Dr. Clinton Joiner’s love affair with science, and ultimately medicine, began in his own backyard.
Dr. Joiner, the new director of hematology at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, started on his career path through a high school summer science program offered at Emory University in the mid-1960s. The project was admittedly low-tech: the study of slime molds, procured from woods in Druid Hills.
“I would tromp around and get fungi growing on dead logs and then happily take them back to the lab, where we would study plant growth factors,” he said. “For the first time, this placed me into the world of microbiology and biochemistry.”
Years later, Dr. Joiner is excited to return to his old stomping grounds. Joiner, who started on his career path in high school in Druid Hills, has returned to his hometown, bringing three decades (and five states) of experience to the table.
And with a history of more than 60 published papers and millions of dollars in grant funds, Dr. Joiner believes he can strengthen the Aflac Cancer Center of Children's reputation in the fields of hematology and sickle cell disease to expand from “not only the biggest, but the best.”
With 600 hematology patients on average at each of the Children's facilities—and 1,700 pediatric sickle cell cases alone—the Aflac Cancer Center already offers a clinical program that is unmatched anywhere in the nation.
“The clinical strength of this program is a foundation for a research power house that could be unexcelled,” said, Dr. Joiner, most recently the director of the Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine. “If we can build upon the strengths we already have—by bringing in more people and additional programs—we will be able to create a critical mass of synergistic interactions that will be unmatched.”
Specifically, Dr. Joiner sees three key areas he wants to bolster:
- Interaction between the faculty members that reduce silos of information. “I’d like to see this increase both formally and informally.”
- Increased focus on the career development of younger faculty members.
- Strong support for gene therapy programs. “We’re on the verge of a genomic revolution,” he said. “And we need to position ourselves to be able to tap into that information and use it to move the ball down the field, from a research and therapeutic point of view.”
Right now, however, Dr. Joiner is reacquainting himself with the medical cultures of Atlanta—at both the Aflac Cancer Center and Emory University School of Medicine, where he is a professor of hematology. “My role is entirely supportive,” he said. “Fantastic things are going to be done by the people here, and my job is to make it possible to let them do that—whether it is giving them the tools, removing the road blocks or running interference.”
It’s an amazingly macro approach for a doctor and researcher who has been on the frontlines of microbiology since he was a teenager.
Lured into the thrill of science by his Emory summer program teacher, Dr. Joiner said he never would have predicted that mold experiments would shape his life so profoundly.
“We were just kids,” Dr. Joiner said, “but he taught us scientific method—and more importantly, he captured our imagination.”
From there, Dr. Joiner went on to the Georgia Institute of Technology—ranking 3rd in his class. But he realized he didn’t want to become an engineer.
This time, another influential man—his new father-in-law—suggested a change of course: medicine.
After “finagling” his way into Duke University’s medical science program—and obtaining an M.D. and a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology, Dr. Joiner has held progressive leadership positions since he left Atlanta.
Happily, his career path included treating kids, he said, always keeping him grounded.
“They don’t buy the pretense, they don’t care about your degrees, or that you’re a font of knowledge,” he said, laughing. “They pee on you.”
He delved into the world of neonatology and pediatric hematology—including molecular cancer treatment and red cell physiology—working under legendary physicians David G. Nathan and Samuel E. Lux at Harvard Medical School. “They were very demanding and very visionary,” he said.
From Boston, Dr. Joiner returned to the South, landing in Birmingham at the University of Alabama, School of Medicine, and then to Cincinnati, where he made his home.
In 2010, Dr. Joiner became the director of the Division of Hematology, at the Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute, at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. In that position, he and his team garnered more than $10 million in research funding.
And it was Cincinnati where that Dr. Joiner was able to develop the strongest emotional connection between the bench and the bedside. He started visiting kids in the sickle cell clinic—something he had not had time to do in previous roles.
It changed him.
“I could see what it would mean to families,” he said. “It gave me a much more subjective feel for this.”
And now at the Aflac Cancer Center of Children's, he plans to tap into all of his experiences to be the best he can be—for his staff and for his littlest patients. It is something, he says, that completes a lifelong mission of discovery, and it feels like home.