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Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Chief, Division of Prevention and RehabilitationChair, Canadian Women’s Heart Health Centre; University of Ottawa Heart InstituteVIEW PROFILE
Only four years since completing her training, Thais Coutinho, M.D., has broken a glass ceiling. She’s the first woman — and the youngest person — to have a division chief position at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. Read more about this dynamo who journeyed from Brazil to Minnesota to Canada to make her mark on medicine.
In medical school in Brazil, I worked with a cardiologist who trained at Mayo Clinic in the 1970s, Nelson De Souza E Silva, M.D. (I ’71, CV ’74 ). He said great things about Mayo Clinic and inspired me to have an elective rotation in cardiology in 2004. I fell in love with Mayo then — it was just what I was looking for. I stayed at Mayo Clinic for the next eight years, and my training has been absolutely instrumental for my career trajectory and success.
I was at Mayo for so long that I consider my Mayo colleagues to be extended family. I catch up with Mayo people at cardiology conferences. My mentor in cardiology and vascular medicine, Iftikhar Kullo, M.B.B.S. (I ’94, CV ’99, CLRSH ’06), helped me grow as a researcher. I started working with him as an intern and still call him with career questions. My mentor in preventive cardiology, Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, M.D. (CV ’01), was a great source of inspiration.
I would not be sitting where I am today without the amazing clinical and research training, mentorship and support I received from Mayo Clinic. I really treasure the time, training and people that marked my eight years at Mayo. I’m forever grateful. Mayo is such a big part of my heart.
I was looking for job opportunities toward the end of my training, and the University of Ottawa Heart Institute offered me a recruitment package that was very attractive, with protected research time, equipment and funds to get me started as an independent investigator.
In my first three years on staff, I’ve received close to a million dollars in peer-reviewed research grants to get my career started. Half of my time is clinical, and half is research. I focus on vascular diseases and their prevention in the clinic. In research, I focus on evaluation of arterial health and hemodynamics to discover links between abnormalities in these parameters and cardiovascular diseases, with a focus on women. I also study vascular health and the role it may play in the development of various conditions in women.
Coincidentally, my husband is Canadian. We met in Brazil when he was on vacation. It was never in our plans to be in Canada, but we welcomed the opportunity to move north when it presented itself.
In training I was so busy, between clinical work and research on nights and weekends. A mentor told me, “If you think you’re busy now, just wait until you graduate.” I couldn’t imagine that to be true. But the responsibilities have multiplied. I’m a physician-scientist, so my research responsibilities are enormous — starting a new research program in a new country, assembling a team, writing and obtaining grants, and maintaining my grants to keep jobs for those I employ.
I recently became chief of the Division of Prevention and Rehabilitation, which adds another layer of complexity — administrative responsibilities to run the division and make sure it’s thriving and everyone is happy. It’s a lot different from training!
I am surrounded by wonderful people who help me keep moving forward. First of all, I have incredible spousal support. I can only do what I do because of the man I married. Second, I work with a wonderful team of health care providers and scientists who inspire me every day and help me reach my professional goals
We have a 17-month-old son, Luca, and his arrival has changed my priorities and time management greatly. I try to minimize night and weekend work so I can spend time with him. I’m learning to be even more efficient at work and not waste a breath so I can go home at a reasonable hour. Things are slowly shaping into place.
My motto is “work hard, play hard.” We love to travel and always have a trip to look forward to. I work long hours, but going on frequent trips keeps me refreshed and motivated. We just returned from Switzerland and have two more trips booked for this year. Our son is proving to be a wonderful little traveler as well!
Achieving this position was a combination of skill, need and luck. I’ve always had leadership goals for my career, but this came earlier than expected — and shortly after I’d returned from six months of maternity leave, which is evidence of the support I have from my institution.
My excellent training at Mayo Clinic and in Brazil prepared me well for leadership. At Mayo I focused on training in preventive cardiology, vascular medicine and advanced echocardiography, which gave me a skill set, or niche, that is different from most cardiologists. The University of Ottawa Heart Institute had a need — the former division chief was stepping down after several years. The opportunity appeared at the right time for me, and leaders here saw my potential.
My plans for the division include starting an innovative clinical and research program for risk management and rehabilitation for patients with peripheral arterial disease. This is an area of incredible need — at the clinical and scientific fronts — and allows me to capitalize on my own strengths. In addition, through the University of Ottawa Heart Institute’s Canadian Women Heart Health Centre, we plan to continue expanding clinical, educational and scientific programs for women with or at risk for cardiovascular diseases.
I’m the first woman and the youngest person to be a division chief at the Heart Institute. I feel like I broke the glass ceiling in terms of professional opportunities for women in medicine. I feel privileged, honored and challenged.
See past New Chapter stories here.