Dr. Sarah Soden is a neurodevelopmental pediatrician and the director of the Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, MO. The center, founded in 2011, integrates clinical diagnostics with research programs featuring rapid whole genome sequencing, monogenic disease discovery, infant oncology, single-cell sequencing, and disorders of expression. Dr. Sarah Soden’s clinical practice involves the diagnosis and treatment of developmental disorders including intellectual disability and autism. Dr. Sarah Soden also directs a Genomic Medicine Master Class for pediatric subspecialists that uses self-sequencing and analysis to teach foundational principles of genomics.
How did you end up at the Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine at Children’s Mercy? What was your career path? How did you land your role? What was the hiring process like?
My time at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City began with my pediatric residency. I attended medical school at the University of Missouri-Columbia. My original plan was to leave the Midwest because I’d been here my entire life. I was focused on other parts of the country for my residency, but then I decided to interview at Children’s Mercy (mostly to see some friends in town) and I fell in love with it. I loved it so much, in fact, that I stayed on to do a year as chief resident and then to complete a fellowship in neurodevelopmental disabilities. After residency, I worked for several years as a developmental pediatrician, caring for children with developmental disabilities.
During my training and early years as a clinician, I could never have imagined the path my career would take. Who would have thought I would end up in a Genome Center? I’m not a geneticist, but a desire to learn and the support of my institution has given me the opportunity to diversify and rise through the organization.
What are your responsibilities as director of the Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine at Children’s Mercy?
I lead a team that uses genomic testing to uncover elusive diagnoses, saving time and money, and changing treatment for infants and children. Our team runs the fastest clinical whole genome analysis in the world, named one of TIME ’s Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs in 2012. We also are studying the cause of a diverse array of diseases like infant leukemia, childhood kidney disease, developmental bone disorders and Tourette syndrome.
What has been your proudest moment from your career so far?
My proudest moments are when families can finally receive an answer to the question: “What is the reason for my child’s symptoms.” It’s sometimes the end to a diagnostic odyssey. It can be a turning point in terms of how the family views the condition of their child and how they’re able to communicate what’s going on to teachers, neighbors, and family members. It’s oftentimes just a relief for them to be able to say, “It’s this condition. It’s this syndrome,” and they don’t have to worry and wonder and think. It just closes that chapter of trying to find the answer.
What are the most important characteristics someone needs to have to be successful in your role?
Humility and the ability to accept support are critical to success. I’m surrounded by working moms who support one another. On days when I feel like I’m failing, my co-worker mom friends are there to tell me it is okay. On the days when we knock it out of the park, we’re all cheering for each other. Almost all of the directors of the Genome Center are women, which is rare and creates a unique, supportive environment. The women who lead this team are very intellectually generous with one another. They’re willing to teach. We respect one another, we respect the patients we’re trying to help, and we respect good science that makes a difference for kids.
What is on your desk right now?
On my desk is a photo from my last medical mission trip to Haiti. It’s a picture of me and my colleague and friend, Dr. Jennifer Lowry, and we each have a young girl on our back. Jennifer and I were on the beach one day and there were two young girls running toward us. They kept saying “blanc, blanc,” because of our white skin. As they were looking curiously at our pale skin, we realized it was the middle of the school day, and they should be in school. The church rectory where we were staying was on the same street these little girls live on, and the person who runs the rectory told us the girls’ mother was not able to afford to send them to school. We decided to donate enough money each year to buy their uniforms and books and pay their tuition. I’m looking forward to returning next year for another medical clinic and to see how the girls are doing.
What is your favorite thing about working at the Center for Pediatric Genomic Medicine at Children’s Mercy?
One of my favorite things about working here is solving mysteries. When I was involved in clinical and research work, I didn’t appreciate how beautiful it is to have an answer. In my early years as a developmental pediatrician, a lack of answers was the case more often than not. Now, just the experience of being in clinic and being able to say, “Yes, we do have an answer,” is rewarding. However, it’s also critically important for that answer to be right. That need for accuracy drives all of us to operate at a high level of excellence. The work we’re doing here is just scratching the surface and I’m excited to discover more.
What is a day as Dr. Sarah Soden like? Please walk us through a day.
There is no such thing as a typical day, and that suits my personality pretty well. Some days I see patients in the clinic. Most of my patients are children with disabilities that I’ve followed for years. Other days involve meetings and work on scientific or clinical projects with the genome center team. This year I’ve spent a lot of time writing – mostly research proposals. Grant funding is very competitive these days, so proposals take a lot of time and effort.
What’s your number #1 tip for 20-something doctors?
Many of the patients I cared for as a trainee and young doctor had a tremendous influence on me. Some were 20 years ago, but I remember them like it was yesterday. I gave myself permission and time to get to know them, even when I was extremely busy. It was invaluable because it shaped my sense of what a doctor’s role should be. I learned that being truly present with a patient is the best gift you can give to them and to yourself.
What is your advice for someone who hopes to work at a hospital?
Develop good self-care habits first. Hospital work is rewarding but also can be quite taxing. When stress and fatigue creep in, you want to have ways to cope.
What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?
I wish I’d learned better time management skills. It’s been 20 years since I graduated from medical school and I’m still trying to figure that one out!
What are your three favorite books? What are you reading right now?
I think my favorite author is Barbara Kingsolver – I especially loved The Poisonwood Bible. The Help is another favorite. When I was young I just loved A Wrinkle in Time. Right now I’m reading The Woman in the Photo which is about a flood in the 1880’s and the woman who started the Red Cross.
What is your morning routine?
It’s mostly about getting my boys in gear and off to their schools. Now that they are teenagers, they are hard to wake up, but once they get moving they are more independent than they used to be. I have a goal of meditating in the mornings, but I have to admit that it only happens occasionally.
What is your career advice for other young professional women?
Don’t be too proud to ask for help. Many women who are high achievers are used to being able to accomplish whatever they set their minds to. Over time, we get the idea that we can and should accomplish our goals independently. This can be especially difficult for professionals who are also young mothers. Also, be aware of your value at work. Women tend to be helpers, which means we often put the needs of others ahead of ourselves. Sometimes your needs, goals, and accomplishments should take center stage.
Image via of Sarah Soden.