Dineo Khabele ’85 is many things; bored isn’t one of them. As director of gynecological oncology translational research at Vanderbilt University, she cares for women diagnosed with gynecological cancers. She also runs a research laboratory aimed at developing new approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of precancerous and cancerous conditions.
“My work allows me to combine my interests in patient care, science, advocacy and education,” Khabele said. “As a physician, I provide a continuum of care for patients, from diagnosis and treatment to end-of-life decisions. As a scientist, I can take my findings from the laboratory to the patient bedside, and vice versa. I am also involved in training the next generation of physicians and scientists.”
Khabele is particularly interested in understanding why African-American women have poor outcomes from ovarian cancer even though a greater number of Caucasian women are diagnosed with the disease each year. The reasons for this are primarily socio-economic, rather than genetic, explained Khabele, who wants to provide a voice at the table for women who might not otherwise be recognized.
Despite her passion for medicine, Khabele said she initially did not plan for the career she enjoys today. After graduating from St. Stephen’s, she entered Columbia University with the goal of majoring in English or Political Science. “I arrived on campus at the height of the AIDS epidemic,” she said. “There was a tremendous sense of urgency surrounding the fight against AIDS. The crisis brought human rights advocates, public health workers and medical professionals together in new ways, and the scientific community was under enormous pressure to develop clinical advances to combat the disease.”
This confluence of events provided Khabele new insights into how her own social, political and health-related interests might work together. She completed her pre-medical requirements, took a year off school to work on public health issues, and returned to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons to obtain her medical degree. After completing a clinical rotation in gynecological oncology, she chose to specialize in the field. Now, in addition to her roles as a physician and scientist, Khabele also serves as assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and cancer biology at Vanderbilt.
Looking back, Khabele noted that her experience at St. Stephen’s provided her with strong writing and critical thinking skills. The school’s academic environment also nurtured her interests in social and political issues. “I remember watching political elections on TV in the dorms, discussing current events, and studying writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker,” she said.
Most importantly, her time at St. Stephen’s allowed her to explore new things. “I did every sort of extracurricular activity that existed at the school,” Khabele said. “While this wasn’t necessarily good for my grades, it allowed me to develop a range of interests that have created important opportunities in my own life and that now allow me to work toward improving the lives of others.
“If I could tell current students one thing, I would encourage them to remain open to possibilities,” she concluded. For Khabele — and for the countless patients and families she works with — these are truly words to live by.