Dr. Berry is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology at the University of Southern California Roski Eye Institute and the Associate Director of Ocular Oncology at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
1. Please share with us your background.
I am originally from Oshkosh, Wisconsin (yes, of Oshkosh B’Gosh), and an obligate Cheesehead. I attended Harvard College and studied biochemistry with a minor in Spanish. I’ve known for as long as I can remember that I wanted to be a physician. I loved the idea of caring for patients and treating disease. No one in my family was a doctor—in fact, I was the first in my family to attend college, but it is almost as if medicine chose me.
I was lucky to be accepted to Harvard Medical School. This experience reinforced my love of managing disease, and I found a passion for the surgical subspecialties and for using my hands to cure. It is an amazing skill. After medical school, I moved to New York City for a transitional internship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), followed by an ophthalmology residency and ocular oncology fellowship at the University of Southern California (USC) and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA).
2. What drew you to ophthalmology and, specifically, to your field of interest?
My first draw to ophthalmology came through international service missions. I initially had an interest in public health and mechanisms for providing broad-scale care to those in need. I spent a summer in Africa studying short-term medical missions, which happened to be cataract missions. The first day, I was enthralled with the surgery, but on postoperative day 1—when the bandages were removed and people started clapping, dancing, and singing—I was sold on ophthalmology.
I intended to spend my career focused on public health and on saving vision, until my internship at MSKCC, where I worked with David Abramson, MD, and saw my first case of retinoblastoma. I could not believe what these tumors did to the eyes of children and how increasingly complex their management was. I knew after that rotation that I wanted to pursue ocular oncology, and I set out to make that dream come true by convincing USC to train me in ocular oncology after my residency.
3. Please describe your current position.
I am currently the Associate Director of Ocular Oncology at USC and CHLA, with a focus on adult and pediatric ocular oncology. I treat retinoblastoma and melanoma in addition to ocular surface tumors, lymphoma, and some eyelid tumors. I spent my first 4 years on faculty serving as the Associate Program Director for the LAC+USC ophthalmology residency, with a huge focus on resident and medical school education.
My life recently changed, however, as I was awarded a K08 from the National Cancer Institute to study the aqueous humor as a liquid biopsy for retinoblastoma (because direct tumor biopsy is a no-no). It has been so exciting to embark on the track of a physician scientist, and I now spend 75% of my time on research and 25% of my time clinically on ocular oncology.
4. Who are your mentors?
I have many mentors whom I am grateful for, especially A. Linn Murphree, MD, who created the retinoblastoma program at CHLA from scratch. I was Dr. Murphree’s last clinical fellow, and he taught me so much about the clinical management of retinoblastoma and even more about the personal touch that is so needed for these young patients.
5. What has been the most memorable experience of your career thus far?
There have been so many! The first few eyes that I had a hand in saving from retinoblastoma sure felt good, but I think the most rewarding experience so far has been the initial success of my aqueous humor research. When I first had the idea, I was told many times that it was impossible—the volume was too small, the tumor was forming in an entirely different compartment, the technology was not good enough. So, when we first found tumor DNA in the aqueous that matched DNA from the tumor itself, I was absolutely floored (and pretty excited, too!).
6. What are some new technological advances that you have found particularly exciting? Which advances in the pipeline are you most enthusiastic or curious about?
The field of ocular oncology is always changing, as we are continually trying to find better local techniques for therapy and ways to spare more vision and still treat the tumor. I am excited for my patients with uveal melanoma, specifically because of the vision-sparing therapeutics opening for clinical trials. If we can be effective in managing that cancer without causing so much devastating vision loss, that will be a huge win for our field.
7. What is the focus of some of your research?
I write on clinical outcomes for many ocular tumors, but my main focus is the liquid biopsy for retinoblastoma.
8. What is a typical day in your life? What keeps you busy, fulfilled, and passionate?
Hands down, you must love what you do. Being a doctor can be busy, stressful, and challenging, but if you have a true passion it will be a guiding light on your path. For me, that passion is treating my patients. It is an honor to be a clinician and surgeon, and nothing feels better than curing a patient of cancer. It will always be the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. I also encourage pursuing a passion outside of medicine to keep you balanced. For me, that is blogging as ModaMD (on Instagram @_moda_md) on all things in and out of the white coat—fashion, food, travel, and art. It keeps me grounded, it’s a creative outlet, and it’s fun.
9. What advice can you offer to individuals who are just now choosing their career paths after finishing residency or fellowship?
Know yourself well! Do not go into a field simply because it is more lucrative or offers a better lifestyle, or because it’s what you think you should do. Figure out what makes you tick, what you love, and what fuels you, and follow that. If you’re doing something you absolutely love to do, neither the hours nor the pay will matter as much as your personal career fulfillment.
10. Tell us about an innovative procedure you are performing or a new imaging/diagnostic tool that has improved your practice.
I am very hopeful my research on the aqueous will be just that in the next 5 years. A close second has been the use of handheld OCT in the management of patients with retinoblastoma. It is amazing the tiny tumors and small scar recurrences you can find with OCT. Given that the tumor doubling time in retinoblastoma is about 2 weeks, finding a small tumor and treating it immediately is hugely influential to the patient’s long-term outcome.