr. Hawley’s research in this area has already led to change. As a Columbia resident, her work characterizing phenotypic variations in lung disease by race and ethnicity, and correlating those finding with survival data, informed Columbia lung transplant physicians about barriers to care in the local Washington Heights, NY, neighborhood. While on faculty at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. Hawley traveled to rural Nepal to volunteer with an American NGO, in partnership with the Nepali government, to help develop a durable healthcare delivery model, which provides high-quality care to patients who would otherwise have to travel 14 hours to the nearest medical center. The model has since been replicated in two Nepali districts.

As part of the COVID-19 and Cancer Consortium, which came together rapidly in the spring, Dr. Hawley is leading a new study to explore regional variabilities in COVID-19 patient outcomes, including temporal trends and the interaction of social vulnerabilities and cancer outcomes. The goal is to help inform change, ultimately having an impact on policy and legislature. For Dr. Hawley, how her research can transform patient care is top of mind.

“Patients have always been at the cornerstone of my life experiences, even before I became a physician,” she says. “I still bring the same values and dedication to the practice of medicine that sent me to the Peace Corps, then medical school, then Nepal. But in order to truly improve the lives of my patients, I need to devote time and energy focusing on translational research and clinical trials, leading to a greater understanding of cancer and steps toward a cure.”