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Stars of Stanford Medicine: “I have the best job in the world”

This Stars of Stanford Medicine Q&A features anesthesiologist and researcher Vivianne Tawfik, who examines the roots of chronic pain.

Vivianne Tawfik, MD, PhD, is an assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine who loves sushi, snowboarding and NPR's "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" She says her job at Stanford is the "best in the world" because she gets to do something different every day. I met up with her to learn more about her work, as well as her experience as a mother of two young boys.

How did you become interested in science and medicine?

I was originally drawn into this because I grew up in Montreal at a time when designer drug use was on the rise and I became interested in studying drug addiction. I was actually late to realizing I wanted to practice medicine and eventually pursue an MD/PhD. Ultimately for me, I think it's the absolute perfect fit. My goal is to take advantage of the fact that I am a clinician-scientist and translate my own findings in basic research to the care of my patients.

How did you become interested in pain management as a specialty?

My PhD mentor was studying pain and she pointed out that pain and addiction have a lot of overlap. Now, everyone realizes that, but at the time it wasn't so obvious. I decided, with the input of some great mentors, that I would go into pain as a subspecialty and that anesthesiology was the path to get there.

What projects are you working on now?

The majority of my effort is toward understanding the neuroimmune contribution to the transition from acute to chronic pain using different mouse models. We know approximately 10 to 30 percent of people will transition from acute to chronic pain after surgery. We're trying to understand what their risk factors are, how we can prevent it, and what the mechanisms are. I'm also looking more specifically at a model of complex regional pain syndrome, or CRPS, which is a unique type of pain that occurs after trauma or minor surgery.

What is the biggest challenge in the field of pain management right now?

In my clinical practice, the opioid epidemic is a really big topic of conversation. I have patients that come in either on chronic opioids or patients where I think opioids could actually be useful -- there are still some situations where patients with chronic, non-cancer pain can benefit from opioids, but you need to have a lot of conversations about risks and benefits. The issue translates into my research in that I think that there have to be other ways to treat pain aside from using opioid receptor agonists. We just need to understand the basic mechanisms more in depth.

What do you find most fulfilling in your work?

Mentorship. By far. To think that I have a hand in someone's career progression is really exciting to me.

What are you reading right now?

Right now, my one-and-a-half year old's favorite book is Choo Choo, and I can tell you the entire book right now if you want to hear it, it's about six lines. My four-and-a-half year old's favorite book we just finished and it's called the Dragon Masters.

What is your favorite food?

Sushi. My go-to place near Stanford recently shut down, so I'm looking for recommendations.

Have you been on any cool trips recently?

My older sister is a destination wedding photographer, so my mom, my other sister, myself, and all our kids all joined her in Costa Rica about six months ago. We called it Rockin' Cousin Fest 2017. Costa Rica is just an amazing country, because it has everything -- rain forest, ocean, beach, everything.

Do you have any mentors that you look up to?

I have a collection of mentors who have been instrumental in keeping me in line. One of those is Rona Giffard, MD, PhD, who has always been so encouraging. When I got pregnant with my first son, she said, 'Well, you'll take time off and you'll have a baby, and you'll come back.' Not even a blip, and it was the same with my second child. She has two children of her own and was vice chair of research at the time, so seeing a woman in that role was really inspiring.

Do you have any advice for moms working in academia?

Someone told me this once: There are three domains you exist in if you do this gig. There's science, there's clinical, and then there's home. At any one point, one of those might not be going well, maybe two. You just have to embrace the one or two areas where things are going well and the rest will fall into place. You have to celebrate your small successes.

Stars of Stanford Medicine features standout scholars in the School of Medicine.

Photo by Nicoletta Lanese

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