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December 2, 2022 • 8 min read
By Jessica Bronchick
When visiting the Department of Surgery’s faculty directory each year, you may notice that several faces are familiar, seen previously on various “Current Resident” lists across the surgical residency or fellowship websites.
One of these faces is that of Dr. Kevin Southerland, Assistant Professor of Surgery in the Division of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery. What led Dr. Southerland and some of his peers to make the transition from Duke trainee to Duke faculty, and why?
Dr. Kevin Southerland knew early on that he wanted to go into surgery as a profession. He always loved science and was pulled towards the applicable nature of studying medicine.
“I loved seeing the pathology, interacting with it in my hands, and I felt the best way to interact with pathology and intervene was to pursue a career in surgery,” says Dr. Southerland.
While in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, he completed a summer fellowship that allowed him to learn more about the ways that clinical practice and research can complement each other in one program.
“I fell in love with the notion of being able to treat disease, observe the problems, and then have that drive an investigative discovery and see it at work in the operating room,” Dr. Southerland says.
After that point, he was sold on academic surgery.
The best place to pursue such a career, Dr. Southerland believed, was Duke. To the average person, a six-year residency for general surgery may seem extensive when compared to other training programs. The Duke General Surgery Residency Program is unique in this regard; residents complete at least two years of dedicated research, allowing them to immerse themselves in research and continue their development as surgeon–scientists.
Dr. Southerland, who completed his undergraduate degree at Duke before venturing north for medical school, made his way back to Durham for his surgical training for precisely that reason.
Duke’s focus on academic surgery and on training clinician investigators to answer complex medical questions is a mission affirmed by the leadership and throughout all levels of the department.
“There’s a great infrastructure here for training academic surgeons and for mentorship,” says Dr. Southerland.
This infrastructure fostered a culture where students gain the skills to become good teachers. A practical example of this model is the Sabiston Teaching Scholar Program, in which general surgery residents serve as mentors for medical students, conduct lectures, and offer training in surgical skills.
Dawn Coleman, MD, FACS, the new Chief of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery, joined the Department of Surgery in October 2022 excited to work with talented surgeon–scientists like Dr. Southerland. She emphasizes how important it is for these individuals to be provided the necessary resources to develop their skills and careers.
“They are able to flourish under the continuous operational and mentorship support that Duke provides,” Dr. Coleman says.
It was during his general surgery residency that Dr. Southerland found an interest in and passion for specializing in vascular surgery.
“With vascular surgery, there is such diversity in the procedures you could do, since you operate everywhere in the body and it requires a vast skill set,” Dr. Southerland says. “And, I really enjoy taking care of the patients. Patients with vascular diseases are pretty resilient and they’re overall kind of globally underserved, so that drove me to a career in vascular surgery.”
The General Surgery Residency Program is built around the concept of mentorship: faculty mentor the residents, and senior residents mentor junior residents. Dr. Southerland recognized this early on and found mentors himself in the likes of cardiothoracic surgeon Carmelo Milano, MD, Professor of Surgery, and cardiologist Christopher Kontos, MD, Professor of Medicine, among others.
“While I was a research resident, I spent a lot of time working with Dr. Milano, and that’s where I really got a vision for translational research,” says Dr. Southerland, whose own laboratory now studies peripheral artery disease (PAD) with a focus on understanding skeletal muscle regeneration in the ischemic limb.
Dr. Southerland also worked in the Kontos lab for two years. “He’s a cardiologist and the director of the Medical Scientist Training Program (MD/PhD),” Dr. Southerland says, “so he was probably the most responsible for teaching me molecular biology techniques, scientific communication, and all of those key skills to be an investigator.”
In 2018, Dr. Southerland completed his training and joined the faculty of the Department of Surgery. The reason why, he says, is simple.
“I honestly just felt that Duke was the best place to launch a career as a surgeon–scientist,” Dr. Southerland states.
There is a universal investment in developing physician–scientists from the University, the School of Medicine, and the Department of Surgery. Near the end of his training at Duke, the School of Medicine launched the Office of Physician Scientist Development (OPSD) to support clinician–investigators across all disciplines. This, along with the fact that Duke has a centralized campus structure made up of different academic disciplines, additionally factored into Dr. Southerland’s desire to continue his career at Duke.
