University of California San Francisco

Dr. Sandy Feng

Dr Sandy Feng

Interview with Dr. Sandy Feng performed by medical student Alice Tang. Dr. Feng is a transplant surgeon at UCSF and Vice Chair for Research

Alice Tang: What is one thing that you know now that you wish you had known during training?

Sandy Feng: This question seems to be asked in a regretful way, but for me I had no idea how varied a career in surgery can be. I thought you saw patients, you do surgery, you do research -- but I wasn’t aware of all the opportunities that you will have over time. You are expected to participate in society work, serve on committees, give talks, and travel and visit people. As a medical student, you believe what you do in medical school is what you will do in your career, but a career in medicine and in surgery can really be taken in so many different directions. There are people who are MBAs who want to work in the administrative aspect of hospitals, there are people who might want to work and learn informatics, there are people who want to pursue more traditional pathways of research, but there are a lot of opportunities to be creative in a lot of different directions and that was a very pleasant surprise for me.


Alice Tang: Throughout your training, who were your mentors and what impact did they have on your surgical career?

Sandy Feng: In terms of figuring out what I wanted to do, there wasn’t a particular mentor that directed me. I trained in general surgery in the early 1990’s, and back then there weren't that many women in surgery. The world of surgery is pretty different now than it was back then, but for me I came into transplantation mostly because of my interactions with patients as opposed to with mentors.

I also want to bring up sponsors who may differ from mentors. Both mentors and sponsors are really important, and they were important for me in terms of my professional growth and in expressing confidence that I would be able to take on responsibilities and carry them out well. They helped me gain a lot of traction in professional societies, organizations, conferences, and other avenues that gave me a lot of visibility.

On the research front, of course mentors are super important, but I carved a different pathway and there wasn't one mentor but different mentors along the way. My mentors also evolved -- as you become more senior they become collaborators, which is so important for becoming part of a community, whether it be the clinical community or the academic community.


Alice Tang: What inspired you to pursue this pathway, and what helped you stay inspired during tough times?

Sandy Feng: You have a commitment to doing what you love to do and all of the sacrifices you make willingly because you want to achieve your goals. You're not training in a vacuum, so it's very easy now to see other people like you doing what you're doing.  But back then, I felt pretty isolated as a woman. For me, there's an inner competitiveness to say you know, in order to be here, you have to be not only good but better than everyone else, and that's a driving force: this sense that you have to prove yourself, you are not just the standard package but actually better.


Alice Tang: Any food or drinks you like outside of the hospital?

Sandy Feng: I like all kinds of foods. One thing I am blessed with is that I don’t have any allergies, I eat almost everything. I used to spend a lot of time cooking and baking, and I’ve actually transferred this hobby to my daughter who loves cooking and baking now. My daughter actually worked as a pie maker for a summer at a pie shop here in San Francisco.  From a practical perspective, I have also largely transferred the cooking and baking responsibilities to my husband.

One thing that is very underappreciated is the role of a supportive partner. My husband moved out to Boston with me for my residency. We got married two years into residency; back then, the divorce rate in the 4 - 5 resident classes ahead of me was essentially 100% - everyone got divorced. Andy would drive me to work every morning (of the mornings I was not already at work). Most of the time, I was going into work around 3:30-4 in the morning because back then, you had 20-25 patients to see before you started team rounds at 6 in the morning. He would shovel the show and give me door to door service, which allowed me to sleep 30 minutes more. You know, super supportive and even now, we work on planning menus but day to day he gets dinner on the table and I do way less than my share of all of the work. But as a result, or perhaps a reward, he's my daughter's best friend. These are some of the other types of sacrifices and arrangements that I made for my career. However, I really tried to be home every single day for dinner. This was part of quality time - up until Rebecca’s bedtime. You can work again after your kid goes to sleep. I think the way that you organize your life and the people that are able to support you are so important in being able to work effectively, and these are choices you have to make.


Alice Tang: It's so nice to hear you have such a great support system throughout your training!

Sandy Feng: Yeah for my residency training I was in Boston. When I came to UCSF for my fellowship, my husband stayed in Boston and visited usually for 3-4 days every 2-3 weeks. But who supported me when I was a fellow was my dad, who moved from LA to SF and lived with me. He would drive me to work and pick me up, or I would be taken on organ procurements and they would pick me up at my house so I would end up at work. My dad cooked, shopped, cleaned -- he was almost 80 but he basically came and lived with me for the time I was a fellow. So yes I've had an incredible support system for all of my professional activities from training, up till now. You know you can't do it alone.


