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Social Impact Heroes: How Sung Poblete of Stand Up To Cancer Is Helping To Fund Research For Lifesaving Cancer Therapies

The nurses I met when I was a girl inspired me to show up, work hard and make a difference. Sometimes when everything is moving so fast and two dozen decisions need to be made, I have to take a moment to remember that while I am at the helm of a major movement involving […]

The nurses I met when I was a girl inspired me to show up, work hard and make a difference. Sometimes when everything is moving so fast and two dozen decisions need to be made, I have to take a moment to remember that while I am at the helm of a major movement involving cutting-edge cancer research led by multi-disciplinary groups of scientists around the world, those principles of nursing, always putting the patients first are at the core of our work. It is a responsibility and a privilege.


Asa part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sung Poblete, PhD, RN, CEO of Stand Up To Cancer, a leading organization supporting collaborative, groundbreaking cancer research. Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) raises funds to accelerate the pace of cancer research to get new therapies to patients quickly and save lives now.

Sung Poblete, PhD, RN has made it her life’s work to fight cancer from all angles: galvanizing awareness, improving patient outcomes, and enabling cutting-edge research. Today, she is chief executive officer of Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C).

A common thread throughout Poblete’s career has been her dedication to cutting-edge innovation on the research front, paired with a steadfast focus on improving nonprofit and corporate healthcare.

Previously, Poblete was director of clinical and translational programs at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), the scientific partner of SU2C, where she spearheaded the organization’s scientific review, oversaw grants administration and management, and served as the primary liaison for scientific communications and general administration. Pivotal to the organization’s collaborations, she was liaison to the Clinical and Translational Committee, the Pediatric Cancer Working Group, the Task Force on Survivorship Research, the Oncology Nursing Society, and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, all while leading AACR’s continuing medical education program.

Poblete has also held senior-level positions focused on patient outcomes and disease management. Notably, as vice president of clinical operations for a subsidiary of Fresenius Medical Care North America, she developed and ran national chronic kidney disease management programs. As executive director of the Oxford Health Plans Foundation, she facilitated grants that furthered research and programs aimed at improving health care delivery.

Poblete has received grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and private foundations. She also served as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–UC Health Systems Public Scholar from 1999 to 2000. She currently serves on the Executive Board of the Osteosarcoma Institute and on the Stand Up To Cancer — Canada Board of Directors. She earned her bachelor of science degree, master of science degree, and PhD in nursing from Rutgers, where she also began her teaching career 20 years ago. She continues to serve Rutgers as a visiting professor at the School of Nursing. In 2016, Poblete was inducted into Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni.


Thank you for joining us Sung! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Myaunt was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 10 years old, and I visited her in the hospital every day during her treatment. The nurses, who had so much compassion, were strong advocates for my aunt and other cancer patients in the unit. It was great exposure to a wonderful profession.

I started my career with a specific interest in nursing, and immediately after completing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I was invited to join the teaching faculty at Rutgers University School of Nursing. In the early days of my career, I lost so many people I loved and admired to cancer. I was shocked to learn the statistics, and eventually, I got to the point where I wanted to do something to stem the tide of cancer, instead of watching from the sidelines. Currently, those statistics read that in 1 in 2 men, and 1 in 3 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes.

Now, as CEO of Stand Up To Cancer, I still look back to the discipline of nursing. Nursing informs every aspect of my work, from collaborating with teams of physicians on clinical trials, to fostering relationships with individuals, philanthropists and companies who donate time and money to fund research that helps save lives.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading Stand Up To Cancer?

In cancer research, some of the most heart-wrenching parts of the job come from working with children with cancer. However, on the other side of that coin, some of the work I’m most proud of and inspired by is our pediatric cancer research. A key collaborator in this research is one of our largest donors, Bristol-Myers Squibb, who shares our vision to end cancer as we know it.

Typically, new cancer therapies for children are approved by the FDA years after they are approved for adults. Our Pediatric SU2C Catalyst® research is changing that by allowing researchers, in collaboration with Bristol-Myers Squibb, to study new treatments for pediatric cancers, even if the treatments have not yet been formally approved for adults. What’s incredible about this, is that we can reduce the wait for new pediatric cancer treatments by seven or more years. This new approach has the potential to save so many children’s lives, which is why it’s very dear to my heart, and some of the most rewarding work we’ve ever done.

What do you think makes Stand Up To Cancer stand out as an organization? Can you share a story?

The story here is actually a combination of many stories: we have Nobel Prize-winning scientists both serving as advisors and working directly as researchers on our projects. We have early-career investigators injecting new ideas and enthusiasm into the study of some of the toughest questions in cancer diagnosis and treatment today. We have patient advocates serving on research teams to help create the best possible protocols. And we have amazing support from the entertainment community and some of the most creative people in Hollywood, helping us create a brand and an awareness that propels cancer research forward, and brings hope to people affected by different types of cancer.

