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The Catalyst

Tenacity pays off for physician-scientist grad


By Cindy Abole
Public Relations

MSTP student Dr. Sahar A. Saddoughi began her studies at MUSC in 2006 and is graduating  with honors from the College of Graduate Studies. On July 1, she will start her cardiothoracic surgery residency at Mayo Clinic. photos provided

For new graduate Sahar A. Saddoughi, M.D., Ph.D., defining the success of a physician-scientist is not simply measured by a long education. More, it’s the sacrifices during medical training, pressure to perform well in the lab, striking a balance between clinical and research and managing personal and family challenges.

Today, she and her six co-graduates of MUSC’s Medical Scientist in Training Program are reaping the rewards of having spent more than eight years and countless hours in the lab while undergoing medical training.

To Saddoughi, it’s about the journey and not the destination.

At MUSC, she’s achieved her goal through good training and mentoring. Saddoughi fits the mold of an accomplished MSTP student -- hardworking, tenacious, dedicated, and talented in the lab possessing impeccable technical expertise.

From her earliest memory, Saddoughi always wanted to be a doctor. As a child living in Australia, she remembers her patient experiences in the hospital were always positive.

Yet her early years were ever changing. Her father, Seyed, an aeronautical engineer of Iranian descent, moved the family around the globe. Her Chinese-American mother, Elizabeth, worked as a hair dresser and helped raise her and younger brother, Reza.  By the time Saddoughi graduated from high school in Clifton Park, NY, she had attended schools in Australia, the United States and Canada, all within four years.

She attended Barnard College of Columbia University in New York and studied chemistry. She worked hard in her studies and completed her senior honors thesis in organic chemistry. By the time she graduated in 2003, she had published three scientific research papers – a rare feat for an undergraduate student.

That achievement got the attention of several MD-PhD programs. She applied to programs in New York and South Carolina. “I wanted to leave New York and experience something different. I had high regard for MUSC’s MSTP program due to its good reputation and National Institutes of Health-funded support. I wanted that,” she said.

Nationally, some MSTP programs receive support from the NIH through grant funding. The program has been evaluated comprehensively on the quality of their training through a series of four grant applications to the NIH. Of the country’s MD-PhD programs, only 43 MSTP programs are funded.

Saddoughi smiles when she thinks of the culture shock she experienced during her first visit to Charleston. Program director Perry V. Halushka, M.D., Ph.D., Distinguished University Professor and MSTP director, said to her, “You have a little bit of New York in you,”, referring to Saddoughi’s upfront, get-things-done attitude. “Don’t lose that and you’ll do very well in this program.”

Looking back, Saddoughi found this to be true. “I’ve been fortunate to have come across many opportunities during my time here at MUSC. I knew Dr. Halushka would be an amazing mentor and he was not going to let his students fail.”

A big achievement for Saddoughi was being awarded an F30 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award for Individual Predoctoral MD-PhD fellows from the NIH. The monetary award funded Saddoughi through her graduate years and part of medical school. The purpose of the award is to recognize outstanding MD-PhD trainees and to promote the retention of physician scientists in biomedical research.

MUSC’s MSTP program is ranked third highest nationally for its students ability to achieve F30 grant funding, a credit to Halushka’s work building a high caliber program. The F30 is considered a potential stepping stone to the NIH’s RO1 Research Project Grant, a cornerstone funding mechanism for early career scientists.  

For her research  component, Saddoughi worked in the lab of Besim Ogretman, Ph.D., professor and eminent scholar in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. In Ogretman’s lab, she expanded her interests in lung cancer research looking at novel protein interactions and drug targets. She specifically studied ceremide, a sphingolipid that causes cells to die. Her research tests the use of ceremide-type drugs and their effects in lung cancer cells.

In terms of her medical training, Saddoughi envisioned herself as a cardiothoracic surgeon. While in high school, she was fortunate to have shadowed a CT surgeon and reacted with excitement seeing a human heart beating. That experience made a strong impression on her.  It was this image that she carried with her to MUSC.

