It was on one of her first nights at Simpson, in her dorm room in Mary Berry Hall, when Dr. Jean Sanders told her roommates that she was going to major in science and, someday, go on to medical school. Her comment was met with rolled eyes and a quick, “Sure you will.”
She didn’t mind the skepticism. They didn’t know the depth of her inner drive at that point in her life. And they didn’t know about Rita, Sanders’ favorite little cousin who died of leukemia at the age of six. “Rita was 10 years younger than I was,” Sanders said. “She died when I was 16 and when that happened, I told my mother that someday I was going to do something about it, so that little girls did not have to die of that disease.”
That commitment began at Simpson. During her time at the college, Sanders majored in biology and was invigorated by the liberal arts curriculum. But equally impactful was the time she spent with her mentor, Dr. Margaret Watson, conducting research in her genetics lab and building the foundation for an academic and professional career that would break through any and all barriers.
After graduating from Simpson, Sanders earned her M.D. From the University of Iowa, where one of her genetic electives focused on learning more about inherited diseases in children. From there, she completed postdoctoral work in Thailand, pediatric training at Oakland Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Calif., And then pediatric oncology training at Stanford.
And through it all, Sanders never forgot about Rita and the promise she made to her mother.
In 1975, she accepted a position at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington’s Department of Pediatrics, where she got involved with bone marrow transplantation for young adults and children with blood diseases such as lymphoma, aplastic anemia and leukemia. “I’ve been part of this field since it began, and I’ve helped it grow from being an experimental, end-of-the-line approach for patients with leukemia or aplastic anemia to where it is now, which is a standard of care for selected patients with these diseases,” she said.
Throughout her career, Sanders has authored or co-authored more than 300 peer-reviewed research manuscripts, written more than 40 book chapters, and has taught countless young doctors from across the country and around the world how to care for patients. Much of her success, she attributes to her time at Simpson. “Simpson taught me how to think,” she said. “I’ve used the knowledge I gained there throughout my life.”
But more importantly, Sanders has kept her promise and helped to save the lives of children.
“What do I get out of what I do? It’s being able to cure a devastating disease and make it a thing of the past for that particular patient,” she said. “We are having one of our patient reunions this summer, and it’s always exciting, and especially satisfying, to see former patients as healthy functioning older children or adults. Not all patients survive their disease, and there too, we still have more work to do. But I am excited about the progress that has been made during my career.”