ASRS 2017 WinR Special: Interview with Zelia Correa, MD, PhD

Women in Retina: a profile of Zelia M. Correa, MD, PhD
Interviewed by Nika Bagheri, MD

What is your story? How did you become a retinal surgeon, ocular oncologist, and now the director of ocular oncology at Cincinnati Children’s? 

My parents were both surgeons and opened their own community hospital in Brazil. Growing up I spent my free time there, and learned how much I loved caring for people from a young age. I knew I wanted to be a physician and a surgeon.

During residency I was set on doing glaucoma. I had a fellowship lined up with Dr. George Spaeth at Wills Eye Hospital when I learned of a job opportunity for retina and oncology in my hometown. Dr. Spaeth was very gracious and supportive. After completing my retina fellowship, he orchestrated my ocular oncology fellowship with Dr. James Augsburger at Wills Eye Hospital.

I returned to Brazil to practice retina and oncology for several years until Dr. Augsburger called me to join him as a partner in Cincinnati. I was not looking to move, but after consideration realized I reached my potential in Brazil and was already hitting the ceiling. I had to define a new set of goals to achieve to keep it fresh and new. While I initially planned to go for a few years and then return, I became committed when I became the director of medical student education.

After 10 years I became a full tenured professor, an achievement that less than 5% of women experience, and began the transition to becoming the director of the ocular oncology service. Throughout my career, advancement only occurred when I asked for it. This is an important lesson for women who tend not to ask for opportunities, promotions, and at times, recognition.

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Dr. Raquel Goldhardt and Dr. Zelia Correa

How did you get involved in WinR? Share with me the goals of WinR and how it has helped female vitreoretinal surgeons overcome challenges.

I have always valued mentorship and promoted leadership development. My dear friend, Dr. Judy Kim brought me on board with Women in Retina to help with international outreach, and I am thrilled to be a part of this organization.

WinR is a chapter of ASRS that is aims to empower the next generation of female retina specialists. There are many different programs for retina fellows, including travel grants, case discussions at ARVO and ASRS, breakfast during the January fellows’ forum in Chicago among other events. At its core, WinR is about championing women but also diversity. Contrary to what many believe, I think diversity is not just gender and race it’s about culture. Increasing diversity allows us to share our cultural differences and learn how to do things differently. Cultural diversity breaks paradigms, fosters collaboration, and brings our profession together.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my son, because I feel that despite all the hurdles and challenges juggling different responsibilities as a single mother, he is a very well-rounded individual with a heart of gold. He is very sweet, respectful, very in tune with himself and with the world. He is my biggest achievement.

You continue to shape the field of retina and oncology with your research. What lies ahead? 

I am working on many clinical and translational projects including the collaborative ocular oncology study that is investigating driver mutations and next generation sequencing of uveal melanoma with the Bascom Palmer team. A long-term project we are now working on in Cincinnati is how to make nanoparticles that harbor chemotherapeutic drugs. The goal is to administer the nanoparticles and control the release of the drugs by applying high frequency ultrasound to burst them open.

How do you stay motivated?

From time to time it is good to pause and check in with yourself to see if you are doing what you want to do. When you lose that spark for challenges, life becomes dull and you become jaded. As long as you cultivate that flame, life and work is fun.

I try to keep things light regardless of how severe the situation is. While I take my work seriously, I don’t take myself too seriously. I remind myself constantly that life is not permanent, and all I can do is my very best. That means taking good care of my patients and being generous, approachable, and kind to everyone around me. I hope my behavior impacts others in a positive way.

What do you do when you aren’t fighting cancer? 

Reading or listening to fiction is my favorite form of entertainment and relaxation. I have a kindle unlimited subscription. I also love to ride my bicycle on the weekends.

What do you love about Cincinnati?

My favorite thing about Cincinnati is how the city opened its arms to my son and me. We moved there 11 years ago and at first it was very challenging for him. We are very close to our family, but now he absolutely loves the city.

Nika Bagheri, MD
Vitreoretinal Surgery Fellow
Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, University of Miami