Tamara Dunn in Focus

A steady hum of energy and activity seems to constantly surround Tamara Dunn, MD, clinical assistant professor of hematology. Perhaps it’s the time of day — it’s early evening, a notoriously hectic time, and she’s toggling between the end of her work day, her children’s after-school commitments, patients’ schedules, and her dog’s veterinary appointment. But, after an hour of conversation, it becomes clear that this is a more permanent state — a reflection of the passion and attention she brings to each sphere of her busy life.

Dunn was one of those kids who “always knew” she wanted to be a physician. She was raised in Kansas City and her father’s job as a dentist gave her an insider’s glimpse into the medical field.

“My dad had a lot of friends who were physicians. In fact, his best friend was my pediatrician,” she explains. “I was very fortunate to be surrounded by this group of black professionals who inspired me. It was completely the norm. ” The early exposure planted the seeds for what would become one of her causes: building — and fostering — inclusive communities in medicine.

After a post-college break spent living in France and New York, performing “off-off-Broadway,” singing – and recording a demo – with a band, and toying with a career as a financial trader, Dunn found her way back to her childhood love — medicine.

She received her MD from SUNY Downstate Medical Center and came to Stanford for her residency, where she’s remained ever since, treating patients at Veterans Affairs, working alongside residents and fellows on the diversity council, and playing a role in the establishment of the Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Program. In the process, she’s emerged as a champion for diversity and inclusion — at Stanford, at the American Society of Hematology, and beyond. Dunn shared more about performing, medicine, and her diversity work in a recent interview.

How did you first become interested in medicine?

I always wanted to be a physician, but I took a very unconventional path. When I arrived at Stanford as an undergraduate I was taking all the  premed courses — I began as a human biology major — but I changed my major after my sophomore year to French. I had already performed quite a bit in high school, but I really cultivated my abilities during this time. I was in an a cappella group that performed world music focusing on the African-American diaspora, I was involved in Stanford’s theatrical society and was performing in shows every year, and I was in a funk band that performed at campus parties. My mother died when I was 15, and I realized how quickly life could change. Since then I’ve had a “carpe diem” attitude and have never taken anything for granted — I believe in following your passion and that anything is possible.

After graduation, I went to performing arts school at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, and did some more theater work — performing off-off-Broadway and auditioning. Then, I took a 180 degree turn into finance. I got licensed and was working on the trading floor on the sales side. I was offered a position in the trader training program but had already enrolled in the post-bac pre-med program at Hunter College.

What drew you to hematology, your current specialty?

It was always an interest of mine. I was just excited to look at blood smears — I thought the cells looked so beautiful on the slide. And all the diseases intrigued me, especially leukemia. I fell in love with how intense the field was and how deep of a relationship you form with your patients and their families. So, I went right into a hematology sub-specialty training program at Stanford, and I loved it.

What does an average work day look like for you?  

One thing I love about my job is that every day is unique. Some days I’m focused on my clinic patients, some days I’m performing inpatient consults at the VA or Stanford Hospital, some days are fellowship heavy. I also work on research for our Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Cancer Program. I recently did a study where we gave all the AYA patients receiving therapy Fitbits and an iPad to encourage physical activity because we believe it can improve cancer-related fatigue and quality of life. We also gave our patients a quality of life assessment tool, and using the technology did in fact improve their score.

Does your artistic background ever come into play when you’re practicing medicine?

Not quite yet, although I'm hoping when things calm down and life is a bit less crazy I'll be able to perform more. Music is so powerful, especially for patients. I will tell you this: I always sing to every patient in my clinic when it's their birthday – they get a big happy birthday song from me, and many have come to expect it. I was also able to sing at the Survivor’s Day celebration at the VA. That was really special. When I was a resident and fellow I used to sing on the units.

You’ve become a voice for diversity and inclusion – which is a pressing issue in all of higher education – in the Department of Medicine. How are you bringing communities together?

I’ve been working alongside Wendy Caceres, MD, clinical assistant professor of primary care and population health, for the past couple of years as a faculty advisor on the diversity council, which is composed mostly of residents and fellows. Having a community is one thing — we know we should improve our diversity — but I think making the people who are currently here feel comfortable is where the inclusion piece comes in. Once the community is formed and people are feeling acclimated, strong, and important, that’s when you start to attract more underrepresented minorities.

I’ve hosted informal get-togethers at my home where we share dinner and discussion, and that is a valuable space. We have a few initiatives in the pipeline: We’re trying to incorporate diversity into the weekly medicine grand rounds by encouraging a more diverse speaker roster. We also have taken a larger role in the recruitment process. We’re doing more distance travel meetings and making sure that we’re bringing diverse faculty to the table. I am also a member of the Graduate Medical Education’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee where we are trying to promote diversity on a broader level.

You were recently named an American Society of Hematology (ASH) ambassador. What will this new job entail?

The ASH ambassador program is in its inaugural year, and Stanford was chosen to be one of 16 participating institutions. The ambassadors serve as liaisons between the society and trainees. The goal of the program is to recruit and retain diverse trainees into hematology.

Underrepresented minorities are even more underrepresented in subspecialties like hematology, and representation decreases from med school, to residency, to fellowship, to faculty positions. So, ASH has established a minority recruitment initiative, and the ambassador program is a function of this. One of our primary goals is getting the word out about the awards ASH has to offer — for example, their minority medical student awards programs. These awards not only provide funding for students, but more importantly, they provide mentorship.

What do you consider to be some of the biggest challenges and the biggest successes in your diversity work?

It’s often hard to talk about diversity-related issues, because we know we have a lot of work to do. We all have biases, which are a natural thing, but defensiveness does not allow us to make progress. Research shows that we are all better when our environments and communities are more diverse — we’re better doctors, better people, and better researchers.

I’m proud to be an underrepresented minority in a leadership position,  because I know that impacts people who are applying. This year the hematology division has more female fellows than male fellows, and it’s wonderful to see young women achieving so much. The men are outstanding as well; it’s just that since I can remember the men have outnumbered the women disproportionately. It’s been an honor to work alongside Wendy Caceres, who has worked tirelessly to build a more diverse and inclusive community. I’m also heartened that diversity and inclusion have come to the forefront of discussion at Stanford, and that Stanford is showing that these issues are important.