MD Anderson 2020 Interview Project
Chapter 01: Personal and Educational Background


Chapter 01: Personal and Educational Background



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In this chapter, Dr. David Jaffray discusses his personal, educational, and professional background. He describes how he became involved in his particular field of study, noting his interests at the intersection of physics, technology, and cancer. Moreover, Dr. Jaffray recalls his professional experiences throughout Canada and the United States prior to his appointment as Chief Technology and Digital Officer at MD Anderson Cancer Center. He ends by describing his recruitment process to the institution and reflecting on the early months of his appointment.


Nina Nevill Okay, great. It should be going. So, I am Nina Nevill interviewing Dr. David Jaffray for an oral history project run by the Historical Resources Center at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Dr. Jaffray was recruited to MD Anderson as the Chief Technology and Digital Officer in 2019. This session is being held virtually over Zoom. It is the first and only interview session that we have scheduled, however a second session can be scheduled if needed. And today is July 7th, at about 1:05 p.m. And thank you so much, again, for devoting your time to our project today.

David Jaffray, PhD Thank you.

Nina Nevill Just to get started, if you don’t mind, could you just tell me a little bit about where you’re from and your family, just for a little bit of background information?

David Jaffray, PhD Okay, yeah. My name is David Jaffray. I am Canadian and I grew up in all parts of Canada, from Ontario to Alberta and back again, so to say. I’m the second youngest of a family of 10 kids. And I am married, my wife is Anastasia, and I have three children, and they’re ages are from 20 to 25, right now. And they’re going to school, getting educated, which is very good. Is that helpful? Is that enough?

Nina Nevill That’s great to hear. Absolutely. Was there anybody else in your family growing up that was involved in the sciences or medicine?

David Jaffray, PhD Not specifically in my family of 10. It was from people who work in statistics and who work in woodworking and all kinds of other domains, cattle rearing, et cetera, but I’m the only one that’s gone to the academic space for my career.

Nina Nevill That’s awesome. A nice, diverse background to come from.

David Jaffray, PhD [00:02:23/1 Yeah, no. It’s a reflection of society.


Nina Nevill Absolutely. And can you tell me a little bit about your educational path? I have some of your CV here but coming from you would be great.

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah, for sure. Did my undergrad in physics at the University of Alberta and then transitioned to a PhD at the University of Western Ontario in the Department of Medical Biophysics. I actually did that transition after working as a summer student for several years while I was in undergrad in physics. I worked at the Cross Cancer Institute for several summers, and then worked at the London Regional Cancer Center in London, Ontario as a summer student, as well, under the supervision of Jerry Battista, who is now retired as a medical physicist. And after that, I then went to work in the United States, at the William Beaumont Hospital in Michigan. And it was a really fun time, developing new technologies to help treat cancer patients. So, did a lot of work there. NIH funding and other funding sources to account for the ways that allow us to see inside the human body when we are treating them with radiotherapy so we can hit the cancer without hitting as much normal tissue. And that was a very exciting time. And then, I was recruited back to Canada, and I became the Head of Medical Physics at the Princess Margaret Cancer Center in Toronto. And there, I became a full professor in the University of Toronto and started a research institute called Techna Research Institute. And then, after a few years there, Dr. Peter Pisters was the CEO and he recruited me to become the Executive Vice President of Technology Innovation for the University Health Network.

And I worked with him for several years before he came down to MD Anderson or came back down to MD Anderson. And then, in 2018, I put my name in for a competition for the Chief Technology and Digital Officer here at MD Anderson, and after a search process, was asked if I would join the organization, and started in December of 2019. So, coming up on almost two years working at MD Anderson. And with the pandemic, it’s been an absolute immersion. Some people say it feels like five years, one year of pandemic. But it’s been a great way to learn the organization, meet the people, and make some progress. It’s been an exciting two years. Is that helpful?

Nina Nevill Absolutely, sure. Very helpful. So, it sounds like from what you mentioned, your initial experience with working over the summers during your earlier education, in addition to that, what inspired your commitment to wanting to help people, broadly?

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah, I’ve always been someone who sees something that needs to be done and just can’t help starting to do the work. I don’t know, I probably get that from my parents. And this work presents itself in front of you, and important work presents itself more visibly. So, I became very interested in physics, because I had talent in this regard. And it was my roommate who was working in the genetics department at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. I was, at that, point just working at a transport company making some money for my schooling, and he came home one day to our apartment and said, “There’s a physics department in the cancer center.” And I was surprised. And then, he arranged for his supervisor there to introduce me to the head of Medical Physics at the Cross Cancer Institute. And then, we wrote some grants together to get some summer funding, and they were funded, and it just kept going after that. So, I kept writing grants and kept doing research, and kept working on problems that presented themselves for cancer patients.

Nina Nevill That’s incredible. So, what then led you in the direction more towards academia when you were a professor? Similar kind of—the research track, is that more so? Or please correct me.

