As a pediatric neuro-oncologist, a physician-scientist, a devoted mentor, and Editor-in-Chief of Pediatric Neurology, Dr. Khakoo exemplifies extraordinary humanism through her caring and thoughtful communication with patients and colleagues; her devotion to patient advocacy; and her work with medical education and support of women and underrepresented minorities in medicine.
Born in the Bronx, to Hamida Khakoo, MD and Yusuf Khakoo, MD, two immigrant physicians from India and Africa, Dr. Khakoo initially wanted to be a third grade teacher. At Barnard College, a women’s liberal arts college, she won the Best Freshman in Chemistry Award and subsequently decided to study medicine to become a pediatrician. She graduated from Barnard in 1986 and attended Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons for Medical School. Though she fondly remembers working with Doug Nordli, MD during “Introduction to the Patient,” and shadowing Arnold Gold. MD, once or twice, she was terrified of neuro-anatomy. Even when working with Columbia adult neurology stars Carolyn Britton, MD and John Brust, MD, she never envisioned a career in neurology.
Dr. Khakoo then went to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) for pediatric residency, where she was required to do a month of Child Neurology in her second year. Working with Tom Koch, MD, FAAP, she realized that a career in child neurology would check two important boxes: working with children and solving medical mysteries. While working at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco in 1993, she learned about paraneoplastic syndromes in lung cancer patients. Several months later, she saw a child with neuroblastoma-associated opsoclonus myoclonus ataxia syndrome (NB-OMAS). With pediatric oncologist Katherine Matthay, MD, she drafted a proposal to study the serum of children with NB-OMAS and faxed this proposal to adult neuro-oncologists Josep Dalmau, MD, PhD, and Jerome Posner, MD, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). This project led to 3 publications, and her final resident presentation at UCSF: “Dancing eyes dancing feet: all ‘Hu’ ever wanted to know.”
During her 6 years at UCSF, Dr. Khakoo received 2 pediatric resident teaching awards. Donna Ferriero, MD, MS (who would later become president of the Child Neurology Society), encouraged her to study neuro-oncology. By then Dr. Khakoo had met and married another New Yorker, physician scientist Robert P. Fisher, MD, PhD. They left the Bay Area to return to the Big Apple, she as an adult neuro-oncology fellow and he as faculty at MSKCC. Other mentors at UCSF included former CNS President Bruce Berg, MD and Bill Weiss, MD, PhD. Dr. Khakoo stayed on at MSKCC, becoming full professor of clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC) in 2020. In addition to Drs. Dalmau and Posner, her mentors at MSKCC included Myrna Rosendfeld, MD, PhD, Lisa and DeAngelis, MD.
Dr. Khakoo started the MSKCC Pediatric Neuro-oncology (PNONC) Fellowship in 2005, training both oncologists and neurologists. One of her favorite events at CNS annual meetings is the Neuro-oncology Special Interest Group, where she reunites with former fellows, now leaders in neuro-oncology. Dr. Khakoo started and leads the Child Neurology MSKKids WCMC Joint Pediatric OncoNeurology Program and helped develop the Leukodystrophy Transplant and Gene Therapy program across both campuses. She has always advocated for her patients at MSKCC where she works with pediatric and young adult children with CNS tumors and onconeurologic complications of other pediatric cancers. She is an international expert in neurocutaneous melanocytosis and continues her work in NB-OMAS.
Her significant scientific work allowed her to provide the very best care for her patients. Because the diseases she works with are rare, she created a national registry for patients with neurocutaneous melanocytosis; was a founding member of the Collaborative Ependymoma Research Network; and is part of the MSK team awarded membership in the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium, a national cooperative group dedicated to bringing new therapeutic agents into the pediatric arena.
Dr. Khakoo – in her eleventh post-graduate year when she became an attending – is an eternal student. In an ongoing pursuit of development, she participated in the Association of American Medical Colleges Leadership Development Programs. In 2019 the American Academy of Neurology selected Dr. Khakoo for the Women Leading in Neurology Program, which catapulted her into many leadership roles, including Vice Chair of the AAN Advancing Women in Academics Working Group alongside Chair Kathleen Shannon, MD, and former CNS President Ann Tilton, MD FAAN (2020-23), and joining the AAN Academic Hub Working Group. In 2020, she was named the Child Neurology Society Scientific Selection and Program committee co-chair alongside Carl Stafstrom, MD, PhD, and from 2021-2023 was chair with Dr. Bhooma Aravamuthan, MD, DPhil. Due to their efforts, the CNS abstract/proposal review process now provides feedback to authors and gives credit for diversity, including gender, rank, institution and race.
At MSKCC she served on the Women’s Task Force and on ABLE (Abolishing Barriers and Limitations for Everyone), a committee to aid employees with health challenges and disabilities. She has been an active participant in the WCMC Pediatric Diversity Coalition since 2020, providing outreach to NYC public schools in underserved areas and encouraging trainees to apply for Pediatric Fellowships at WCMC. She is enthusiastic about medical education, and won the Pediatric Neurology Teaching Award at Weill Cornell Medical College in 2021. Dr. Khakoo seeks out opportunities to mentor others, and her list of formal mentees includes high school students, undergraduates, medical students, residents, fellows and faculty. She also mentors physician assistant students at WCMC and advanced practice providers in pediatrics at MSKCC. She is an active participant in the MSK Summer Medical Student Pipeline Program, a program that works to increase representation of underrepresented minorities in cancer care and research. She is thoroughly involved with her mentees and is an active sponsor for positions and awards. The summer medical students participate in clinics and clinical research but also join her at national advocacy conferences to meet patients with the diseases they study. This extra step is emblematic of how Dr. Khakoo makes women and underrepresented minorities feel included – like we belong – in medicine. She offers “mentorship for life” and encourages her mentees to keep in touch.
As editor-in-chief of Pediatric Neurology since 2022, she is poised to change the future of our field. Her goals are to bring pediatric neurology into the digital age; diversify the board of the journal and the manuscript reviewers; engage trainees and junior faculty in the world of editing and publishing; and align child neurology with pediatric scientist development pathways. She was mentored in this role by former editor and current editor-in-chief of Annals of Child Neurology, Steve Roach, MD. She has already used her position to advocate for vulnerable populations, discuss controversial topics, and promote and support those underrepresented in healthcare.
Dr. Khakoo lives in New York with her husband, physician-scientist Robert Fisher, MD, PhD and two children: Alex, a black belt in karate and martial arts instructor, and Aliya, a rising sophomore in college. Her daughter won a 2020 award from the New York Times for a high school essay about circadian rhythms and received one of four American Academy of Neurology Student Research Awards, presented to her as the Bhuwan Garg High School Neuroscience Award at the CNS annual meeting in 2022. Dr. Khakoo is also mom to Benny, the family pup. In her free time she enjoys learning languages, teaching cooking, reading, rooting for the Yankees and traveling.