Sofia Waissbluth, Physician and Clinician Scientist

Sofia Waissbluth graduated with a PhD in Experimental Surgery in 2013. She currently works as a medical doctor (specialized in otolaryngology) and a clinician scientist.

Q: What made you first interested in pursuing a PhD in surgery?

In my last year of medical school, which I completed in Chile, I traveled to Canada to do my elective internships at McGill. I did one month in dermatology and one month in otolaryngology (ENT). During that period, I learned so much, the teachers were great, and the overall environment was very good. The internships led to me meeting other people and expanding my opportunities.

One of the professors in the ENT department, Dr. Sam Daniel, has a lab called the McGill Auditory Sciences Laboratory, which focuses on hearing loss. I’ve always had interest in that area. He asked me whether I wanted to complete a Master’s program. I got the bug for research! I came back from Chile after I finished medical school and I applied for the Masters in Otolaryngology program and was accepted. Medical school in Chile finishes in December, so I started my Master’s the following January.

I started to do well in the courses and the presentations and my interest also increased as I knew more about research. My supervisor suggested that I fast-track to the PhD program. Because there is no PhD in ENT, I fast-tracked into the Experimental Surgery program because he is also a supervisor in that program. The PhD allowed me to do research at a higher level and establish relationships with other labs in collaborative efforts. 

Q: What kind of experiences during your PhD did you find particularly valuable?

The scientific method—knowing how to read an article, getting what you need, knowing how to create a protocol, knowing your statistics, and when to apply which method. The whole method has to be taught, it’s not obvious.

Q: Was your research more basic science research? Or was it more translational and clinical?

It’s basic science —I didn’t do much clinical work in my PhD and that was on purpose. Basic science requires time, effort, a lab—and you don’t always get those opportunities. So I put all my energy into basic science because I knew later on, it would be very difficult to do it on my own.

For example, if I don’t know whether X medication is toxic yet, I would have conducted experiments in an animal model. Then you have to start getting the animals and figuring out how to house them and who is going to feed them. I would need a lab tech and pay them. There are all kinds of limitations to doing basic science once you’re in the medical field. If you don’t have a grant, that’s a limitation. In the clinic, you could say you’ve seen two or three patients with this condition and you believe you have a hypothesis that these patients could develop hearing loss. You could contact other doctors to send your patients, discuss it together. There’s more flexibility. It’s a little easier to conduct (except for RCT!). But for basic science research, if you don’t have a grant or you don’t have your own lab, it can be a little more difficult.

 Q: What was your main source of support during your PhD?

I was very lucky because my fellow PhD partners are also my friends. I keep in touch with most of them, because we spent time together, eating everyday together, doing our experiments together. It helps to have a good team because sometimes you’re doing collaborative work and helping each other. The human aspect is super important because I saw the same people every day for three and a half years. Many of my fellow PhD friends are also medical doctors in their respective countries. So we all have the medical background and we would share stories about the medical world. So that was nice. My family and friends were also a source of support. 

Q: Did having an MD background prior to starting PhD give you an advantage?

The advantage of having a medical background is that you see problems in the future and you think of it in a medical sense. For example, if something is toxic, I want to know exactly what level, if it could be used in children, if it could be used in certain complications of inflammation. Having that medical background leads your thinking towards translational work, I would say. It also provides insight into the “real world”. For instance, some findings can be statistically significant but not clinically significant at all. 

Q: What kind of role did your supervisor play?

My supervisor had more of the laid back approach. If I had an idea and it made sense, he’d tell me to try it. We were able to do collaborative work, establish experiments, and do things that have never been done in the lab before. So I thank him for that because it gave us flexibility—he never restricted us or our ideas. I was able to use a lot of the facilities at McGill, and there are all kinds of things available like electron microscope and mass spectrometry. People will help you—you just have to tell them your idea and people are receptive. So I would say that’s a big advantage of doing a PhD at McGill—there are a lot of facilities with a lot of knowledgeable people that are willing to collaborate and that is something that is amazing. You don’t find that in every university.

Q: What was your biggest challenge during your PhD?

Maybe one of the struggles is to make sure that when you have finished with the PhD, you have a coherent story that is not just one study after another, but various studies that have to make sense together, coherently, and tell a story. And you have to be able to create new knowledge.

Q: What’s your typical day like?

I am working as a medical doctor, an otolaryngologist. I completed my specialty in otolaryngology following the PhD. In the places I have worked, I’ve been able to do all kinds of research—mostly clinical at the moment regarding hearing loss, which is what I’m interested in, and some prospective studies on children. I’ve also done studies on patients who have certain conditions that predispose them to hearing loss, such as patients with osteogenesis imperfecta. I am a recipient of a research grant this year from The National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (FONDECYT). This grant will allow me to incorporate some basic research into my daily activities.

Q: Is there anything that you wish you knew, like before you started your PhD?

I would tell myself “Don’t expect all experiments to work”. You could have a hundred ideas and maybe fifty would work, or maybe not. There are a lot of things that people do, but they’re not published because it didn’t work. Maybe the dose was too high or too toxic or it wasn’t the right animal model or the right cell line. There’s all kinds of things that could go wrong, and it’s good to go in knowing that probably a lot of the experiments you will do may fail. And you have to take another approach and you have to be open, to expand on that and think about it, say why they didn’t work. What should I do? Should I change my model? Change this? You have to be able to do self retrospective analysis and not take it personal because it’s science. For example, when I was doing scanning electron microscopy of inner ear cells, it’s the smallest piece of tissue. If you breathe near it, it’s gone! It has happened to me—I’m exhaling and there goes seven days of work. You end up wasting material and wasting time, and you have to start over again. So it’s best not to get frustrated. These things happen to everyone! You have to just brush it off and start over.

Sofia reflects on what she wished she knew before starting her PhD.

Many thanks to Sofia for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her on ResearchGate, Google Scholar, and on her webpage.

This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.