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah. After I finished my PhD, my supervisor had been a model for me, obviously, and I was always interested in the research aspect, especially starting in that undergrad domain, I did a lot of research in the summers, actually developing the technologies, programming variable computers, as you would describe them now, today, with very complicated algorithms, with localized points in three dimensions, which seemed quite advanced at the time, but is pretty much basic stuff, now. And then, I took great interest in that, and then my PhD, I started to publish papers of my work, and people started to take interest in that. And so, I kept going, and kept working on ways to improve our ability to treat cancer patients with more accuracy. And that’s now spawned into a domain of using computing in general. There was a lot of computing involved, back then, and how to use computers to help cancer patients, and how to use computers to help researchers. And that’s a big part of my job today, is really thinking about how we wire MD Anderson to be the fastest-learning cancer center in the world so we can deliver on our mission as soon as possible, in a nutshell.

Nina Nevill Wow. It’s amazing, I’m sure, how much change you’ve seen over time in a lot of the technology.

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah, it’s come a long ways. I must say, we used to string serial cables from ceiling tiles from one computer to the next, and that was connectivity compared to the internet, today, and Wi-Fi. It’s just massively different. But very similar, in some ways. That early work really does help you understand, really, the way things work. It’s very helpful.

Nina Nevill That’s very cool to have been able to see the progression over time. Can you tell me about a few key points in your early career? I suppose, really, at any stage, but anything that stands out to you as something that helped move you along wanting to continue this same kind of work?

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah. I remember when I was a graduate student and I knew that we would put a lot of time and effort into designing a treatment for patients, particularly complex cases. And one example was a patient that was a child that was being treated in London. And I knew that the team was doing the planning for it, worked for weeks to create the plan to treat the patient. It was very complex. It was a lot of work, and for good reason. And then, they went to set the patient up on the machine, and they couldn’t detect where the patient was relative to the machine, not with any kind of precision. And I was involved because I was developing some new technology at the time that would probably help with this, and it was just really clear to me that it was remarkable that we put all kinds of effort into one part of the treatment but not put the effort into the entire process.

And I thought to myself, “This is just crazy.” It’s lots of good work that can be done right here and need some physics and some engineering and some computing, and we can improve the whole chain from one end to the other. So, that stuck with me at that point in time. So, it’s become something I reflect on periodically. That’s one example. There are many more, but that’s one that reminds me. It was back in 1989, or ‘90, or so. Thirty years ago.

Nina Nevill Wow. That just goes to show how many moving parts are involved.

David Jaffray, PhD There are a lot of moving parts. (laughs) Never underestimate the number of moving parts.

Nina Nevill Now, this is a question that I just like to ask for fun. And it’s more difficult for some to answer than others, but if you had to say that you—if you had to confidently say that you are better than roughly 10,000 random people at one thing, what would that thing be?

David Jaffray, PhD Hang on, Nina, we’re getting an overhead (inaudible). It’s not a big deal. It’s a test, don’t worry.

Nina Nevill Glad to hear that it’s a test.

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah. I could change the background so it doesn’t look like a test, but it’s a test, don’t worry.

In multiple languages, which is wonderful.

Nina Nevill That’s okay. They might as well test it, right? Everything might as well be working, up to code, as they say.

David Jaffray, PhD They came around earlier and warned us that this would be happening. So, not to worry.

Nina Nevill Well, it really adds to the pandemic vibe of this whole interview, and everything that’s happened in the past year, so it’s okay. It just adds a little something extra, I suppose.

David Jaffray, PhD You just have to go with it, roll through it, just like the pandemic. Put it in the back of your mind, a bit.

Nina Nevill Absolutely.

David Jaffray, PhD It’s quite hard to understand, actually.

Nina Nevill I’m just going to pause the recording so that it doesn’t have the capture too much of this.

(break in audio)

David Jaffray, PhD We’re good, I think.

Nina Nevill We’re good to go. Okay. All right, I have resumed recording. If you’d like, I’m happy to restate the last thing that I asked, which was, if you had to confidently say that you are better than roughly 10,000 people or a large group of people at any one thing, what would that thing be?

David Jaffray, PhD To confidently state something to a large group of people, like 10,000 or more?

Nina Nevill Like, if you had to say that you were better than that amount of people at something, and this could either be in a professional or personal capacity.

David Jaffray, PhD I’m pretty good at medical physics. That’s probably what I would say. Yeah, you want me to know in a group of 10,000 people, what I would be the best at, of the 10,000? Is that the kind of question? Is that right? Yeah.

Nina Nevill Yes, exactly.

