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2021 Gold Medal Recipients

Trailblazers in Radiation Oncology Awarded Society’s Most Prestigious Award

By Diane Kean, Communications Manager, ASTRO

Each year, ASTRO awards its highest honor to radiation oncologists who have made significant impacts to the field of radiation oncology. The ASTRO Gold Medal winners represent a select class of leaders who have contributed to the field through their clinical patient care, research, teaching, mentorship and service. Congratulations to the 2021 ASTRO Gold Medal recipients, Colleen A.F. Lawton, MD, FASTRO, and Lori J. Pierce, MD, FASTRO, who join the revered class in receiving ASTRO’s highest honor.

“I am honored and thrilled to present the Gold Medal to two colleagues who have dedicated their careers to improving the lives of cancer patients and advancing the field of radiation oncology through their selfless commitment to collaboration and education at all levels, but especially their mentorship of residents and junior faculty,” said ASTRO Chair Thomas Eichler, MD, FASTRO. “This award recognizes the profound impact of their life’s work that goes well beyond the clinic and the lab, leaving a rich legacy that will resonate within the specialty forever.”

Colleen A.F. Lawton, MD, FASTRO

Colleen A.F. Lawton, MD, FASTRO, is a professor and vice chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). A prominent teacher, mentor, researcher and leader, Dr. Lawton has spent her career in Milwaukee at the Medical College of Wisconsin, impacting the lives of countless cancer patients locally, nationally and internationally, thanks to the long-felt impacts of her research in prostate cancer and total body radiation therapy and her contributions to the field of radiation oncology and resident education.

Dr. Lawton received her undergraduate degree from Marquette University and her medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin, where she completed her internship and residency in radiation oncology. When she entered medical school, she was planning to become a general practitioner, but could not quite find her niche. It wasn’t until her GYN rotation where she encountered a patient with cervix cancer being treated with radiation that the interest formed. “It was exactly what I wanted, which was caring for patients, walking with them side by side over a period of time and yet still being able to use the physics, math and science background that I was good at. It fit for me,” said Dr. Lawton.

After completing her residency in the late 1980s, Dr. Lawton joined the faculty at the Medical College of Wisconsin, where she has excelled. In 2002, Dr. Lawton became a tenured professor and in 2011 she was appointed vice chair of the department. Through the decades, she has focused her clinical research and care on two key areas: total body radiation therapy for stem cell transplant patients, and later, when an opportunity arose, pivoting to prostate cancer.

The research conducted on total body irradiation established treatments that are now widely used in bone marrow transplant programs. Dr. Lawton is credited with defining late renal toxicity in adults following total body irradiation and then designing selective renal shielding systems to eliminate that toxicity. Dr. Lawton’s research in prostate cancer focused on organ-confined and lymph node positive stages. As stated by a peer, “Ask any resident what the numbers 85-31, 92-02, 94-10, 94-13 and 98-05 mean and they will tell you immediately that these are the RTOG studies that defined contemporary practice [in treating prostate cancer].” Dr. Lawton led the development of the contouring atlas, with her GU radiation oncology colleagues, “to define the areas that you need to treat to properly radiate regional lymph nodes for high-risk prostate cancer.” The atlas has been used in multiple clinical trials and has helped to prove that there is a survival benefit to treating the lymph nodes in post-operative patients. When discussing this research, Dr. Lawton reflected, “I can’t understate how meaningful that work is to me. The advances we’ve made for prostate cancer patients, improving their lives and improving the quality of their lives through this work.”

Dr. Lawton serves as a role model for many, “giving inspiration and a practical approach for excelling in the field.” And this theme has been present in every stage of her career. Dr. Lawton served as the program director of the MCW Radiation Oncology Residency Program for 25 years and was instrumental in the creation of the Association for Directors of Radiation Oncology Programs (ADROP). She ran the in-training exam program through the ACR, encouraging leaders of the field to write questions for the exams, all to improve resident education. Dr. Lawton chaired the Radiation Oncology Resident Review Committee of the ACGME and was pivotal in building strong relationships between ASTRO and ARRO, encouraging residents to become more involved in their society. “Resident education is a really big deal to me. As time passes, these residents become colleagues, allowing me to mentor them further. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this, especially my mentoring of women,” said Dr. Lawton. She has been recognized for these efforts, including receiving ARRO’s Educator of the Year award and ABR’s Lifetime Service Award among many others.

Always with an eye to the future of the field, Dr. Lawton is also credited as leading the charge to create ASTRO’s research foundation, the Radiation Oncology Institute (ROI). Dr. Lawton was pivotal in growing the ROI from the ground up to raise money for radiation oncology research and has proudly served in various leadership roles within the ROI. She is the current vice president and next year will serve as president of the foundation. Under her guidance and leadership, the ROI has raised over $16 million, securing funding for future research to advance the field. “Through the important fundraising work, the ROI allows us to invest in leaders for the future and research for the future that continues to improve the lives of our patients,” stated Dr. Lawton.

Dr. Lawton’s service to the profession and ASTRO, as well as many other professional societies, is unparalleled. As one letter of support stated, “She has given thousands of hours of voluntary time to almost every [ASTRO] committee…almost four dozen of them, and to multiple task forces.” From the Annual Meeting Program Committee, to founding ADROP and the ROI, Dr. Lawton’s impacts are felt in every aspect of the Society and field. From 2011-2014, she was elected and served as president-elect, president and chair of ASTRO and has been actively involved in committees ranging from finance to guidelines development. Dr. Lawton currently serves as vice-chair of the Ethics Committee.

