What was your light bulb moment / turning point into research?
I don't think there was one "light bulb" moment, but rather a series of things that really led me to research. The first was spending two years dedicated to full-time basic science research during my residency and really getting exposed to the Plastic Surgery research community. I think the second turning point was when I started my position as a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh and began doing research on whole eye transplantation for vision restoration. I realized that I found work that combined my interests in transplantation, neuroscience, and reconstructive microsurgery. It's been long journey, but it keeps me interested and there are always exciting twists and turns along the way.
Who was your inspiration / mentor and how did they inspire you?
I have had many mentors that have inspired me. My first experience in a basic science laboratory was during residency. I was in the laboratory of W.P. Andrew Lee, MD. He introduced me to the field of Vascularized Composite Allotransplantation and gave me support to branch out on my own and develop a unique project. During that time in the lab I met Dan Simons, PhD, who was a Neurobiologist at the University of Pittsburgh. He was a shrewd and no nonsense researcher and took me under his wing to teach me basic science techniques and analysis.
As a junior faculty member I was fortunate to work for J. Peter Rubin, MD. He is an extremely successful surgeon-scientist and really served as a superb roll model. He taught me really important skills such as how to structure a laboratory, network with funding agencies, and prepare for presentations. Kacey Marra, PhD taught me how to navigate different research environments and provided me with support in all aspects of my career as a junior faculty member. Earnest Manders, MD taught me to look at challenges with a positive perspective. J. William Futrell, MD has been a constant bright light since I started residency. He reminds me to "get it done," never settle for "good enough" and challenges me to think outside the box.
How do you balance being a surgeon and a scientist?
It's definitely not an easy balance. I would say I try to plan ahead and make sure I carve out times during the week to work on papers, grants, and meet with members of my research team. Also as a surgeon-scientist, I think it is best to have a PhD as a lab director, or have a strong collaboration with a PhD. My laboratory director is An-jey Su, PhD, a talented microbiologist. I also have a strong collaboration with Chris Huang, PhD, who is an esteemed transplant immunologist. I am fortunate to have a supportive Chief, David Mathes, who is also a surgeon-scientist and understands the demands of running a basic science laboratory while having a clinical practice. I also have a multi-talented research team that helps me to balance my time.
Most importantly, I remind myself that this is not a race, it is a marathon. I do not compare myself to other people, I just run at my own pace. There are times, weeks, where I need to focus on my clinical practice instead of my research, and vice versa.
Surgeon-scientists are incredibly busy. Do you have any tips to maintain a productive and valuable mentorship relationship?
I think it's important to understand the demands that are on your mentors and to always be respectful of their time in terms of being on time to meetings and being flexible with last minute scheduling changes. Make sure you update and communicate with your mentor, donít wait for them to reach out to you. Also having a lot of different mentors for different things is always helpful.
What was the greatest challenge you encountered in your research career / research focus?
I have had many challenges...I would say feeling like I don't fit in is sometimes a challenge. I don't often meet people like me in research, which can make research environments discouraging and maybe even isolating at times.
I have learned that I don't have to fit in, but rather I find the people that fit with me and give me inspiration, energy, and support. I also try to bring what I can offer as an individual to the research community. As a mentor I also try to support people as individuals, and support their individual talents rather than making people feel like they have to fit a certain mold.
What is the best research /career advice you received?
The best advice I received was to hire and work with "A level" people. I was also told to choose collaborations wisely and communicate often and openly with collaborators.
What advice do you have for early career scientists?
Don't just do research to build your CV or climb an academic ladder. It's far too much work for that. Find something you are really passionate about. Make sure your boss is supportive of protecting your time. The VA is a great way to begin your career to get protected time for research.
With your recent move to a new institution, are there any tips you have or challenges you faced in moving your research laboratory?
Moving a research laboratory is definitely not easy. I would say expect a one-year lag time before you can get everything up and running. Notify your funding agencies as soon as possible about your move. Try to have your new job give you some time before you start clinical work to handle a lot of the administrative tasks involved in moving a laboratory. Try to stagger the move so that you move at a different time from your laboratory personnel.
What do you feel the PSRC represents to surgeon scientists?
PSRC represents the manifestation of innovation and creativity that is unique to the plastic surgery research.