“Everything is mostly here on the same campus,” he says. “The hospital is right here and then in five minutes you could be at the School of Engineering, or I can be in my basic science lab, or in pharmacology or cell biology or genomics.”
This physical organization of the campus itself fosters collaboration and innovation, and for Dr. Southerland, the opportunity to do impactful, team science.
“The co-localization of all of these scientific disciplines makes it really easy to collaborate with other scientists,” he emphasizes. “A growing trend in research is team science, and a lot of grants that are being funded now are big, collaborative, and interdisciplinary.”
Dr. Coleman recognized this collaborative environment early into her appointment at Duke, which began after a decade at the University of Michigan.
“One thing I noticed here is that everybody is really, fiercely loyal and accountable to Duke and to each other,” Dr. Coleman says. “That’s a very powerful and cohesive bond.”
Teamwork and collaboration extend to other areas of the department outside of the laboratory. There is a level of camaraderie that develops when surgeons train together in residency or fellowship, and that camaraderie only strengthens when co-residents then become co-teachers.
Dr. Southerland trained with several other now-faculty in the Department of Surgery. Some of these include Drs. Georgia Beasley (Surgical Oncology), Michael Lidsky (Surgical Oncology), Andrew Barbas (Abdominal Transplant Surgery), Nicholas Andersen (Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery), and David Brown (Plastic, Maxillofacial, and Oral Surgery).
This espirit de corps that develops from years of training and working together means that Dr. Southerland and his peers can go to each other for professional guidance, feedback on a grant proposal, and insights from their own varying areas of expertise.
“It’s great to be able to lean on people and their own toolbox, their own skill set,” says Dr. Southerland. “It’s helpful because they’re all going through the same thing of learning how to build their clinical practices and at the same time building a research program.”
Since joining the faculty at Duke, Dr. Southerland has been learning what it means to be a teacher and mentor himself. Being a good educator very often comes from having good educators. Those skills that he learned from his own mentors are evident to anyone who knows Dr. Southerland, who has become a skilled and successful academic surgeon in his own right.
Dr. Coleman notes that having skilled faculty who completed their training at the same institution is beneficial not just for the surgeon, but for any future surgeons looking to Duke for their own training and careers.
“I think about the opportunities that Dr. Southerland will offer our trainees not just as a clinical mentor but as an academic mentor,” Dr. Coleman explains. “I’m positive that part of his success is attributed to him training here and staying here and having the accelerant of a team that’s really supportive of him.”
Dr. Southerland aims to make sure that residents are getting as much operative experience working on high volume and complex vascular cases as possible, an aspect from his own time as a trainee that he hopes to replicate for the new class.
“I think the most important thing when you’re in training is developing your own skill set that you can then apply as a faculty member,” says. Dr. Southerland. “Most people that train with me clinically are not going to be vascular surgeons, but I try to give them the toolbox that they can apply to any field.”
Literal and figurative tools aside, Dr. Southerland also makes it a priority to help develop residents’ professional skills. When conducting research and practicing medicine, being able to communicate the processes and results, be it with patients or fellow clinicians, is critical to the mission.
“You have to be an effective communicator, and that’s just as important as the research that you’re doing,” Dr. Southerland notes.
Having gone through the experience and processes himself, to Dr. Southerland, the most rewarding part of teaching is seeing his mentees become successful as independent surgeons and clinicians.
“It’s really rewarding to see residents and fellows be able to do a lot of things independently and be confident in their decision-making,” he says, “and to see them use the little nuggets that you may have dropped along the way to them becoming fully formed surgeons.”
Overall, though, his main goals as a teacher and mentor are two-fold.
The first comes from an understanding that every individual’s pathway towards becoming a surgeon is different.
“Some people are going to be in health science research, some are going to be basic scientists, some are going to be innovators and developing new technologies, and some might become educators,” Dr. Southerland explains. “My main goal is to give people tangible skills to help them get where they want to be.”
The second, Dr. Southerland shares, is to train clinically competent and gifted surgeons. “Then they can use the skills we teach them for the benefit of humanity and mankind.”
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