With several patent applications to his name, Suh is especially interested in applying minimally invasive techniques to endocrine surgery.
You came here from South Korea when you were 3. Do you have any memories of your early life in Seoul?
It was pretty humble beginnings. Korea was still rebuilding as a country after the war, and our families were all affected by its aftermath. My parents weren't poverty-stricken, but they certainly weren't wealthy, so we were living in a really small place, near family who could help take care of me. Despite this, I do have very fond memories of my early life with so much family around me.
As a child, you played the piano. Do you see any connection between the skills you need for piano and those required for surgery?
I do. I actually wrote my personal statement for residency about the parallels between playing the piano and performing surgery, and I still believe in that connection today. I feel that much of the discipline and patience that I associate with my surgical career could be traced to my training on the piano.
I've always found it fun to use my hands — not just for the piano, but generally doing things that involve a lot of intricate hand skill and dexterity. And, obviously, there are parallels with needing to practice a ton in order to be good at what you do.
Were you a tinkerer and inventor from an early age?
Yes, but my serious tinkering came later in life, when I became a surgeon. A lot of the problems in the hospital are things begging to be fixed with simple solutions.
Health-care systems and hospitals tend to be slow-moving behemoths. Being able to see simple technical problems and ideate solutions for them became a compelling need for me.
How did the Biodesign program affect your approach to innovation?
If you allow yourself to think of problems and solutions outside of the usual academic thought patterns and walls, and allow yourself to think a little more "entrepreneurially," a whole new avenue of solutions can open up and the right answer just may be among them.
One of the best examples comes from a famous surgeon/inventor named Thomas Fogarty. He developed a catheter to remove clots in the bloodstream several decades ago. It was a minimally invasive device that he developed in his garage using off-the-shelf materials, and at the time was considered heresy by the surgical community.
That catheter has since helped millions of patients. It didn't involve heavy "science," at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Ultimately it just required some engineering know-how; a little grease on the fingers; and most importantly a freer way of thinking about solutions.
As for me, the main output from the program was a startup company that stemmed from a clinical problem I had encountered a few too many times during residency, namely surgical site infections. Many of them are preventable, but current prevention methods just aren’t effective.
That need spurred my colleagues and me to invent a device used in the operating room that can reduce the incidence of these infections. It is currently in clinical trials and hopefully will be used more widely with patients soon.
What drew you to endocrine surgery and, in particular, thyroid surgery?
Endocrine surgery requires fine degrees of movement and steady technique because we're operating in small areas on very delicate structures. I really enjoy performing on this scale in the operating room.
The second thing is endocrine surgery requires that you understand the complex hormonal regulation system in the body. And it is associated with close collaborations with several other specialties, in particular medical endocrinology colleagues.
That really appealed to me — I value multidisciplinary collaboration and didn't want to practice my little branch of medicine in a silo.
What's the most rewarding part of work for you?
Well, first, I really, really enjoy taking care of surgical patients.
Just below that would be the incredible spirit of collaboration and mutual learning in all of my interactions and relationships here at UCSF. I have so many partners within the university who help me accomplish my research and device innovation goals, and I really enjoy helping others do the same.