Celebrating Hematology and Oncology Doctors From Diverse Backgrounds

Each May, we celebrate our Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Island (AANHPI) providers and staff who help make Stanford Medicine Children’s Health exceptional with their diversity and extraordinary talents. This year for AANHPI Heritage Month, we introduce you to three of our Pediatric Hematology and Oncology doctors, who reflect on their heritage and share how it influenced their careers. We also asked them to reflect on the 2024 AANHPI month theme: Advancing Leaders Through Innovation, which celebrates trailblazers who have made lasting contributions.

Overcoming obstacles with grit and persistence

Clara Lo, MD

Clara Lo, MD, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist, knows what it’s like to feel different. As a first-generation Chinese-Taiwanese American, she only spoke Mandarin Chinese until she learned English in kindergarten. In Long Beach, California, she was one of very few Asian students in her elementary and middle schools. “It was challenging sometimes, because I felt ‘othered.’ I felt different than other kids,” she says. Yet she didn’t let those barriers stop her. When she was 10 years old, her grandparents moved in. Her grandfather was a very accomplished surgeon in Taiwan and had been an officer in the Taiwanese Army. “At the time he said, ‘You should be a doctor,’ I remember thinking, ‘Just because you said it, I am not going to do it.’ I felt really defiant.”

Yet, her natural interest in science won out. She majored in biochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and earned her medical degree from New York Medical College. From there, she completed her internship and residency at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. “I shadowed a pediatric hematologist and fell in love with it.” She came to Stanford for her hematology fellowship training 16 years ago and has stayed ever since.

Dr. Lo’s mother passed away when she was young, so her father raised her and her two sisters on his own. Both of her parents were college educated, but because of language barriers when first coming to America, they were forced to work in blue-collar jobs to provide a living for their family. Her father, a trained journalist, opened a local restaurant. Dr. Lo and her siblings worked in the restaurant growing up. “The restaurant is where I learned to do mental math quickly, how to be efficient, and how to stay up on my feet for 14 hours a day. It boded well for medical school.”

Dr. Lo has dedicated her career to hematology, focusing on caring for children and young adults with hemophilia—a bleeding disorder whereby the blood doesn’t clot properly. She is the medical director of the Stanford Hemophilia and Thrombosis Treatment Center, which treats both children and adults, allowing her to really get to know her patients over their lifetimes. She is also the section chief of Pediatric Hematology. “I love caring for my patients and watching kids grow from toddlers to young adults,” she says. “I have even had the chance to meet their own children.” She’s proud to be a part of improved care for hemophilia over the years. “Twenty years ago, the life span for people with hemophilia was not nearly as long as it is today, but thanks to new treatments, which we have played a part in creating via drug trials and gene therapy, the landscape of hemophilia care has changed. Some of my older patients comment on how much better their lives are today than in the past.”

Dr. Lo is grateful to be at an institution that values diversity. She believes that having a diverse care team benefits patients. “From a psychosocial perspective, when patients and families from a variety of racial, ethnic backgrounds come in and see a provider who looks like them or speaks their language, they feel more connected and more at ease during scary times, and that’s really important.” She also believes that medicine is an art, not just a science, and that having different perspectives represented leads to better care. 

Another passion of hers is teaching fellows, residents, and medical students. “I find enjoyment in passing the torch by helping to train future doctors,” she says. Through her research and her teaching, Dr. Lo is making a lasting contribution. Her advice to people who want to get into medicine is to first be certain about it, and then to know that it takes time and perseverance. “Don’t be afraid to ask others for help, and don’t be afraid to give yourself grace. But keep at it. It’s a long road, but it is very worthwhile.”

Rising to great research heights through hard work and passion

Kathleen Sakamoto, MD, as a child
Kathleen Sakamoto, MD, as a child

“I had a humble upbringing, but I never lacked for anything,” says Kathleen Sakamoto, MD, PhD, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Stanford Children’s. Dr. Sakamoto was the first in her family to graduate from college. Her mother grew up in Japan during World War II, and her father was in a Japanese internment camp in the United States.

Dr. Sakamoto was born and raised in Los Angeles, where her father worked as a gardener and her mother cleaned homes. They lived a middle-class lifestyle, and she attended high school in Highland Park—an inner-city school with plenty of diversity. She recalls always wanting to be a doctor. “My father and I would watch medical shows together. If my father had the opportunity, I believe he would have gone into medicine too,” she says. While her parents never pressured her about grades, there was an expectation that she would attend college. “My mom, being an immigrant, taught me that school was critical. I would offer to help make meals, and she would say, ‘No. Go back and study.’ Education always came first.”

Her interest in science and her good grades earned her a chance to attend college across the country at Williams College in Massachusetts, where she earned a BA in biology and conducted research with a plant biologist. It was there that she first experienced the sense of being different. Most students were affluent, and she was one of three Asian American women in her class. It was also challenging to be so far from home, so after graduation she returned to Los Angeles.

Her mother’s cousin was a hematologist in Japan, and he helped her get a job in a hematology lab in Los Angeles. She discovered her passion for the field and her interest in hematology research by studying blood mutations in certain types of anemias. From there, she attended medical school at the University of Cincinnati and upon graduating became a pediatric resident and hematology/oncology fellow at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “All of my experiences, starting in the lab and through my clinical fellowship and research training, got me excited to do research in pediatric oncology. Developing new therapies for pediatric leukemia has been my passion since my fellowship, and it continues today.”

