Interview With Gina (Effrossyni) Votta-Velis, MD, PhD

By Priyanka Ghosh, MD, and Jarna Shah, MD    Sep 24, 2019

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 Women in RAPM Newsletter. In honor of Women in Medicine month, we have made it available for everyone. Watch for more content featuring women leaders throughout the month of September.

Jarna Shah, MD, Interventional Pain Fellow, Johns Hopkins University

Dr. Gina (Effrossyni) Votta-Velis, MD, PhD, is a clinical associate professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine fellowship director at the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Services. Her research focuses on the perioperative use of local anesthetics and how regional anesthesia affects cancer recurrence and may improve outcomes. Among her many awards and accolades, Dr. Votta-Velis has received ASRA’s 2018 Carl Koller Memorial Research Grant. She is currently conducting a translational study on the role of lidocaine infusions in pancreatic cancer. She is well known to both the European and American pain communities, and serves on the ASRA Board of Directors. A brilliant physician scientist, anesthesiologist, mother, pain physician, and mentor, Dr. Votta-Velis shares her insights with us in this interview.

What specifically drew you to the field of pain medicine?

My Greek ancestor Hippocrates espoused: “Devine is the task to relieve pain.” He taught his students that their most honorable duty was to provide pain relief to their patients. In my opinion, everyone practicing pain medicine identifies with the words of Hippocrates.

The reasons why I personally chose the privilege of being a pain medicine physician are very simple: compassion and empathy. I was fully aware of the hard work I would have to do in order to alleviate patients’ suffering, but compassion and empathy for my patients drives my work. These patients are my heroes, and they make me continuously aware of two important virtues: humility and patience. I will always be grateful to them for teaching me these values.

What made you interested in research and how did you successfully combine this with your clinical practice?

Research is very important for the advancement of any medical field. While the field of pain medicine is relatively new, there has been significant progress in the treatment of pain thanks to research. In order to continue developing more effective treatments, we need to do more work in elucidating pain mechanisms on the molecular level. I have always been intrigued by the mechanisms of diseases. Being a physician scientist gave me the advantage of asking meaningful questions whose answers will potentially provide beneficial results for a large number of patients. I feel the need to honor this opportunity, and I get a tremendous amount of joy from doing this.

As pain physicians, not only do we have to be excellent clinicians, but we also have to contribute to the change and improvement in clinical practice to advance our field for the benefit of our patients. In order to fulfill my clinical teaching and research obligation, I work long hours during the week and every weekend, as most of my colleagues in academic medicine do.

How did you advance your career?

In my opinion, in order to have a successful career in academics, you have to excel as a clinician, teacher, and investigator.

Being an excellent clinician is a must, as we have many challenges in pain medicine. Being the director of the Pain Medicine Fellowship at the University of Illinois at Chicago has given me the opportunity to enhance my teaching skills and mentor enthusiastic and inquisitive pain fellows.

Regarding research, finding a unique area of interest in order to address a question that few have investigated before and creating a niche are the first steps to a successful research career. Subsequently, dedication, perseverance, hard work, focus, and advocacy of your research findings are important ingredients for success. Finally, luck also helps.

Another important component of a successful career is to receive consistent, meaningful mentorship. A mentor is someone who selflessly supports their mentee, respects their efforts, and is available to provide guidance and input to promote their mentee’s career. Furthermore, institutional and departmental support promotes teamwork with respectful and knowledgeable collaborators, which is also a paramount requirement for the enhancement of a career.

I am grateful to have exemplary mentors and committed collaborators, as well as institutional and departmental support throughout my career. I would like to acknowledge Drs. A. Borgeat, S. Memtsoudis, C. Laurito, R. Rosenquist, and, last but not least, my department head Dr. D. Schwartz, for their continued support.

Other than your institutional achievements, you are also involved in pain medicine on a national and international level. How did you accomplish this?

ASRA played a large role in my national success. The cordial and supportive environment within our society promotes, nourishes, and enables members to pursue their areas of interest through various presentation platforms and committees. ASRA has supported my research and has provided me with a platform to speak at various national and international meetings, including the ASA. ASRA’s dedication to my research was the reason I was invited to speak at the European Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Therapy, and this promoted further collaboration in other academic areas.

What advice do you have for women who are interested in emulating your career?

Women have many talents. In my opinion, they are naturally insightful, patient, compassionate, careful listeners, altruistic, organized, and great team players. Fortunately, in our subspecialty today, both women and men who are willing to contribute have tremendous support from the leadership in our field. My personal experience within ASRA is nothing short of continuous support.

My advice to all of my wonderful young female colleagues is to pursue their dreams as the intelligent, inspiring, and hard-working pain physicians that they are, and I am certain that they will find a lot of joy and fulfillment on their way to success!

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