University of California San Francisco

Drs. Mika Varma and Lucy Kornblith

Mika Varma Lucy Kornblith interview

Inaugural spotlight interview with our UCSF Muriel Steele Society Co-Chairs, Drs. Mika Varma and Lucy Kornblith performed by medical students Katy Abel and Sarah Tsou. Dr. Varma is the Chief of the Section of Colorectal Surgery at UCSF and Dr. Kornblith is a Trauma/Critical Care surgeon at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

Question 1: What’s one thing you know now that you wish you would have known during training?

MV: One thing I wish I had known is that residency wasn’t the hardest part of the whole process. It’s a marathon: taking care of patients, doing research, teaching, mentoring, all the things that come into your career. We treat residency as being the worst part of it, and although I worked very hard, I don’t feel like it was the only part that was difficult. I wish I had more of an appreciation for the whole process of how your career happens.

LK: My answer is similar. Residency is for a purpose; it’s to train you to be a surgeon, but there’s more about practicing surgery than just being a surgeon that you don’t learn in residency. I don’t know if I wish I had known that or not. I do think that there is a role for not knowing it and just focusing on being a good doctor and learning how to be a surgeon. However, I think that the paradigm of training makes it hard to exit training into the real world because you are missing big chunks of what you need to know to do it well. 

Question 2: Who do you admire?

MV: I admire Lucy.

LK: You can’t say that because I was going to say you!

MV: No, I totally can. I don’t know how she does it. I’ve known Lucy since she applied to residency, and I could tell she was very directed. Lucy is attentive. She really cares about patients. She’s unrelenting. I have never seen her get tired from any of it, which is impressive. She is also extremely kind and thoughtful. She remembers to reach out or give a gift. I actually think that, considering how busy she is as a surgeon, the fact that she has the personal depth to do that as a human being is remarkable.

LK: Well, then, I am going to have to say that I admire Mika. The Muriel Steele Society exists because of Mika. I needed advice about something I really didn’t know how to handle, and Mika just seemed like the right person to ask about it. I contacted her out of the blue about it, and it was in that moment that I think we both recognized that we need each other, the global We, because there’s a lot of things that each of us don’t know how to deal with or don’t have the right tools to deal with.  We can all benefit from someone else who has been through or has dealt with things in academic medicine it in a different way. Dr. Sosa has been incredibly supportive of the endeavor. 

MV: I’m constantly talking about this with Lucy, #SheforShe. We spend all this time trying to make sure women are promoted, but if we are not helping each other, it’s all lost. And I see too many examples where there isn’t enough #SheforShe. And so, if anything, I hope the MSS is doing that. If we do a little bit of that, the goal will be achieved.

Question 3: What impact has mentorship had on your surgical career?

LK: I actually think mentorship has probably influenced every major decision career-wise I’ve made. The reason I am a trauma surgeon, I can isolate back to a single experience with a single mentor, and I think that many of the decisions we make are based on someone that has shown us the way. I think that mentorship comes in a lot of forms. Most people would say that they have a different mentor for various aspects of their lives. However, I can be certain that every big step through my short career has been influenced significantly by a mentor, whether it was that I wanted to be like them or I wanted to not be like them. I think that it helps form the way we move forward.

MV: I would echo the same thing. I think at different phases of your life and relating to different aspects of your career or personal life, you may be reaching out to different people. To be honest, the person who I turn to the most, who has given me such excellent advice and helped me through very difficult times has been my husband. He’s in academic medicine, he understands the field, he knows the people. That’s been huge for me and we have been together since residency. So of all the relationships, that’s the one I’ve benefited the most from.

Question 4: What is the best piece of advice you have received?

LK: Someone once told me that “Nobody puts your CV on your tombstone,” and I think that it’s an important concept in knowing who’s going to be there in the end. You can’t forget about your foundation, whatever that may be--your family, your friends…  

MV: I think that being true to yourself is really important. It’s not about what other people want you to be or do. ,You should do what you really care about and be at peace with that. I think that’s been one of the most important things I’ve tried to adhere to throughout the years. In the end, it’s your life and you’re going to reflect back and want to feel good about who you were with, what you accomplished, all of it. Do what’s right for you.

I say to my girls all the time. There’s no straight line between point A and point B, and point B may not even be where you want to go. When I was younger, I was very obsessed with point B. I wish I had spent a little more time in the present and not worried about what the next step was.

Question 5: If not surgery, then what?

MV: If I wasn’t doing medicine, I would probably want to do something in the arts--not because I have any aptitude. I’m always drawn to art, which I never really thought about doing because I was in this “point B rat race,” but I always think I would have done something artistic. 

LK: I would be a ballerina. Ballet is very much like surgery. It attracts a similar personality. People who are ballerinas are incredibly dedicated to their trade, and disciplined. They’re perfectionists. I think they view it as part of them and not just a career. I would say there are a lot of similarities between the intensity and discipline of the profession.

Question 6: What are you most proud of personally and/or professionally?

MV: That’s very easy for me. I’m incredibly proud of my daughters, but I’m also incredibly proud of the family life we’ve created. This quarantine has really not been hard because we all really like each other and like to spend time together, and I feel that we are all very open with each other. We laugh, we scream, we cry--but we do it all together. It’s such a nice basis from which to then face the world, so I’m incredibly proud of that. Professionally, I think the thing I am most defined by is my clinical work and surgical skills. It’s not easy to be a woman in this world of surgery. There aren’t that many women colorectal surgeons, and I had to fight very hard to attain my reputation of excellence in the Bay Area and Northern California. And I think I’ve done that.

LK: In my personal life, I’m proudest of my relationship with my husband because he’s really my best friend, and I think it’s the foundation for everything, particularly how we raise our son. Our lives make it so that we don’t spend a lot of time together, but I think we manage to do it pretty well.

Professionally, I think what I’m proudest of is that I have a focus on multiple things. My science is very important to me, and when I’m being a scientist, that’s my focus. My clinical care and being a trauma surgeon is very important to me, and when I’m being a trauma surgeon, I really focus on that. Teaching and educating other people to love trauma the way I love it is really important to me, and when I’m teaching, I’m focusing on that. I think I’m proudest that I dedicate myself to each of those things.

Question 7: What inspires you to do what you do?

LK: I don’t know what exactly inspires me--I think it’s multifactorial. But it’s deep-rooted, whatever it is. The sort of life that I live, and the role that medicine and surgery and academics plays in my life--it just feels part of me. 

MV: When I first did surgery as a medical student, it just tapped into this part of my brain that I didn’t even know I had. I went into medical school not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, but I just thought I wouldn’t be a surgeon. But I saw it and I participated in it, and it opened up something in me. I just love seeing a beautiful operation, and I love to see the patients doing well. I love the hugs that I get afterwards! I will say that the clinical part of surgery is definitely the thing that inspires me the most and also keeps me going. That psychic income of the patient’s gratitude and seeing a good outcome--that really doesn’t get old for me. I just love it. 

LK: And when the planes separate correctly…

MV: It’s just so beautiful! I feel like I never got to be artistic so I do it in surgery. I love a certain kind of visual of seeing the anatomy and creating a perfect operation. Sharing that with learners and helping patients is fun.