Dr. Sakamoto became a faculty member at UCLA, where she was division chief of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and fellowship program director. While at the University of California, Los Angeles, she also received her PhD in biology from the California Institute of Technology. In 2011, she accepted the position of division chief of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, and Stem Cell Transplantation at Stanford Medicine. Today, she focuses on her research and caring for her patients. 

“It was a big move from Los Angeles to Stanford, so it was reassuring to see doors open for me and have the chance to collaborate with unbelievably talented colleagues who encouraged me to think outside of the box.” She has been able to take her innovative research even further at Stanford Children’s, having earned several prestigious national grants and published several dozen studies. It has led to her biggest accomplishment in her career so far: leading a phase I clinical trial on her own discovery of a novel use of a drug for acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). The Sakamoto Lab focuses on developing new approaches to treat blood diseases, including bone marrow failure and cancer, which includes AML. “Like all physician-scientists, my dream is to take what I learn in the lab and translate it to better patient care. It took 20 years to get here, but staying focused is paying off. What excites me is the chance to offer children with leukemia a new treatment, and I can’t think of a better place to do that than Stanford.”

She also finds immense joy in patient care and mentoring students and fellows. “I’m continually inspired by kids with cancer and how brave they are.” In 2022, she received a National Institutes of Health grant for her project titled, “Increasing Diversity in Hematology: Training for Underrepresented Students.” As the director of the Stanford Hematology Internship Program (together with Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, PhD), she helps underrepresented high school and college students learn about careers in hematology research. “Because of my own background of feeling disadvantaged and different in college, I’m motivated to mentor underrepresented or disadvantaged students and fellows in my lab. I want them to have the opportunities that my mentors gave me.” Her advice to her students is to “do what you are passionate about and keep pursuing your goals, no matter what your background or training.”

Applying philosophies from the U.S. Navy to his leadership role today

Jay Balagtas, MD, during his time in the Navy
Jay Balagtas, MD, during his time in the Navy

Jay Balagtas, MD, a pediatric oncologist, still considers himself an island boy at heart. Born in the Philippines, Dr. Balagtas moved with his family to the island of Guam when he was 4 years old so that his father could find a good job. “My childhood was spent running around an island. It was a great place to grow up, with a lot of diversity. Yet by the time I finished high school, I couldn’t wait to get off the island.” He wanted to go somewhere warm, so he chose the University of California, San Diego. After graduating with a BS in chemistry/biochemistry, Dr. Balagtas saw two options when it came to medical school. “Either you paid with time, or you paid with money. I chose to pay with time by joining the U.S. Navy. It was a defining moment in my life, and it laid a path moving forward.” He attended New York Medical College on a U.S. Navy scholarship and completed his residency at the Naval Medical Center San Diego.

Dr. Balagtas knew that he wanted to be a pediatrician from the start. “I always wanted to work with children because I knew that no matter how bad a day might go, one child would make me laugh or smile, and that would make the day worth it.” His focus on hematology/oncology came during medical school, where he shadowed a doctor who inspired him. “She developed incredibly deep relationships with her patients, and I realized I wanted that too. I wanted to help people through tough times.”

After completing his residency, Dr. Balagtas returned home to serve as a general pediatrician at Naval Hospital Guam. Upon completion of his military service, he came to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford for his fellowship training. His first faculty position was with the UC Davis Medical Center, where he was the acting section chief of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, as well as the institutional principal investigator for the Children’s Oncology Group (COG PI). He returned to Stanford Children’s in 2015 to start a joint Pediatric Hematology/Oncology program at John Muir Health in Walnut Creek and is now the director of Clinical Operations for the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. These positions have been a great match with Dr. Balagtas’s unique leadership skills, polished by the U.S. Navy. “Besides caring for my patients, I also enjoy taking care of my colleagues,” he says. “It goes back to the ethos of the Navy, which is that leaders take care of their people. If I can make my colleagues’ lives a little easier by improving a process and making things flow more smoothly, then I want to do that.”

When asked how he fits the theme of being a trailblazer, Dr. Balagtas names two accomplishments. The first is in building out his current clinical director position from scratch. “It was a privilege to be asked to originate this position, so I feel lucky to step into this role and effect positive change. It’s been a year, and it is still a work in progress, but we are making progress.” Second, he sees his work as the COG PI for Packard Children’s Hospital as important. “Only the best ideas make it to phase III clinical trials, so I am hopeful we can positively impact the survival of children with cancer and reduce the toxicity of chemotherapy drugs.”

Dr. Balagtas feels fortunate to have been raised and trained to work in diverse environments. He particularly credits his time in the U.S. Navy. “I feel fortunate to have served in the Navy. It exposed me to a lot of different beliefs and viewpoints from people from every walk of life. It really influenced who I am today, and I am proud of that. Diversity brings different viewpoints, which brings diverse and innovative solutions.”  Each year, Dr. Balagtas and his family return to Guam to visit his family there. He remains grateful for what his parents taught him, tenets he applies to his everyday life: “They taught me that everybody deserves respect, and when you treat others with respect, they will more than likely treat you the same way.” His parents also taught him to work hard—something he especially learned from his father, who faced challenges when working his way through college as an engineer and emigrating to Guam to build a better life for his family. “He made it possible for us to be successful, and I’m grateful for that.”


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)