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Sofia Merajver: In pursuit of medicine and science

From Buenos Aires to Ann Arbor, reasoning skills foretell a career in medicine

Sofia Merajver

Growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sofia Merajver always knew she wanted to be a doctor and scientist.

 

Many children play at being doctors, but Sofia Merajver actually diagnosed her first patient at the age of five.

On a visit to her beloved Uncle Julio’s home, she found relatives gathered outside his room discussing his medical condition with doctors. Julio was struggling to breathe and close to death. Merajver was an early reader fascinated with the human body.

Having just finished reading an illustrated high school textbook about the respiratory system, she asked her uncle, “Does it hurt when you breathe in or when you breathe out? Does it hurt more at the beginning or the end?” From his responses, she knew that the problem was in his diaphragm. She interrupted the adults’ conversation to share her diagnosis.

The doctors were surprised, but when they operated, they found a diaphragmatic abscess, the accumulation of pus in the cavity behind the diaphragm. “I was so excited,” she says. “I thought I would have similar successes all the time.”

And she has. Today, Merajver is professor of medical oncology at the U-M Medical School, director of the Breast and Ovarian Cancer Risk and Evaluation Program, and scientific director and founder of the Breast Oncology Program at the U-M Cancer Center.

“In research, I use the same reasoning that I used as a child: Always try to find the truth and try to understand things in depth,” she says.

Sofia Merajver, age 5

Sofia Merajver, age 5

Life in Buenos Aires

Merajver grew up in a tight-knit family in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She describes her father as a medical school dropout who became a lawyer but was a writer at heart. In her family’s small apartment, her parents hosted the most prominent intellectuals of the time, including the writers Carlos Mastronardi, Julio Cortazar and Bernardo Verbitsky. She became a bookworm.

Her teachers noticed her hunger for learning and gave her additional homework.

“I enlisted everyone’s help in furthering my education,” she says. “I encountered tremendous mentorship. If you want to be a scientist, it doesn’t get better than that.”

Merajver studied mathematics and physics at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, but the civil unrest that characterized mid-1970s Argentina proved to be too much.

A life of science, a transition to medicine

If she was to become a scientist, she knew she would have to leave the country for a place where classes weren’t suspended every other day and where you didn’t fear that violence could break out at any moment.

Merajver obtained a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Maryland and did a fellowship at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

“I wanted to work at the intersection of physical science, biology and medicine. I was very happy with my science but I didn’t think I would see an application to patients, to human beings, in my lifetime unless I pursued a medical career as well.”

She spent the next 12 years studying medicine and training in internal medicine and oncology at U-M.

Sofia Merajver, MD, PhD

Sofia Marajver, MD, PhD

A great time to be a scientist

Research has changed a lot since Merajver first started thinking about becoming a scientist. Scientists used to work in the silos of their own disciplines. Now they can work in multidisciplinary teams to solve complex issues. She believes her education in physics, math and medicine has proven helpful in navigating and leading such teams.

And today Marajver focuses on translational medicine—translating scientific findings into treatments—in the area of the molecular genetics of breast cancer.

Earlier this year, the multidisciplinary group she’s working with announced it developed an engineering device to study highly mobile cells to determine how cancer spreads.

“A primary tumor is not what kills patients. Metastases are what kill patients. Understanding which cells are likely to metastasize or spread can help us direct more targeted therapies to patients,” Merajver says.

To help complete their work, Merajver is counting on something she learned as a 5-year-old.

“Reasoning,” she says. “It all goes back to sitting at my uncle’s bedside and using reasoning to figure out how to save his life.”

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Cancer-center-informal-vertical-sig-150x150The University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s 1,000 doctors, nurses, care givers and researchers are united by one thought: to deliver the highest quality, compassionate care while working to conquer cancer through innovation and collaboration. The center is among the top-ranked national cancer programs, and #1 in Michigan according to U.S. News & World Report. Our multidisciplinary clinics offer one-stop access to teams of specialists for personalized treatment plans, part of the ideal patient care experience. Patients also benefit through access to promising new cancer therapies.