The results from Stand Up To Cancer-funded researchers have been exceptional. In just under 12 years, our research has contributed to the FDA approval of seven new cancer therapies, including treatments for breast, colorectal, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers and difficult-to-treat leukemias.

What are some of Stand Up To Cancer’s current initiatives? How will they help people?

Two of our current initiatives, in particular, spotlight the hope and promise of cancer research:

In January 2020, Stand Up To Cancer launched its Health Equity Initiative, which aims to increase minority participation in cancer clinical trials. FDA data show that only 4 percent of cancer clinical trial participants are black, and 5 percent are Hispanic, despite the fact that people of color have the highest mortality rates and shortest overall survival rates for most cancers. Stand Up To Cancer is working to change this by collaborating with advocacy and community-based organizations to address these issues. Additionally, SU2C is currently launching research specifically on this topic, with an open application for up to $6 million for a SU2C Health Equity Breakthrough Team supported by a grant from Genentech, a member of the Roche Group.

Second, we are supporting research that detects early-stage cancer and proposes innovative treatment strategies. Our Interception projects, first announced in Fall 2017, are looking for new indications of cancer early in the process — maybe even in a person’s blood — and then working to stop the cancer before it takes hold. As the field matures, it will drive new approaches to screening, diagnosis, and treatment.

Finally, we’re committed to helping the cancer community navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. As long as this pandemic lasts, there will still be nearly 5,000 people in the U.S. diagnosed with cancer every day, and we’ll lose one person to cancer every minute. Research has shown cancer patients are at a 3x higher risk of infection from COVID-19, and as an immunocompromised group, need continued support right now. Stand Up To Cancer has developed resources to assist cancer patients and caregivers during this difficult time (To access these resources, visit StandUpToCancer.org/COVID19).

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their teams to thrive?

Networking and connection are a vital part of being a change agent. To improve the world through your work, it is crucial to start with your own network and stay connected with your classmates, teachers and professors, and eventually your colleagues. It’s true what they say: “It’s not just what you know, but who you know.” Take advantage of the communities and networks you have, or build the support system you need, to change the world on behalf of the causes you believe in. We’re all better when we stand up together.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Three women have been critical to my success, starting from the very beginning of my work life:

An essential part of who I am today is due to Dr. Dorothy DeMaio, my mentor of 30 years. I met Dr. DeMaio when I was 16 years old at an open house at Rutgers University. I decided, that day, that I would apply to the College of Nursing. Her guidance throughout my career has been a constant source of strength and resilience for me. Dr. DeMaio passed away in 2018, and I think of her often and remember her sage advice.

I also look to the lessons given by Stand Up To Cancer co-founder and legendary Hollywood producer the late Laura Ziskin. Laura was a force of nature in any room she entered, pushing people to find ways to work smarter and faster, and she taught me to use my voice to make cancer a first-tier issue in this country. Another co-founder, Sherry Lansing, who is a Hollywood legend in her own right, has helped keep Laura’s energy and focus in our work, using all of our resources to make a difference for people with cancer. With the help of the other co-founders of SU2C, we are all working to change the culture of cancer research.

What inspires you to help bring goodness to the world?

The nurses I met when I was a girl inspired me to show up, work hard and make a difference. Sometimes when everything is moving so fast and two dozen decisions need to be made, I have to take a moment to remember that while I am at the helm of a major movement involving cutting-edge cancer research led by multi-disciplinary groups of scientists around the world, those principles of nursing, always putting the patients first are at the core of our work. It is a responsibility and a privilege.

What are your top five leadership lessons you’ve learned from your experience?

1. Listen more than you speak. Getting different perspectives is key to helping you make better decisions. That’s a skill people often think they know intuitively, but it has to be cultivated.

2. Learn to accept and embrace failure.This can be especially difficult in a world where we tend to present our highlight reel on social media, but failure is a part of business, innovation, and life.

3. Always look for ways to collaborate.Any problem worth solving today is going to be complex and multifaceted. Problems are best tackled through teamwork, when everyone brings their best game face to work and prioritizes respect, a sense of wonder, and focus on the mission. I see this every day with our collaborative team approach which is accelerating the pace of cancer research.

4. Convey a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency allows people to find the resources within themselves to overcome failure and discover that they are more resilient than they realize. A leader must always be helping everyone move in the direction of the goals of the organization.

5. Be positive and push forward.Nothing worthwhile is going to come easily. I like to say if you’re working on something important, then a “no” is another opportunity for a “yes.” You have to keep going.

How can our readers follow Stand Up To Cancer on social media?

I am really proud of the community we’ve built through social media. I hope everyone reading this will find us on FacebookInstagram, and YouTube at @SU2C, and follow us on Twitter at @SU2C and @SU2Cscience.

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