In addition to her contributions in research, her dedication to professional organizations and residents, Dr. Lawton has served as a beacon throughout her career for women in medicine. As noted in a letter of support, “…through her ability to organize, prioritize and prevail, she was a true role model in balancing life’s competing priorities and excelling in radiation oncology.

“If you put your nose to the grindstone, work hard and do it in an honest, forthright way, you can do important things,” said Dr. Lawton. When reflecting on receiving the Gold Medal, Dr. Lawton said, “You can't even believe you’ve won. It’s so overwhelming. It’s so humbling. It’s so wonderful. I don’t know what it’s like to win an Academy Award, but it’s probably a similar feeling. Incredible.”

Lori J. Pierce, MD, FASTRO

Lori J. Pierce, MD, FASTRO, is a radiation oncologist, professor, researcher and vice provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs at the University of Michigan. Dr. Pierce has dedicated her career to improving the lives of women diagnosed with breast cancer and continues to raise the profile of radiation oncology with her internationally recognized research and active participation in the many professional societies to which she belongs.

Dr. Pierce received her undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and her medical degree from Duke University. Initially, Dr. Pierce was planning to go into radiology. In her third year at Duke, Dr. Pierce chose to work on a research project in radiation oncology, the same year radiation oncology became its own department at Duke. During this year, while conducting research and observing in the clinic, Dr. Pierce decided to make the change to radiation oncology. She completed her internship at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital followed by residency at the University of Pennsylvania. After completion, Dr. Pierce joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania as an assistant professor. She was subsequently appointed as a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute from 1990-1992 and then joined the University of Michigan School of Medicine as a research investigator and assistant professor. As she rose through the ranks, Dr. Pierce served as the residency program director and clinical division director in the late 1990s, teaching, training and mentoring the next generation of radiation oncologists.  She was promoted to professor with tenure in 2004, and in 2005, Dr. Pierce was appointed as vice provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs of the university — a position, many note, that few radiation oncologists have achieved.

Dr. Pierce is an internationally renowned expert in breast cancer treatment whose influential research has significantly changed breast conservation therapy and the treatment of node-positive breast cancer. Her focus on breast cancer came from multiple factors, including having an aunt who passed away from inflammatory breast cancer while Dr. Pierce was in medical school and working closely with mentors during residency, specifically Drs. Barbara Fowble and Larry Solin. But it was working with the patients themselves that most influenced her focus. “Cancer is a very emotional disease, particularly when it affects mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. I felt so fortunate to work alongside breast cancer patients and their families,” reflected Dr. Pierce.

Peers define Dr. Pierce’s research as having “changed the landscape for standards of care in the treatment of breast cancer.” Dr. Pierce focused on node-positive, left-sided breast cancer, particularly reducing potential toxicities of radiation to the heart by developing treatment techniques to minimize cardiac exposure. A second focus has been on the role of radiation in women who carry BRCA1 or 2 mutations. Dr. Pierce led a collaboration of investigators from the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia to evaluate potential increases in toxicity among these patients, with results showing there was not an increase. Citing these findings, Dr. Pierce says, “I am particularly proud of these analyses because although they were retrospective, they have helped create a framework for conversations around local therapy as patients with either a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation consider their treatment options.”

Additionally, for more than a decade, Dr. Pierce has served as the director of the Michigan Radiation Oncology Quality Consortium (MROQC). This initiative, funded by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, has grown under Dr. Pierce’s leadership to comprise roughly two-thirds of radiation oncology practices across the state of Michigan. The consortium seeks to improve the quality of radiation delivered to cancer patients in the state of Michigan.

Dr. Pierce has served in countless leadership roles within ASTRO and other professional societies and last year was president and is currently chair of the board of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO). She has received many prestigious awards and been recognized for her leadership, mentorship, contributions to women’s health and clinical care, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sister’s Network, the AMA Women Physician Mentor Award, ARRO’s Teacher of the Year, ESTRO’s Travel Award, and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Scholar. In 2018, she was elected as a member of the National Academy of Medicine, one of the highest honors in the field of medicine. In addition to her service to organizations within medicine, Dr. Pierce was recently recognized for her philanthropy outside the house of medicine with the United Way of Washtenaw County of Michigan’s Woman of the Year award.

Dr. Pierce’s lasting impacts include being a role model for many women and people of color within the broader field of oncology and academia. When she assumed the role of president of ASCO, Dr. Pierce’s theme for the year focused on equity of care, a topic chosen well before the pandemic and social unrest shook the world. Dr. Pierce had researched equity of health early on in her career, and it was the topic of one of her earliest published papers. Returning to this focus in 2020, through a larger platform and role within the field, brought it full circle. When discussing equity of care and an overall greater awareness of the social determinants of health and the programs that are being put in place to address these disparities, Dr. Pierce shares, “We’re at an important point where the world is now aware that the status quo is not acceptable. The public is demanding change. These changes won’t happen overnight, but I firmly believe that the needle is moving in the right direction.”

In listing her accomplishments and accolades, it would be remiss to not include her impact on the next generation of radiation oncologists. At every stage of her career, Dr. Pierce has dedicated time to mentoring residents. “One of the best parts of working in academics is working with and mentoring  residents,” said Dr. Pierce. “They will become the next generation of researchers and community physicians who will shape the future of oncology.”

Dr. Pierce’s lasting legacy has touched countless patients, medical students, peers and colleagues. “Winning the Gold Medal means more than I can express. It is an amazing honor to be among the list of those who I’ve respected over the years and to be selected by my peers from the Society that nurtured me and my academic career."