“Throughout my life, I’ve always been attracted to things that are challenging and difficult, things such as chemistry, research, an MD-PhD program, CT surgery. All of these are challenging goals. Choosing the difficult is exciting to me,” she said.

Her approach to the challenging and difficult coincides with how she would address a science question. “It’s great when things work because you’re driven to keep on going through persistence. But what happens when things don’t work? There will always be challenges. One has to keep driving one’s self forward to keep going,” Saddoughi said.

Upon arriving at MUSC, she consulted with CT surgeons John S. Ikonomidis, M.D., Ph.D.; Chad Denlinger, M.D.; Fred Crawford, M.D.; and the late Carolyn Reed, M.D., all considered first-class surgeons in their field and all made a positive impression on her. 

Saddoughi, however, had a special connection to Reed. They first met in 2006 when she asked Reed what she needed to do to become a CT surgeon like her. That’s when the mentor embraced the student. “Carolyn Reed was a huge role model for me. Like others, I was devastated when she died [Nov. 16, 2012]. I want to have the type of medical career similar to hers,” Saddoughi said.

Ikonomidis, chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, was especially impressed upon meeting his mentee. “Sahar is very bright and has tremendous drive. She seemed to naturally understand the CT surgical specialty well. She also possesses above-average technical skills. She’s a highly accomplished and talented individual who thus far has navigated her career exceptionally well. I anticipate that she will maintain a steep upward trajectory on her way to becoming an important contributor to the field of academic cardiothoracic surgery,” he said.

Saddoughi is excited to see the field of CT surgery evolving through the use of minimally invasive techniques and new technology. “Any field that’s always evolving is challenging. It’s exciting. I find I have to be on top of my approach and thoughts. There’s always a focus on improving care for patients,” she said.

When it came to selecting her residency, Saddoughi interviewed at 11 highly-competitive CT programs that only offered one or two slots per year. They included the University of Michigan, University of Pittsburgh, Emory University, Columbia University, Yale, Mayo Clinic, and MUSC.

Dr. Sahar Saddoughi and fiance, George Moultrie, join her parents, Dr. Seyed and Elizabeth Saddoughi in Arizona last October as she attended the Southern Thoracic Surgical Association meeting. Saddoughi was awarded the James W. Brooks Medical Student Scholarship.

During her senior year in medical school, she completed a six-week rotation in CT surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She was searching for a program that fulfilled her needs in research, CT surgery and patient care. After spending her time at Mayo, she felt comfortable that it was the best fit for her overall.

Mayo’s CT residency is an integrated program that supports residents to become certified in both general surgery and CT surgery. Additionally, the program will allow Saddoughi to take a year off to spend more concentrated time on her research, which is something that she wanted.

“I loved the attitude at Mayo which is very patient-centered and focused on education. I would trust the doctors at Mayo to care for my parents and if I have that attitude for them, then I definitely want them to train me in this medical specialty,” she said.

On March 21, during the College of Medicine’s Match day event, she got her wish. Surrounded by her parents, brother and fiancée, George Moultrie, Saddoughi relished the moment when she opened her envelope to reveal her match result. “I was a nervous wreck,” she said. Everything I’d worked for had culminated in that moment and I was torn with emotion. Overall it was a great day.”

Saddoughi’s grateful to the cadre of medical, research and clinical faculty who have contributed to her learning and experiences. She is especially thankful to Deborah Hazen-Martin, Ph.D., associate dean for curriculum in the basic sciences, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, who has served as a valued mentor throughout her MUSC journey and hooded Saddoughi in the May 15 College of Medicine ceremony.

Her recent days have focused on packing for her move to Minnesota and getting ready for graduation. True to character, she’s already eager to start her residency on July 1 and meet the opportunities that await her. “Generally I don’t like to take too much time off for vacation,” she said with a smile.



May 15, 2014



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