University of California San Francisco

Dr. Sima Porten

Sima Porten, MD Interview

Interview with Dr. Sima Porten performed by medical student Rachel Bigley. Dr. Porten is a urologist at UCSF, specializing in urologic oncology.

Sima Porten, MD

Interviewed by: Rachel Bigley

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

There's never a good time to have kids. I very much wanted to plan everything out, like having my kids during my research year in residency. All of these things now in retrospect seem silly. When you go into surgery, the different parts of your life are going to blend together, and that's ok. There will be times when you spend more time on your family, and then there are going to be times when you spend more time at work. And you'll know what you're going to need to do then. Back when I was younger and in training, I thought the way forward was rigid planning. But now I think it's more about flexibility. A better way of doing it is to realize I'm doing what I love, and I'm also paying attention to the people I love. It may look different every day, but in the end it'll balance out.

Who do you admire?

The person who got me really interested in urological oncology, was my senior partner Dr. Max Meng. The reason I admire him is that he taught me first and foremost how to be a great doctor and to focus on the patient. He taught me that although we are surgeons, we have more tools than just our knives. You can do a lot of operations, but shouldyou is the most important question. I have learned a lot from him about being a busy surgeon and an involved parent as he is very involved in his kids' lives. And I know that Dr. Meng is someone I can always lean on- for day to day things like - “I'm going to be stuck in the OR, can you please go get my kids and bring them to the hospital?”, or more serious topics like career planning.

What was it like asking him to be a sponsor for you?

That's the crazy thing about him. I didn't have to ask, he just did it. All of a sudden all these things started falling into my lap early in my career. It took me a while to figure out where it was coming from, and it was coming from him. Somebody was like, "Oh Max nominated you to that." And I was like, "Really?" And they said, "Yes, and to that and that and that!" And I didn't even know he was doing all that! He definitely wasn't taking credit for it. He knows what it means to hold these positions and to serve on certain committees in terms of career development. It ended up being a very fluid and fairly natural thing. Some mentorships and sponsorships you have to actively seek out, but my initial stepping stones were done by a wonderful human being and I didn't have to ask.

What is the best piece of advice you have received?

One of my chief residents talked about the triangle of life. One of the points of the triangle is having a job that you really love, then the others are living close to work and not commuting, and the last one was salary. And so if you can figure out how to get 2 out of 3 things in the triangle, then there's like 99% chance you'll be blissfully happy. Just make sure you end up with 2 of the 3! To me, it was a crazy thing to say. But then it stayed with me when I came to SF for my job. I decided I was going to live within 10 minutes of work and had the added benefit of having the kids' school be a block away, and prioritized this-that allowed me a lot of flexibility. I was able to go to a lot of my kids’ events as it took me only 5 minutes to go from mission bay to their school and then back to work. And then home was really close, so I was able to participate in pickups and drop offs. It was one of the most practical pieces of advice that sort of stayed with me. Work and home were close and I had a job I really enjoyed and it has worked out very well for me and my family.

If not surgery, then what?

When I started out in medical school, I was obsessed with the movie Outbreak. So I got an MPH but it was in contact tracing and my thesis was on West Nile spread. I was thinking I'd be an ID doc, so I did research at the NIH, but I fell into a lab that did immunotherapy in surgical oncology for melanoma because I didn't like any of the ID labs I interviewed at. And then from there I got to scrub into the OR because it was surgical oncology translational science and then I was like, “oh my gosh, surgery.”

But if not in medicine, then would you say you'd do public health work?
I also taught dance until I started in urology. We did 2 years of general surgery, so during that time I used to substitute teach in a little kid dance studio. Like, the little ones with their underwear hanging out in the back of their leotards. It was so fun! I could be a dance teacher.

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

I am most proud of my kids. They are 10 and 8 and they are awesome. So when I was 5 years old, I had three goals: to be a dancer, a doctor, and a mom. I can now say I have fulfilled my 5 year old self’s life goals at age 40. Finally. Professionally, I just got promoted to associate professor. And so that was one of my goals when I started out as an attending to do this in a certain time period. So I was pretty proud of that.

Do you have a favorite quote? Or quote/mantra you live by?

It reminds you that there are very few things in life that are all or nothing. There's always going to be a blend of different aspects that you'll have to navigate through. So figuring out a way you can navigate it that resonates with you is one of the best things that you can focus on in life at this time. If you approach everything with empathy and compassion, that's probably going to be the way to a better world. The key is to remember this during the “bad”.

What are your hobbies outside of the hospital?
I still dance. Currently, there's a very silly blog--blogilates for 30 days to the splits.  I used to be able to do the splits a long time ago and now I can't anymore. I'm halfway through it now and getting closer. I also still paint and draw, especially with my kids during COVID times. And I got a peloton bike for my birthday.

Any general piece of advice you may have for young women interested in surgery?
If you love it, you can totally do it. It's not the easiest road forward, but I think now it's getting easier. Being a surgeon, either as a woman or man, is a difficult road ahead. But it's exceptionally rewarding. So I say you should go for it!