Academic Profiles: From the Bench to the Cath Lab: Dr. Nadia Sutton

Nadia Sutton, MD, MPH

Nadia Sutton, MD, MPH is an Assistant Professor, interventional cardiologist, and vascular biologist in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine and the Frankel Cardiovascular Center at University of Michigan.

She recently discussed her experiences as a physician-scientist with Nasrien E. Ibrahim, MD, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Cardiology Division of Massachusetts General Hospital.


What is your balance between research and clinical cardiology?

It's evolved a bit over time. When I first started out, I was 50/50: 50% research and 50% clinical. Over time that has evolved to become a bit more research-heavy, particularly because I was able to obtain some grant funding from the National Institute on Aging for protected effort so that I can work on that research. These days, I spend most of my clinical time in the cath lab and I also do some outpatient clinics.

As an interventional cardiologist, is there a minimum number of days that you need to be in the cath lab to keep up your procedural skills?

It truly comes down to what you are trying to keep up as far as your skills go. If you are trying to do multiple different things within Interventional Cardiology including structural work and coronary intervention you will require more days per week in the cath lab. As a result of my research interest, I am focused primarily on coronary intervention. So I'm in the cath lab one or two days a week in general. There are some weeks where it might be a little more but most of the time that's the average. I'm doing basic science research which really does require a fair amount of effort if you really want to make progress in a meaningful way... I guess you have to decide where your priorities are and where you want to make an impact within Interventional Cardiology.

Did you always know you wanted to have a career in academic medicine?  Were any mentors or sponsors helpful when making your career decisions?

I think everybody finds their path in a different way. In my case, I pretty much knew I wanted to be an academic physician since seventh grade... My high school yearbook says that I wanted to be a researcher and on a pre-med track.  Before I went to medical school, I worked as a lab technician in Joe Loscalzo's lab, now at Brigham and Women's Hospital. I had the fortunate experience of being exposed to Dr. Jane Leopold who is also an interventional cardiologist and basic scientist. So that had a significant impact to see that there was somebody out there who was doing this. I knew it was actually possible, and I think that drives home the point that you need to have role models to see that things are possible. A lot of times you'll hear that these two roles (basic scientist and interventional cardiologist) are too time-consuming, that you truly cannot do both or do them both well. It takes some time and dedication, but it is still possible, so having role models like that early in my career did make an impact. I certainly think about that when I'm mentoring the undergraduates in my research lab right now.

Who are your mentees?

I work with residents when I'm on inpatient service and I work with fellows, of course, in the cath lab -- both general cardiology fellows as well as interventional fellows. Especially because I'm fairly research heavy, I've tried as best I can to include the trainees on projects for publication... Right now, I'm actually mentoring 6 undergraduates, and for our lab's recent cover paper in ATVB, we had two undergraduates as authors.

What do you think our generation's responsibility is to change the face of medicine to improve the representation of women, of Black physicians, of indigenous physicians, and Latinx physicians in medicine? What's our generation's role in changing the face of academic medicine?

First of all, I'd like to say that I'm really thrilled about  this year's incoming class of general cardiology fellows; it seems like fellowship programs have recruited more diverse classes, and I think we will see that as time goes by. We really have to reach farther into the pipeline,...we need to go further back to start talking with high school students, doing community outreach, letting people know that this is an exciting field, letting them know what opportunities are out there. So ultimately, I think that it will require being proactive to actually recruit talented individuals to cardiovascular medicine, which is really just a wonderful field.

Any advice that you would give the younger Dr. Sutton?

A big thing is to start talking to as many people early in your career, even in residency, in medical school, even if you're not really sure what you want to do, just to get ideas and to get feedback. Ultimately asking for advice or help is not an admission of inadequacy in any way. It is so helpful to get feedback from many individuals. That also goes for early on in your fellowship example if you're trying to decide to stay in academics or a non-academic setting. If you're not sure what you want to do, you should probably make sure you're well prepared to be successful [in either]... Don't assume that other people know what you're interested in. Get the word out there. If you have specific interest, you can volunteer to give talks for the fellowship on it, and that is something you can put on your CV. It's so funny in a way—you spend all this time in training and it only ends up being a couple of lines on your CV. So when you're applying for jobs later it's nice to have other things to add to your CV, like 'I gave a talk on this' or 'I did outreach in the community'. It's good to have those other things to show your future employers what your passions are... Ultimately, be proactive in terms of thinking about what are the different pieces that you need to show what you're capable of.

What's the big project you want to 'crush'?

My research interests are in vascular aging so that's what I've been really puzzling over trying to understand. My specific interests are in vascular calcification, so we've been looking at different mechanisms of vascular calcification in aging. So that's probably the biggest area where I'm trying to make headway. On the clinical side, I'm always trying to bolster my skill set; we're all lifelong learners; otherwise we would become dinosaurs very quickly.

What are the things that you love to do outside of medicine and that are not related to your lab?

I enjoy running. I like to cook. I also have a family with two little girls and I'm actually the co-manager for their synchronized skating team, so I have other things that keep me active outside of medicine. I spend a lot of time with family these days.

Any last words of advice for residents and fellows who are interested in pursuing academic cardiology?

I think the thing is to really try to enjoy doing what you do. The current pandemic has taught us that life is so precious, and you don't want to spend time on what you don't want to do, or away from family that you rather be with.  Just pick whatever makes you happy and that you find most enjoyable.