University of California San Francisco

Dr. Doris Wang

Doris Wang Interview Spotlight

Interview with Dr. Doris Wang performed by medical student Megan Casey. Dr. Wang is a neurosurgeon at UCSF, specializing in movement disorders.

Question 1: What is one thing you know now that you wish you had known during training?

DW: One thing I wish I had known during my training is the support network and resources that are out there now, especially for female neurosurgeons in particular. At the time that I entered the neurosurgery training program here, I was one of 3 female residents. Today, 4 of the 6 PGY 1 and 2s are female, so our numbers are definitely increasing. At the time of my training, there also weren’t that many great female neurosurgeon mentors, so I sought my mentorship elsewhere. Another thing I wish I had known earlier is that the culture of the entire field is also changing, becoming more benign. People are more understanding and want to strike a balance between work and life. I was kind of pleasantly surprised by the amount of support I got throughout my training.

Question 2: Who do you admire?

DW: Oh, there are so many people. The first person is probably my college research mentor, Dr. Angelique Bordey. She was at Yale Medical School, a newly minted assistant professor and basic scientist studying neurophysiology. I basically just approached her, without having any prior research experience, and she taught me everything: how to think about a scientific question, how to perform research, and she just gave me so many opportunities in terms of being first author on manuscripts and being able to present my research, even as an undergrad. That opened the door for me to go into this physician-scientist pathway. Then throughout my whole life I’ve been so lucky to have phenomenal mentors that continue to inspire me, who are great role models and colleagues. All of them, besides being incredibly successful scientist-surgeons, also model a sense of balance and encourage me to have a life outside of work as well. That’s really important and encouraging -- they care about my wellbeing besides just how I am doing academically. That goes the same for my mentors here: Dr. Philip Starr, Dr. Eddie Chang, my chairman. They have all been so instrumental in my training. For me, it’s really inspiring to see how much they’ve accomplished, not only academically and professionally, but also in their personal lives, how much they care for their mentees, and just how they’re able to encourage the next generation. Now I’m in a position where I can look to inspire the next generation, so that’s what I’m hoping to do.

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

DW: I wouldn’t be here today without these mentors. I think one reason why I chose neurosurgery, especially UCSF neurosurgery, is having these role models. They are great technical surgeons and leaders of their field, developing new techniques with great patient outcomes and satisfaction. In addition, they really are at the frontier of pushing the field forward. From what Dr. Eddie Chang does with human language mapping in the epilepsy surgery world, to what Dr. Philip Starr does for movement disorders. These are pioneers who are really changing the world, changing how we understand the human brain, and how we can use these technologies and technological innovations to advance therapy for patients. It’s so inspiring to have these neurosurgeon scientists as role models. Not only that, they are huge advocates for me as well-- encouraging me to stay in the field and telling me it’s possible to do both. Without their mentorship and guidance, I wouldn’t have thought this is possible. And trust me, along the way many, many people have discouraged me from going into this route. It’s actually the people within the department, who are doing it, who are the most encouraging. I don’t think I could’ve gotten here without them.

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

DW: Follow your passion, and when it’s something you’re passionate about, don’t let other people discourage you. Heed their advice, take it with a grain of salt, and find the right mentors who will fuel your passion. Because if it’s something that you absolutely love, it doesn’t seem like work. Of course, there are going to be tough days, and you’re going to have ups and downs, but if it’s something you’re excited to get up in the morning for, ultimately you forget about the bad parts and you find satisfaction in everything you’re doing. Stick to your guns, be persistent and be resilient.

Question 5: If you weren’t a surgeon, what would you do?

DW: Hm, I would probably be a neuroscience researcher, still working with patients and on something translational. I spent my PhD doing mouse brain physiology work. While that’s fascinating and exciting, and answers specific questions, there’s just something about understanding human neurophysiology that’s super exciting. So, if I weren’t doing neurosurgery itself, I’d probably be doing what I’m doing in the lab now, and just collaborate with neurosurgeons. Either that, or be a professional dog walker.

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

DW: I think professionally there are several things. I guess starting my own independent lab. Only recently do I feel like I’m an independent investigator-- that has been a slow process to get started. What I’m doing now as a lab PI is actually very different from what I did during my PhD. I kind of switched fields, going from a mouse, single-cell patch-clamp, ion channel physiology to more broad networks and systems-based neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience. So that was a learning process which I kind of did during my research year and also during my fellowship. Then just being able to come up with a whole novel set of ideas and tools, understanding them, being successful at obtaining grants to support this type of research, and now hiring my own people and mentoring the next generation. It’s been a long process but has been really satisfying. Especially hiring the postdocs and students, seeing their interest grow, and just nurturing that. That’s really phenomenal.

The other aspect I think would be, clinically, going from resident trainee to an attending and working with the residents doing some big cases—that’s been super fun. Just garnering this interest in the next generation has been really satisfying.

On the personal side, I think being able to maintain a fairly balanced life is my proudest achievement. I don’t think I have shortchanged any of my values and what I want to do despite this demanding career, and that’s something I’m proud of. My husband and I, we like to surf, we love to travel, and having a dog—I do feel we have a pretty good, or try to be as good as we can, work life balance. Being able to maintain that and still have time for family, I view that as my proudest achievement.

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

DW: Ultimately, it’s the patients. We can do all these cool things with research, and new findings are really exciting, but having a clinical impact on a patient is so amazing. What I do every day, even decompressing a lumbar spine for a patient with degenerative spine disease or more so within my subspecialty, treating patients with movement disorder and really restoring their quality of life, is extremely satisfying. I’m still almost surprised when I see a patient post-op and they’re crying or just so happy and thanking me for what I’ve done. I’m so grateful that this therapy works for patients, and this is honestly what drives me to get up every day: to understand the physiology and hopefully come up with better treatments to expand the indications for DBS to help more people and make it more widely available. Just so you know, going back to the question where I said if I couldn’t do neurosurgery, I would do research. On second thought, I feel like I could be satisfied if I just did neurosurgery without research, just for the patient care perspective. If I had to pick between the two, I would pick neurosurgery.

Question 8: What are your hobbies outside of the hospital?

DW: My dog actually takes a lot of time, I walk him every morning, every evening, and play with him and its super fun. My husband and I both surf, so usually before Covid-19 we would do one to two international surf trips a year. We love hiking and just being outdoors in general. I used to be a pretty avid rock-climber, but since I started my attending career I have to save my hands, so I don’t do that as much, only indoor gym climbing now.