Alice Tang: Was there anyone you admired when you were going through training?

Sandy Feng: Of course, there are different people that I admire for different reasons, but I believe role modeling is really important. One of the people I admired during my residency was the residency director. Her name was Barbara Smith. I actually met her when I interviewed at Brigham and Women's hospital for residency. Barbara was blonde, blue-eyed, and she was feminine and very kind, whereas a lot of people in surgery back in the late 80s early 90s were aggressive, overly confident, and perhaps arrogant. Barbara was soft-spoken, she was beautiful, she was elegant, and I really admired that women surgeons could come across in that way. So what I mean by role modeling is that it was hard because you didn't have a lot of role models back then as a woman aspiring to be a surgeon. Of course there were a lot people I thought who were just master surgeons and just amazing clinicians but because they were really not in my image -- I admired them, but not as a role model. I am hoping that this has changed a lot for people who are entering surgery, now that there are more people to identify with and that can really make a big difference.


Alice Tang: Is there something in your life you are proud about, either personally or professionally?

Sandy Feng: What I am maybe the most proud of is that I don't think I’ve compromised professionally. I've been very lucky in working here at UCSF within the Division of Transplantation and I have been given a lot of freedom to pursue my personal interests which really lie in research as opposed to taking on a lot of extra roles that were not very meaningful to me. That is also part of the reason I’ve not left UCSF to be a division chief or department chair, because I really value doing the things that I care about.

I think that there's literature, for example, that women don't tend to just pursue positions of authority or power because they understand the opportunity costs of their choices more. Often it comes with less time with kids, less time with family, or not being able to have children or a family. What I mean by I didn’t compromise is that I wasn’t swayed to do things other people valued. A message that I want to give is that you should be doing things that are really meaningful to you because everything you do, whether you're a man or a woman, really comes at the cost of you not doing something else, and if your dream and your ambition is to run a department great do that, but don't do that just because it seems like that's what other people do, and I think that's something that i've come to realize. I’m not saying I'm proud of it, per se, but I just came to realize that that's been part of my happiness. There will be things you have to do because everyone has to carry some of the weight, but don’t choose to do things you don’t need to pursue, unless you really are keen and committed.


Alice Tang: What are some of the hobbies you have outside of the hospital?

Sandy Feng: I love hiking but that's come to bite me because I had a big knee injury. We really love going to different places and taking on challenging hikes. We do a bunch of traveling but COVID put a real damper on that. That was also important for our family because it turns out that we gave my daughter who is now 22 the travel bug! We were able to expose her to a lot of different cultures and I think that was just really important. Those are some of the things I enjoy.


Alice Tang (she/her): if you couldn't do surgery, what would you have done instead?

Sandy Feng: I don’t think I would have been good at it, but I am really interested in architecture, so I may have been an architect. I might have been interested in building things that are highly functional but also aesthetically appealing.

I am sort of interested in design. I am the editor in chief of a journal, and one of the first tasks I tackled was to completely redesign the journal cover, which was super fun. Every month I get to design a new cover where I spew out an idea, then a medical illustrator transforms my gobbledygook words into a concept. Then I get to say ‘I like this’’ or ‘this color is too dark’ or ‘this is too big’ or ‘move this here’ -- I really enjoy the design aspect, caring about looking good but also being accurate and serving a function.


Alice Tang: It's such a nice way to have a creative outlet.

Sandy Feng: Yes I didn’t expect it, but this is what I meant by you might stumble into something that becomes part of your professional life.


Alice Tang: Do you have any advice for current aspiring surgeons?

Sandy Feng: Yes, I have two ideas:

One - Do not be afraid of the work. You know it is a lot of work, but everyone is a lifelong learner, and initially the learning curve is steep. You really learn through work, and the more you see, the more you do, the more you know.

Second - Trust yourself. Push yourself to make decisions and come to conclusions, and test them out, ask questions. Surgery can be hierarchical, and historically you were not really encouraged to think and challenge, and one thing I learned from all the time I spent in science was that you’re supposed to think and challenge. I think that it would be good for surgeons to have that type of scientific ethos where if you are thinking and wondering about something, then you should be encouraged to engage and trust yourself and ask questions. Be confident in your choices -- make them carefully but stick by them, and I think that it is just that trusting yourself is important.