“I initially thought I would pursue a Ph.D. and do research in a lab,” Poli explains, but a more hands-on career path beckoned.
That path became even clearer during her third year of medical school, while she was assiting an attending physician in the Hematology/Oncology Department at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “It really opened my eyes to see how well he dealt with the pain and suffering of his patients, and how well he connected with their families,” she recalls.
From that point onward, she set her sights on surgical oncology. “That’s when I realized I wanted to be the doctor who was there to help people who are going through the hardest of times,” she explains.
As demanding as medical school can be, Poli has always been willing to expand her horizons beyond the classroom. During her first two years, she conducted free glaucoma screenings throughout the city with Student Sight Savers and taught students the importance of eating well through Mission Nutrition.
This past year, she took an entire year off to participate in a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Medical Fellowship, which allowed her to continue her studies into the roles that genes play in breast and ovarian cancer.
She began her research into the field during her first year at Pritzker, and pursued the fellowship so she could complete her work. “Being a fellow wasn’t a requirement,” Poli says. “I decided to use my year as a fellow to complete research projects that I could be proud of once I finished medical school.”
Capping a busy spring, she presented the results of her research — “Regulation of micro-RNA 29c in different subtypes of breast cancer” and “The expression of the BRCA1 pseudogene in ovarian cancer” — at the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., a joint meeting of the American Society for Clinical Investigators and the Association of American Physicians in Chicago, and the Howard Hughes Medical Fellows meeting in Chevy Chase, Md. “What’s so exciting about this field is there are so many passionate people working on cures,” she enthuses.
As everyone knows, a medical education isn’t for the faint of heart. After graduating in 2014, Poli will pursue seven years of surgical residency as well as a three-year oncology fellowship before she’s ready to enter the operating room unattended.
One way she manages her high-stress is by running. While she takes time off to recharge her batteries before beginning fourth-year rotations in July, she will be gearing up to participate in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
Another source of spiritual sustenance for Poli is her loving and supportive Italian-American family. A 2005 recipient of a merit-based scholarship from the Women’s Division of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, Poli is extremely close to her family and heritage, and hopes to launch her professional career in Chicago, wherever her residency and fellowship might take her. “I’m so grateful for everything they have given me,” she says.
Elizabeth Poli is a truly a remarkable woman, and definitely someone her fellow and future medical students can look up to. She is destined to be an outstanding surgical oncologist one day, and the journey that brings her to that place will no doubt be equally inspiring.