Teacher of the Year Award for Daniel Ma, M.D. — ‘good person’ first

Mayo Clinic was the right fit professionally and personally for Daniel Ma, M.D. (RADO ’11, CTSA ’15), Department of Radiation Oncology. Dr. Ma says when he interviewed for a position at Mayo Clinic in 2011, he could tell everyone was genuine and had a holistic approach to practicing medicine.

“People talked about their families and local schools,” he said. “I sensed that the physicians valued compassion and well-being, not just metrics. That’s not the case everywhere, but it fit with my philosophy. Doctors at Mayo Clinic seem to focus on being a good person, good physician, good specialist and good subspecialist — in that order. I’ve been fortunate to have kind, compassionate mentors, and I try to pass that on to my residents.”

Trainees who nominated him for a Teacher of the Year award cited his kindness and compassion. “It put a jump in my step to receive the award and have those characteristics noticed,” says Dr. Ma. “Hearing the resident read comments about me for the award was a unique moment in my career and one that I’ll always remember.”

“It’s a humbling honor to know residents value my contributions.”

Daniel Ma, M.D. , receives a Teacher of the Year award from resident David Routman, M.D. (RADO 20).

What’s your teaching style?

I teach people to love learning and to get excited about it.

I try to tailor my teaching to each year’s residents. Head and neck anatomy is technically complicated. I want early-year residents to learn the basics of anatomy — the disease site. I want middle-year residents to learn to complete treatment plans, and later-year residents to tackle complicated cases. I give residents the opportunity to be as independent as quickly as they’re able to address patient plans. Residency is the best time to do that — under supervision.

How do you know when you’ve done a good job teaching?

I know I’ve done a good job when patients tell me their care from our team is superb. It would be easy to take credit for it, but it’s the work of the whole team — often the resident. I try to direct patient comments to the resident.

What’s most rewarding about teaching?

Teaching is fun; I enjoy doing it. I get to shape how the next generation will approach patient care. What we do is only a generation away from disappearing if we don’t pass it on.

What’s most challenging about teaching?

Teaching takes extra time, but it’s time well spent. Teaching forces the educator to be introspective, think about how you do things, and ponder your assumptions.

Our residents are extremely bright and ask nuanced questions: “Have you considered doing it like this before?” “Why haven’t we done it like this before?” Those questions make me reflect, and it’s a good sharpening process for the educator.

Do you learn from your trainees?

Yes. Many times they come up with creative, interesting ideas for difficult clinical cases. It makes me proud to see their thought processes. We’ve incorporated some of their excellent ideas. It’s rewarding to see my fingerprints on them.

Did you ever struggle as a learner?

I had difficulty keeping attention on subject I couldn’t get hands-on experience with right away. I learn best and retain information when I can get in and do stuff. I teach that way, too. I want to engage residents early.

How do you handle it when students are struggling?

It depends on how they’re struggling. Sometimes the caseload is too much for younger residents. Head and neck cases can take two or more hours to develop our portion of a treatment plan, and it can take two to three times as long for new residents. That can be overwhelming. When that happens, I’ll take the more mundane cases and let the resident choose the cases that are the most educational for them.

Sometimes residents are overwhelmed with the emotional nature of our cases, especially younger patients with end-of-life issues. Many cases are curative; some are not. I give the residents an outlet for discussing the cases and their feelings.

Other times, residents struggle with the technical aspect of a procedure. We are fortunate to have an excellent educational infrastructure such as in the cadaveric lab.

I ask residents several times during a rotation how they’re doing. Our residents have usually been academic superstars and often don’t want to admit if they have difficulty with something.

I try to make sure residents are getting enough sleep at night. I remember a three-month period during my residency when I had little sleep. I wasn’t a better physician as a result. It left me emotionally drained and not necessarily dealing with patient concerns as patiently as I should have.

Who are your teaching role models?

My parents modeled high expectations without being abusive or pushy. They made learning fun, and they rewarded me with positive feedback. I try to similarly model with residents. I point out the positive.

I also had a mentor in medical school and a mentor in residency I model myself after for compassionate care. These were academic giants who were humble and down to earth. They were unpretentious about being physicians and told us to call them by their first names.

I believe the education environment shouldn’t be me teaching you but, rather, a joint journey with me and the resident. I may know a little more than they do, but I acknowledge they are bright and have good ideas.

How does it feel to receive a Teacher of the Year award?

It’s a humbling honor to know residents value my contributions. There are many fantastic teachers in our department. I put in a lot of efforts, but others do, too. I feel more inspired now to go out and do what I’ve been doing because I know it’s making an impact.

I read through the names in radiation oncology in the Teacher Hall of Fame and noticed some of them have received the award five or six times. That reminds me there’s always more I can do and that my learning should never stop.


Trainee comments

  • “Dr. Ma is an outstanding physician, researcher and educator. Without fail, he makes time for residents. He is eager and has a zest for his work and mentorship.”
  • “Dr. Ma always attends and actively participates in our morning conferences. He takes opportunities to teach wherever he is.”
  • “He is patient, incredibly kind and compassionate. He has our best interests at heart and is a great advocate for and mentor to residents and fellows. He goes out of his way to help others. We are so lucky to have Dr. Ma here.”

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