While most pathologists assist in the diagnosis and treatment of living patients, Sophia Rodriguez strives to unravel the mysteries of the dead.
The third-year pathology resident has rotated through various clinical and anatomic pathology specialties during her training at Montefiore Medical Center – she is currently on cytology rotation - but none has matched the excitement she feels when performing an autopsy or investigating a cold case.
“I love the detective work involved with forensic pathology and that no two cases are the same,” said Dr. Rodriguez, 29, who first dreamed of becoming a Medical Examiner in junior high. “It’s like playing a board game where you ask certain questions and narrow down the possibilities.”
In 2014, the Yonkers native will learn the ins and outs of death investigations. After completing her final year of residency, Dr. Rodriguez will head to Albequerque, New Mexico to pursue a forensic pathology fellowship in the state’s Office of the Medical Investigator.
The prestigious and competitive year-long program - it accepts only four fellows per year - is located on the campus of the University of New Mexico, School of Medicine, and offers budding coroners a fertile training ground.
That’s because the ME office oversees all statewide cases - about 5,000 investigations and 2,000 autopsies per year - including deaths caused by violence, suicide, homicide, and natural causes, as well as infectious diseases, such as hantavirus and tuberculosis, that are rampant in New Mexico.
“It’s best to be in a big city where there's a good mix of cases," Dr. Rodriguez said.
She has a special interest in forensic anthropology, and especially looks forward to accompanying an expert to collect skeletal remains at crime scenes and help determine the cause of death.
“Few fellowships provide that opportunity,” Dr. Rodriguez said, noting that she will also train in toxicology, forensic odontology, state and local crime labs, and have the chance to testify in court and get hands on training in forensic ballistics at a shooting range.
For the active young doctor, the road to becoming a medical examiner has been long - and as focused as a scalpel’s edge.
Dr. Sophia Rodriguez during surgical pathology rotation “Because I have been so obsessed with forensics and knew what I was going to do at an early age, I essentially only did what was necessary to becoming an ME with no deviation from the path,” she explained.
As a young girl, she was a tomboy who loved sports, play fighting, and watching horror movies. She first dreamed of being a cop.
As the daughter of El Salvadorian immigrants who fled their country in 1979 during the civil war, she had few friends or family living nearby and lived vicariously through characters on television.
But rather than being pulled into fictional crime dramas, such as CSI, Dr. Rodriguez was drawn to the real-life stories on shows such as Unsolved Mysteries, COPs, and HBO's America Undercover documentary series, starring forensic pathologist, Dr. Michael Baden.
She recalled being especially moved by a documentary during which a forensic facial reconstructionist solved a cold case by giving a face to a skull that could not be identified.
“It made me wonder how someone got so much information from a body and find justice for them even after death,” she said. “I felt like these were real life super heroes and when I was old enough to realize I was capable of being one of these superheroes, there was no question what I wanted to do.”
In ninth grade Dr. Rodriguez enrolled in Gorton High school, a magnet school in Yonkers that offered a medical program. By eleventh grade she was taking college courses and went on to graduate magna cum laude from Manhattan College, in the Bronx.
During college, Sophia applied for the Summer Undergraduate Mentorship Program (SUMP) at Einstein, which is sponsored by The Hispanic Center of Excellence.
“I was really interested in knowing if I could make it through med school - another four years of everything but forensics - and if there was some way of having a mentor that dealt with autopsies or worked at the Medical Examiner’s office,” she explained.
She was matched with Dr. Rose Guilbe, an internist at Montefiore, whom she describes as a great mentor and a brilliant Hispanic woman. But safety issues involved in bringing a “minor” to a morgue stonewalled her chance to find out forensic pathology was really her calling.
“The only thing that pushed me to go forward was my complete obsession with everything forensics. This experience gave me the confidence that although my personality was not that of someone you envision as a doctor, I could definitely do it,” she said, and was accepted to Einstein.
Still, forensics remained foremost on her mind in medical school. In fourth year she took an elective at Manhattan Medical Examiner’s office.
She said, “From that month on there has never been a doubt in my mind that forensics would be my life.”
After graduating from medical school, the next step to being a great medical examiner was getting through a pathology residency, during which she has spent many hours at the Bronx Medical Examiner’s office, located on the Einstein campus.
In her final year, Dr. Rodriguez will devote six weeks exclusively to study forensic pathology research. She is also hoping to publish a paper and present at one of the two major conferences in 2014-2015.
Dr. Rodriguez has presented her work at the Annual Meeting of American Association of Neuropathologist (2011) in Seattle, WA. She has also won several awards, among them the Irving Ratner prize for excellence in pathology, ASCP award for Academic Excellence and Achievement, and the Hispanic center of Excellence Future Leader in Medicine Award.
In an effort to help other young New Yorkers find their path, she gives annual tours to SUMP students and advises their parents about what to expect if their child decides to go into medicine, based on her own experience of “being from a Hispanic family with really no means to pay for my medical education,” she said.
An athlete with an active imagination and a love for nature, Dr. Rodriguez plays as hard as she works. Her free time is often spent kayaking, camping, and mountain biking in upstate New York. She also does inline skating, occasionally skateboards, and is attempting to get her pilot license. And if that’s not enough, she also studies Krav Maga, the official tactical self-defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces.
But being a forensic pathologist takes more than athletic prowess and drive. Over the years she’s had to develop coping mechanisms - which some view as being insensitive - that help to relieve the burden of what she carries around in her head.
Chief resident Jeffrey Arnold, MD, disputes the misconception that it takes an odd person to do the work that some may consider morbid and unpleasant. “If random hugs were an indicator of how well you are liked by staff I would say she is very well liked, indeed.”
In fact, he said Sophia’s interest in Forensics stems from her strong morals and her desire to help families get justice through the legal system. “I believe she actually went to medical school with the intention of becoming a forensic pathologist, which shows her drive and commitment to achieving her goals.”
And Dr. Rodriguez said her passion outweighs her fear. “I have a sense of responsibility for these people and their families, plus a relentless interest in forensics that is luckily stronger than my most negative emotions.”