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Aft Installed as Inaugural Jeffrey F. Moley Professor of Endocrine and Oncologic Surgery

On March 28, 2023, Washington University surgical oncologist and breast cancer specialist Rebecca L. Aft, MD, PhD, was formally installed as the first Jeffrey F. Moley Professor of Endocrine and Oncology Surgery at a ceremony at the School of Medicine.

The Moley Professorship was established in 2018 to honor the work and memory of Jeffrey Moley, MD, a celebrated surgical oncologist who served as chief of the Section of Endocrine and Oncologic Surgery and an associate director at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine. Moley was instrumental in groundbreaking research and treatment techniques for Multiple Endorcrine Neoplasia (MEN) syndromes which can cause aggressive thyroid cancer and other aggressive endocrine diseases. He is remembered by friends, family, faculty, students and patients as a masterful surgeon and well-loved instructor and clinician.

“Jeff was a world-class surgeon and a pioneering researcher. He defined the essence of what distinguished academic surgery at Washington University,” Executive Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs and Dean of the School of Medicine David H. Perlmutter, MD, said in his introduction. “He was admired by faculty here and across the globe and was a role model to younger faculty and trainees. I can think of no tribute more fitting to honor his legacy than to invest in the continuation of surgical excellence through a professorship in his name.”

During the ceremony, Moley’s wife, Kelle Moley, MD, who previously served as James P. Crane Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University, received a shadowbox commemorating the establishment of the professorship. She then took to the podium to offer special remarks honoring the memory of her husband and congratulating Aft on her appointment.

“Jeff was more than just a researcher and a surgeon, he was a true caring physician. It was clear patients loved him, his students loved him – everyone loved him,” Moley said of her husband. And to Aft: “I’m so happy and joyful that this chair went to you.”
Aft was a student under Jeffrey Moley as a resident alongside Department of Surgery Chair John A. Olson, Jr., MD, PhD. She carries Moley’s legacy with her work in surgical oncology and in her position at the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Hospital – a position Moley himself held and cherished.

Aft earned her PhD in 1983 from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her medical degree from Washington University in 1992. While her career began in cancer research, she later shifted to incorporate hands-on cancer treatment, where she has excelled in both perspectives as a world-class surgeon-scientist. She has made critical strides in improving the scientific basis for the treatment of breast cancer, and she and her team has made pivotal breakthroughs in the endeavor to find concrete solutions to breast cancer as a whole.

“Rebecca Aft is a remarkable individual.” She is a luminary in surgical oncology and breast cancer research. She is truly one of the last true general surgeons and surgical oncologists around,” said Olson. “She is no-nonsense, extremely capable and extremely devoted. The awarding of this professorship is very fitting: it honors two consummate surgeon-scientists and their countless contributions.”

Following her installation, Aft offered her own tribute in Moley’s memory and delivered a presentation entitled “Women, Surgeons, and Surgical Scientists.”

“It is an immense honor to be the inaugural Jeffrey Moley Professor of Surgery,” Aft said in her introduction. “Jeff was truly an outstanding surgical scientist. In addition, he trained the next generation of endocrine surgeons and academic surgeons. He is sorely missed. He was a mentor to me, made great contributions here at Washington University and at the Veteran’s Hospital, and we remember him every day.”

As the third woman graduate of Washington University’s general surgery program, Aft has been acutely aware of the discrepancies between men and women in the surgical field and has been making strides to close these gaps. Her presentation focused on current problems and successes in gender-related trends within medical education and clinical practices and presented possible solutions to properly utilize the unique aptitudes women bring to the table in medicine. She emphasized the benefits of both uplifting women in programs and standardizing educational programs and other aspects, such as parental leave, for all students and practitioners. Aft suggested a number of ways to close gender gaps and give women surgeons the best possible chances to reach their potential as physicians, including championing for women-led mentoring programs for female students and residents, addressing discrepancies in attrition rates and referral bias, and encouraging surgeon-scientists of all genders. She touched on the potential of rebranding lab years as professional development to help redefine the modern surgical scientist and implementing standardized programs to teach residents how to survive, navigate and thrive in academic medicine.

Aft then delved into what drives her as a surgeon scientist and the current areas of research she is exploring in her work. She detailed some of her recent findings in metastatic disease research which points to unique cells produced by cancerous tumors which can be released into the bloodstream and carried to bone marrow, where they can be more easily identified. Aft explained some of the current methods being used to isolate and identify these cells, and the potential this identification has in helping to determine outcomes at the time of diagnosis and in treating metastatic disease by targeting these specific cancer cells.

Aft closed her presentation by thanking Washington University for the honor of the professorship, the Moley family, her research collaborators, the faculty and staff she works with every day, and all those who made the professorship and her practice, research, and contributions possible.

“It has been a pleasure to recognize some of Dr. Aft’s many accomplishments and acknowledge what she and her work mean to the School of Medicine,” Perlmutter concluded. “She is a great surgeon and teacher carrying out critically important research on breast cancer and its treatments, and I strongly believe that she, her team, and the rest of our faculty can find the solution within our lifetimes.”