by Bahar Golbon
Graphic design by Sherry An
Surgery is a unique medical field where science meets art. It is an area suited for trailblazers and those who can stomach a challenge. Dr. Jesse Pasternak is one such individual working as an Endocrine Surgeon at the University Health Network and as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Toronto. His clinical specialty is surgical intervention for patients with endocrine gland tumors.
Endocrine surgery meshes the complexity of the endocrine system with the precision and innovation of oncologic surgery. Dr. Pasternak primarily operates on the thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal glands, focusing on minimally invasive and targeted therapy. Surgical treatment of endocrine disease has evolved substantially over the past couple of years, hence evidence-based results are necessary to appropriately guide diagnosis and treatment regimens. Currently, Dr. Pasternak’s research focuses on optimizing health outcomes for patients with endocrine disease by improving treatment guidelines. He develops innovative approaches to remove tumors; some surgical innovations include performing scarless thyroid surgery and using special dyes and light frequency to visualize essential blood networks in the neck during surgery. Additionally, he uses large datasets describing demographic, preoperative, surgical, and postoperative data to understand trends. He describes, “We have a high-volume specialized practice, so with adequate collaborations we are able to generate large sets of past patient data to answer clinical questions.” He continues, “Being a clinician-scientist allows you to ask impactful questions. You’re using your clinical knowledge and experience to generate those questions and from there, using your scientific knowledge to answer them sufficiently.” Dr. Pasternak collaborates with national and international colleagues in the clinical research and teaching spheres. His work is a true testament to the importance of collaboration and its necessity in gathering a holistic understanding of endocrine disease in varying geographic regions, ethnicities, and cultures. “The Institute of Medical Sciences (IMS) provides a large network of local, international students, and clinical researchers to fuel academic partnerships. It brings people that have an academic research interest into the clinical world to bridge the gap.” As a newer member of the IMS, Dr. Pasternak is thrilled to join this renowned faculty.
Dr. Pasternak entered the medical field with the goal to specialize in endocrinology due to personal family experiences with chronic endocrine disease. However, after becoming involved in surgery during a medical elective, he discovered his fascination with the field. “The ability to work with my hands and combine medical knowledge to cure disease instantaneously was amazing”, Dr. Pasternak recounts. During his journey, he was mentored by Canadian leaders in endocrine surgery, including Drs. Adrienne Melk, Lorne Rotstein and Janice Pasieka who have made impactful contributions in this field. He has also been trained by endocrine surgery pioneers at University of California San Francisco. His work there involved understanding the fine meticulous operations and the complex medical feedback mechanisms, critical to treating patients in the field of surgical endocrinology. Dr. Pasternak has also completed his graduate studies at Harvard University in clinical epidemiology and biostatistics.
Aside from his clinical work, Dr. Pasternak spends much of his time within his research program. He was first interested in research as a high-school student working in a genetics lab at SickKids hospital. During his undergraduate career at McGill University, he realized that it was difficult to highlight early career researchers in established peer-reviewed journals. This inspired him to co-found the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal with his fellow students. The journal published its first issue in 2005 and continues to be a success to this day, highlighting dozens of undergraduate researchers.
Today, Dr. Pasternak mentors multiple graduate students who have come to work with him from universities across the world. He remarked that his “proudest academic accomplishment was when he awarded his first student a PhD.” That student is now an academic surgeon, teaching and mentoring their own students. “This is the idea behind academic surgery, you may help one person in an operating room theater, but you help many by teaching someone how to perform that operation,” this seems to be his motto on surgical education. Within the world of research, he believes this idea applies even more dramatically. “If you can provide students with an approach to ask and answer questions, the potential for discovery to help save and improve patients’ lives is endless.”
Dr. Pasternak is a dedicated researcher who volunteers much of his time to the professional development of his trainees. To conclude, he shares a curious aspect to his story: “I did not have a clear vision of my career early on. I wanted to be an innovator and make an impact in the field, so I think putting those ideas together are what carried me through to the place that I am today and hopefully will continue to guide me as I move through my career.”