You started your career as a biochemist. What sparked your decision to become a doctor?
I was living in a neighborhood with a lot of profoundly economically disadvantaged people. I became interested in how stress and poverty impact young people and I wanted to make a difference.
I approached a lot of smart people I knew and asked: "What's the best way to make an impact?" They told me I should become a doctor because doctors have the education and flexibility to approach a problem from a variety of angles. So I enrolled in medical school. I was 32.
What drew you to gastrointestinal surgery?
For my surgical rotation near the end of medical school, I was paired with a colorectal surgeon. I was her sidekick for two months, meaning I saw every patient she did and attended every surgery she performed. The first time she did a laparotomy [a surgical procedure that involves opening up the abdomen], it was elemental, powerful and stunning. I thought: "This is the most amazing thing I've ever seen." From that day onward I was hooked.
What makes UCSF a good place for your field?
UCSF's gastrointestinal surgeons are among the best in the world and they care about their patients. We have the technology and the expertise to do any part of patient care — from evaluation to surgery — in the most advanced and successful way possible.
Our senior gastrointestinal surgeons also embody the kind of doctor I want to be. They take an unbelievable amount of joy in their work, they hold one another in high regard and, at the same time, they are remarkably humble human beings. As a young surgeon, having good role models is priceless.
What sparked your interest in surgical endoscopy and other minimally invasive techniques?
I was wowed by the benefits for patients. If I'm able to do a less invasive procedure, the patient usually has less pain, a faster recovery and a higher quality of life.
I recently spent a year at the IRCAD Institute in France, which has been a pioneer in minimally invasive gastrointestinal surgery. Being surrounded by phenomenal surgeons and innovators who were confident that almost any gastrointestinal surgery could be done with minimally invasive techniques changed the way I saw surgery. It was lovely to come back to UCSF and put my new skills to work. Innovative thinking that’s grounded in patient safety is what UCSF does best.
What treatment advances are you excited about?
Outside the operating room, I'm excited about advances in personalized medicine. Whereas we used to label a disease "curable or incurable" or "benign or malignant," now we are beginning to understand the molecular underpinnings that make every patient unique.
Inside the operating room, I'm excited that UCSF is in the process of getting optical biopsy technology, called confocal laser endomicroscopy or CLE for short. With up to a million pixels per frame, CLE allows physicians to see cellular changes without needing to physically remove any tissue. It will help us catch cancer at its earliest stage and help us use endoscopic and minimally invasive techniques safely.