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Neurosurgeon, Division of Neurosurgery, The Ottawa Hospital; Assistant Professor, Division of Neurosurgery, University of Ottawa; Associate Scientist, Neuroscience, Ottawa Hospital Research Institute

By: Erica Scime

Each day that Dr. Eve C. Tsai goes to work, whether as a neurosurgeon or a researcher at The Ottawa Hospital or as a mentor to students at the University of Ottawa, she is one step closer to finding a cure for spinal cord injuries.

Dr. Tsai was born in Saskatoon but spent the majority of her school years in Edmonton. It was here, when Dr. Tsai was in high school, that she first became interested in nerve, brain and spinal cord injury. Being a bright and motivated student, Dr. Tsai had won a scholarship to work in an organic chemistry lab during the summer. Here she learned a great deal about nerve, brain and spinal cord injury and even met the mentor that inspired her to pursue the work she does today.

Then, in 1991, when Dr. Tsai was just 19 years old, she was accepted into the medical school at the University of Toronto – without even having a degree. Four years later Dr. Tsai began her residency at the University of Toronto and received her PhD from the Institute of Medical Science in 2004. She then moved to Ohio for one year to complete a fellowship in spine surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. In 2006, Dr. Tsai moved back to Canada to join The Ottawa Hospital, leading their research of spinal cord injury. In the five years that Dr. Tsai has worked at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, she and her team have made leaps and bounds in the field of spinal cord injury.

One such advancement was an MRI imaging technique that Dr. Tsai and her team developed. The technique allows surgeons to use an MRI scan to view a patient’s spinal cord nerve fibre tracts so that they can tell which ones are healthy and which ones are unhealthy. This has not only allowed surgeons to study and learn about the spinal cord injuries that they deal with but may also provide a sort of “road map” to developing new therapies.

Thanks to Dr. Tsai, The Ottawa Hospital is the first in the world to use this MRI imaging technique clinically and many patients from outside Canada are now referred to The Ottawa Hospital to receive this treatment.

Taking her research one step further, Dr. Tsai has also begun a research group at The Ottawa Hospital that focuses on stem cells and tissue engineering in hopes of finding a way to repair the spinal cord after injury. Already, the group has developed different types of tubes that can help to stabilize the damaged areas of the spinal cord and can help it to regenerate. So far, the lab results have been promising and Dr. Tsai hopes to soon be able to use the tubes on patients. Dr. Tsai says that part of what inspires her in her work is how close she and her team have come to finding a cure for spinal cord injury. Not to mention the fact that what they have learned about spinal cord repair can also be applied to brain injuries and strokes, widening the impact of her research for many patients.

Along with her research, Dr. Tsai is also a neurosurgeon at The Ottawa Hospital where she removes spinal tumours and treats spinal cord injuries. Working as a surgeon, Dr. Tsai says, is a constant reminder of why she does the work that she does. Many of the patients that Dr. Tsai treats are young people who were in car accidents or were injured playing sports. Many of these patients are paralyzed. Being able to repair a patient’s spinal cord, she says, would be like giving a patient his or her life back. It is the prospect of one day being able to do this that drives Dr. Tsai in her work.

As if surgery and research were not enough, she also works with high school students and university students at the University of Ottawa. Dr. Tsai recalls how much of an impact her mentor had on her as a high school student and so she dedicates her time to being a mentor for young students who wish to take further the work that she performs today.

Given her position as a surgeon, a researcher and a role model, Dr. Tsai has already received a over 50 humanitarian, research and teaching awards including Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 and the Young Clinician Investigator Award from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

It is no surprise that Dr. Tsai says she often feels that she is doing two or three things at once – she has sat on 33 boards, and is currently the president elect of Women in Neurosurgery (WINS). She has also supervised and mentored over 51 students and employees in academic, health care and research careers. Her strong work ethic makes for long, busy days. But for Dr. Tsai, the hours that she puts in are more than worth it when she sees the end results. Dr. Tsai’s dedication to her work in spinal cord injury not only has the potential to touch the lives of many patients, but it is also an inspiration to her mentees who will advance her work.

Dr. Tsai’s influence clearly extends beyond the hospital and into the social media sphere to secure her place on the cover of Women of Influence Magazine’s inaugural Top 25 Women of Influence™ issue. Readers were asked to vote for which of the Top 25 women they wanted to see on the cover, and Dr. Tsai won by a landslide. She also pays credit to the Cleveland Clinic and Women in Neurosurgery, as well as the University of Ottawa, The Ottawa Hospital and the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute for this feat. And with a track record like hers – and a future shining brightly ahead – we are sure this will not be the last time Dr. Eve Tsai graces the newsstands.