Alexandra Bukowski is off to do great things as she begins medical school in North Carolina. Read our interview with the renaissance woman of the GCI team:
What was your job at GCI? Which big GCI moments did you participate in/play a role in?
"At GCI, Jessica St. Louis and I wear many hats, but we call ourselves GCI’s 'Program Directors.' I mainly led our Global Patient Navigation Programs, our Young Women’s Breast Cancer Database, and general communications for the organization, including working on the website, social media, and public relations. GCI was a really young organization when I first came onto the team, so I feel like I have been able to be a part of so many wonderful moments! I helped our amazing colleagues in Mexico to design and launch our very first Patient Navigation Program (and then our second in Uruguay and third in Brazil!), which has been really rewarding and exciting. Now, we are planning new sites in Mexico, Brazil, and Panama! I also took on the task of making our young women’s breast cancer database 'go digital.'
When I first started, all data collection was being done on paper, and I worked with our pilot sites in Mexico to convert everything to a digital platform – essentially, getting the database up and running on tablets, so patients could complete their questionnaires in waiting rooms or in their doctor’s offices and the data would be automatically recorded in our secure spreadsheets. We are now working on expanding our database to Brazil, Panama, and Peru! In the past couple of years, GCI has also become a member of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), and I had the honor of participating in the UICC’s International Cancer Control Partnership meeting last year on behalf of GCI.
I have also loved watching the other pieces of GCI grow – in the past two years, Jessica has tripled the number of Global Tumor Board sites, and we have hosted several international Fellows. I am really proud of everything that we’ve accomplished, and I am so grateful that I was able to be a part of so many of those moments!”
What was your high moment/low moment (or, biggest success/biggest obstacle) during your GCI experience?
“The biggest obstacle actually eventually became the biggest success for me at GCI: designing and launching our Patient Navigation Program. When I first started, the Patient Navigation Program was still only in the “idea” phase, and we had to build it from scratch. We knew we were starting our first site in Mexico, but we also knew that we would eventually want to replicate our model elsewhere in the world. Thus, we needed to design the program in a way that would be applicable (or at least customizable) to many different cities, countries, and systems worldwide. Our colleagues in Mexico, who led our first project there, were working hard on their end to make sure the project would launch successfully in Mexico City, but we also had our work cut out for us at “HQ” trying to envision a whole network of these PN sites and how we would go about constantly starting up these research projects in new places.
I still remember one morning in the office, when we had our Fellows Rossana (from Peru) and Abraham (from Colombia) with us, and we first started actually trying to create this program. We all sat down together and were discussing the PN project design, general protocols, inclusion criteria, reporting structures, data collection systems, and everything in between. Everyone had differing opinions and perspectives on at least some aspects of the project – one thing that was needed in Mexico would definitely not work in Peru, and if we adjusted a questionnaire for Peru it became unusable in Colombia. We went back and forth between intense debate and long periods of silence, and we were definitely getting frustrated with the process. In the end, after all the frustration and talking and thinking, we came up with a really strong design for the program and a plan for moving forward. Within a couple of weeks, we had solidified all of the informational packets and questionnaires, and we had a solid foundation for moving ahead with our planning for Mexico City. Now, I have multiple binders filled with those documents–plus many more that we developed over the years–in both Spanish and Portuguese, and we have started three full PN sites, with three more currently in the pipeline.
Sometimes I forget how far we’ve come. A few months ago, I had sent Abraham all the necessary documents for a new PN site, because he is now thinking of starting his own project in Colombia. He responded and said that the documents looked so impressive, and I laughed because I remembered that he was there when those documents didn’t even exist! I always smile when I think back to that day when I had a completely blank Word document opened up on my computer screen, and I turned around to ask Rossana and Abraham for their advice on where to start. It just goes to show that it takes a village to grow something like this (a huge thank you must go out to all of the Fellows who later helped me with additional documents and translations, the Principal Investigators who customized all of our template materials for their own sites, Jessica for proof-reading everything I ever wrote, and Dr. Goss for steering the ship!), and that the growing pains are worth it to get to a point where all your hard work becomes something meaningful and impactful for so many patients!”
What are you up to now?
“I just started the MD/PhD program at the University of North Carolina! I was sad to leave Boston, but I am really excited for this next chapter. I am going to continue doing global public health service and research, as I work toward my MD and a PhD in Public Health. My first research position here is working on a clinical trial to increase cervical cancer screening among underserved women, which is an issue that I became really invested in during my time with GCI. So far, I am staying on brand!”
What is your next step, and how will you use your experience at GCI moving forward? What does GCI mean to you?
“My next step is to get through my first year of medical school! Then, I will start thinking about where I really want to concentrate my studies and efforts over the next several years as I pursue this combined degree. In two years, I will start the PhD portion, so I need to do some soul-searching and choose a path that both interests me and will allow me to make a big impact in the public health field. There are so many potential avenues that I can’t really go wrong, and UNC has such an amazing school of public health that I am sure I will end up in the right place.
No matter what I choose to do, my time with GCI has without a doubt gotten me to where I am today and will continue to guide my path. Before I joined GCI, I was already pretty set on going to medical school, but over time, as I started getting deeper into these really meaningful public health projects, I began to question that decision. I thought that maybe I could make a bigger impact if I worked on more policy-level public health issues. I saw how important these programs were – like patient navigation, tumor boards, etc. – and I began to wonder if I would be able to make the big changes I wanted in the world if I entered the medical field and left those types of public health initiatives behind. But there was still a part of me that didn’t want to sacrifice the one-on-one patient care (and the small victories, personal connections, and daily struggles that would come with it) that I would get to experience with a medical degree. When I learned about MD/PhD programs, I realized I didn’t have to sacrifice either one of those pieces! My GCI experience is really what led me to my decision to apply to those types of programs (and what helped to get me accepted, because of all the great work I was able to do here!)
Moving forward, I will definitely continue to call on the lessons I’ve learned and the experiences that GCI has given me over these past two years. For example, even choosing which research position I wanted this year, I found a Principal Investigator working on an HPV and cervical cancer clinical trial – it was with GCI that I became so fascinated with cervical cancer and its really unique nature as a cancer that is caused by an infectious disease, is completely preventable, and is deeply affected by social and cultural norms. Now, I get to continue learning about this disease and working toward understanding how we can better control it both in the U.S. and globally. In even my first couple of weeks, I have been constantly using the skills I have honed at GCI and the unique kind of problem-solving and make-it-work skills that are so necessary in the public health field!
On a more personal level, through GCI, I have had the immense pleasure of working with Dr. Goss, Jessica, and oncologists from all over the world who have taught me so much about the kind of doctor and person I want to be in the future. I now have colleagues (friends!) all over the world, and I am so honored to have had the opportunity to meet each of them and work with them to create a better future for their patients.”
Thank you for all of your hard work and dedication, Allie! Good luck on your next adventure!