David Jaffray, PhD I think in 10,000 people, I would probably be the best at medical physics. That’s pretty likely. I’m also—let me see, what else would I be best at? I like to fix things. I’m really good at fixing things. Any weird thing, I have a pretty good likelihood I can fix it. I’m pretty handy that way. And I’m pretty optimistic, as well. That’s probably true. And I like to manage technology. It’s something I really find intriguing. Yeah, that’s probably a good list. I don’t know what else.

Nina Nevill Those are all great things.

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah. I’m pretty relaxed. I don’t know that I’d be the most relaxed, but (inaudible) I don’t get stressed out about things.

Nina Nevill I feel like most people would probably not feel comfortable putting that on their list, so in that sense, you’re probably up there in 10,000, I would say.

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah, I don’t get too stressed. Yeah.

Nina Nevill Well, that’s good to hear. It’s always fun to see what people say in response to that because you never know. It could be a very specific skill pertaining to their job, or it could be something completely just out of left field about something that they like to do or have done for a very long time. So, you never know where that’ll lead.

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah, some people might say piano or gardening. I don’t do those, actually. I do gardening, but that’s not an expertise, by any means. I enjoy it. I like fixing things. Put me in front of something that’s broken and I’ll fix it. I like that.

Nina Nevill Are you the kind of person who would like to take something apart to see how it works and then try and put it back together?

David Jaffray, PhD I don’t think I would take it apart necessarily if it’s working. I will take it apart if it’s not working and figure out how to fix it. But if it’s working, I probably would just study it, adjust parameters until I could understand how it works. I don’t think I would take it apart, necessarily.

Because taking things apart—

Nina Nevill That’s probably the smarter path. (laughs)

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah, (inaudible) fix a broken one to better understand it, but I would not take it apart, necessarily. Just an approach.

Nina Nevill Well, it’s good to know, especially for the job that you’re in, that list seems very fitting. In terms of MD Anderson, I asked earlier about your educational path and you talked a little bit about how you came to MD Anderson but in terms of how you were recruited or who recruited you, do you remember any key people early on who were part of that process?

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah. I was recruited to MD Anderson a couple times, actually, in the past. Buchholz, Tom Buchholz tried to recruit me many, many years ago. And then, when Steve Hahn came down from Penn, he expressed an interest in me joining from a physics point of view. And then, after I worked with Peter and Peter came down, he had posted the position for Chief Technology and Digital Officer, so I applied. The process was quite an extensive process. It ran for, I don’t know, eight, nine months or something like that. It’s a long process. And during that time, Caroline Chung was very helpful in recruiting me down. She described the organization to me; it was very good. Steve Hahn was very helpful. Peter, of course. Fatima Sheriff was already here, and she’s wonderful. I’ve worked with her in the past. And Mary Martel, John Hazle, Kristy Brock, Andy Futreal, Ben Nelson, all people that I spoke with, Tadd Pullin, Chris McKee, Shibu Varghese, all of the people I had spoken with when they were in the interview process, and wonderful to talk with. And Timothy Jones, again. A great bunch of people. Very helpful. Answered a lot of questions. And the people who (inaudible) wonderful, too. Because I’m (inaudible).

Nina Nevill And why do you believe that you were recruited? You can speak to this most recent time or any of the times in the past, as well.

David Jaffray, PhD I work on cancer. And MD Anderson is all about working on cancer. I’ve made some good progress in my work in the past, and I think it was natural for MD Anderson to want to see if they could add, could accelerate their mission with my contribution. It was very natural for me to think about working with MD Anderson to align with what they were doing and have the impact that I wanted to have. So, it was a pretty natural fit. And it felt very good. It’s [all felt?] very good, actually.

Nina Nevill It definitely sounds mutually beneficial, which is always good for starting a new job.

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah, highly compatible.

Nina Nevill And you mentioned a few earlier of the people who help in recruiting, but was there anybody else you—or key people along the way once you started in terms of anybody as mentors or who helped guide you through the initial first few months?

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah. Working with Craig Owen and Less Stoltenberg, Craig’s the CIO and Les is the Chief Information Security Officer, wonderful people to work with, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with them. And some of the admin team had helped, like Sandra Wallace and others who have been very, very helpful in the early days, helping me get on my feet. And Rose Valencia from the visa office was also very, very helpful. She’s just [good people?], trying to make sure all issues get taken care of and so on and so forth. So, very helpful. And they’re good. They give me a lot of—

Nina Nevill That’s good to hear. Always nice to have. Sorry, go ahead.

David Jaffray, PhD Yeah, very good. Peter also, when I was recruited down, Peter wanted me to go into listen and learn mode for six months, just to get my head wrapped around the organization and the culture, which was really great. And just as I was coming out of listen and learn mode, which was going to be end of February, we went into pandemic mode. So, my plans were a little bit disrupted, but nothing better than being thrown in the water to learn how to swim in an organization. So, and everybody was very open to change and being responsive because of the urgency of the pandemic. It worked out that way, I must say.



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Chapter 01: Personal and Educational Background