An MSK Doctor’s Journey: Drawing Strength from Diversity, Despite Attacks on the Asian Community

Medical oncologist Bob Li in front of a grey background

Bob Li says, "For America to keep growing stronger, it is essential that we stand in solidarity and speak out against all forms of racism and discrimination."

In 2014, Bob Li was a medical oncology clinical research fellow at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, Australia, one of the best in the country. His career was just budding. He and his wife had friends and family members nearby. Life was comfortable.

But Dr. Li saw opportunity in America. He applied for a fellowship halfway across the world at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

“In the oncology world, MSK is like Mount Everest, ” he says.

When Dr. Li was awarded the fellowship, he expected to return to Australia after a two-year program under the mentorship of medical oncologist Mark Kris and Clifford Hudis, then Chief of the Breast Medicine Service. He planned to join the faculty at the University of Sydney where he was trained and help lead the Department of Medical Oncology at Royal North Shore Hospital. He would buy a house near the beach. He and his wife would start a family. His wife’s parents would help with babysitting.

Bob Li with the beach in the background

Bob Li at a beach in Australia in 2010.

But his grand plan was disrupted when a year and a half into the fellowship, Charles Rudin, Chief of the Thoracic Oncology Service, asked him to stay and join the faculty at MSK. Again, the opportunity in America beckoned.

Fast forward to today: Dr. Li and his wife are raising two daughters, ages 5 and 1, in Manhattan. He now holds several leadership positions at MSK in addition to conducting research and caring for people with lung cancer.

“It’s been seven years, with no return date. It’s been a life-changing journey,” says Dr. Li — in ways he never imagined.

A Changing America

Dr. Li has seen the best — and the worst — of America as the pandemic gripped the nation.

“We have witnessed immense suffering because of COVID-19,” says Dr. Li. “When you suffer, you get angry, and then the easy thing to do is to blame a group. The entire Asian community is being scapegoated for COVID-19 — Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, everyone.”

In 2020, hate crimes against the Asian community rose nearly 150% in the US, according to an analysis by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

It’s been especially upsetting for Dr. Li to see these acts, despite how the Asian community has cared for other Americans. In the US, 18% of doctors and 8.5% of all healthcare workers are from the Asian community, who make up for just 6.8% of the overall population.

“Rather than celebrate these people for protecting us against COVID-19,” says Dr. Li, “they are being harassed and assaulted.”

He says he’s proud to see MSK stand up to join the #StopAsianHate movement, participate in a moment of silence in April, and achieve concrete results. At MSK, 18% of staff and 38% of students/trainees self-identified as Asian as of August 5, 2020. Recently, MSK was ranked no. 17 on “America’s Best Employers for Diversity 2021” list by Forbes.

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The Breadth of Human Potential

Dr. Li himself is a leader at MSK, serving as Co-Director of the Thoracic Liquid Biopsy Program and Physician Ambassador to China and Asia-Pacific in the Bobst International Center.

In this role, he’s focused on designing clinical trials of new cancer treatments, translating scientific discoveries from the laboratory to the patient, and building collaborations to improve patient care and education — all on a global scale. This is what attracted Dr. Li to MSK in the first place: not just treating people with cancer but breaking boundaries and bringing different people together toward a common purpose. Dr. Li says the diverse environment of the International Center led by Sir Murray Brennan is one reason why his career has flourished on the world stage.

“Diversity means you’re drawing talent from everywhere. It means accepting all people and understanding the breadth of human potential — the capacity of mankind. This is what makes America such a great nation.”

In cancer care, MSK is a microcosm of America’s strength — pushing boundaries, recruiting the brightest minds, and thinking big.

“When you want to cure cancer, you can’t just stick to one way of doing things. One way has never worked for patients,” he says. “It requires a lot of outside-the-box thinking and a lot of diversity of perspective and backgrounds.”

Diversity in Action

Dr. Li says those principles of diversity paid off in unexpected ways during the pandemic. During the initial surge of COVID-19 in New York City, MSK’s supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) was dwindling. The situation was dire.

Within just a few weeks, more than 300,000 PPE arrived at MSK. Donations came pouring in from local Asian American communities, MSK’s international patients, industry partners, and academic institutions in China. This monumental effort was led by MSK’s Bobst International Center in collaboration with colleagues in the Development and Supply Chain offices.

“We were contacted by so many local Asian communities and our overseas partners in China who wanted to help and had access to funds and PPE supplies,” says Dr. Li. “It was an act of generosity and bravery for them to donate supplies to us when everyone in the world was scared and fending for themselves and their families. Asian communities went out of their way to support us.”

Expanding the MSK Mission

Increasing the diversity of patients is another major focus of MSK. Dr. Li plays a leadership role in that effort, too.

He is Chief Scientific Officer of MSK Direct, which partners with 110 employers and labor unions across the country to provide access to world-class cancer care for employees and their families through technology and collaboration.

“I was asked to take this leadership role because of the unique perspective and contribution I could bring as a physician-scientist and also because of my international background,” Dr. Li says. “This is critical to MSK’s success.”

Dr. Li says there is still more work to do.

“Racism weakens the country, and it will always try to come back in some way,” he says. “But America has fought and rejected those forces in the past and is rejecting them now. For America to keep growing stronger, it is essential that we stand in solidarity and speak out against all forms of racism and discrimination.”

His personal journey mirrors the hope and the heartbreak of a diverse nation, trying to reconcile differences and use them, instead, as a great source of strength to overcome challenges.

He says with a laugh, “And that’s why my original two-year plan to go back to Australia just didn’t pan out.”

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