Farewell to Sophia Otto

31 August 2023

As Dr Sophia Otto, our Clinical Service Director, is preparing to step away from her microscope one last time, we are celebrating her career, achievements and contributions to medicine and SA Pathology.

We all know Sophia as an Anatomical Pathologist, but her journey to pathology was not a direct one. The daughter of Greek migrants, Sophia excelled at school, becoming the first Underdale High School student to be accepted into Medicine at the University of Adelaide. After training and surgical residency, Sophia developed a remarkable career as a General Practitioner.

Not content with building her own practice in Walkerville, and then North Adelaide, and raising three children, she and a colleague established Australia’s first formal surgical assisting service. The Surgical Assistant Service employed medical practitioners who worked closely with surgeons as a skilled second pair of hands during surgical procedures of all types.

Sophia was also a passionate voice for autistic children, motivated by a daughter with autism and an intellectual disability, leading the Angels for Autism, a successful advocacy and fundraising group composed of the family members and friends of individuals with autism, and served as a board member of the Autism Association of South Australia, now Autism SA. 

She also served as President of the Greek Medical Association and of the Northern Suburbs Medical Practitioners’ Association, and fundraised as a member of the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Committee and as a Friend of the State Theatre Company of South Australia.

After recognising that she was no longer challenged by her work, Sophia closed her General Practice in 2001 but spent several months relocating her patients and their medical files to other local general practices. Given her surgical experience and noting that she had enjoyed post-mortem work and histology as an undergraduate medical student, she approached Forensic Science SA which offered her an observership appointment. To her surprise, she found that while she enjoyed performing post-mortems, her true passion lay in finding answers under the microscope. She applied for and was accepted to the IMVS (now SA Pathology) Anatomical Pathology training program when she was in her forties, and upon completion of the 5 year training program became one of the oldest Fellowship graduates of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia.

Sophia was appointed as a consultant Anatomical Pathologist in 2008 of the IMVS which soon afterwards became SA Pathology, and then served as Head of Department of Anatomical Pathology at the RAH, with oversight of the Frome Road, WCH and LMH Anatomical Pathology services.

During this time, she served as the SA/NT State Councillor of the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (RCPA) for 6 years, and was a Member of the Board of the RCPA for 4 years.

In April 2022 she accepted the role of Clinical Service Director. This appointment, whilst incredibly rewarding, has necessitated significantly reducing her clinical practice and therefore her ‘microscope time’, which Sophia does miss.

Sophia is the first to say that she is not a researcher. This is difficult to comprehend given her record. Sophia has been an author on 24 papers over her career as a pathologist, and has been acknowledged in many more, a measure of the research studies that have required her knowledge and expertise. She has also acted as a supervisor for several Higher Degree by Research students, something she finds hard to refuse, and supported the research of registrars, helping them to take the lead and “get their name on the paper”.

Sophia sees her major impact on SA Pathology’s research portfolio in the encouragement and leadership that she provides. She can see merit in almost all research, but particularly rates research that has clinical merit and the key objective of “serving the patient”.

Sophia is equally passionate about the translation of research findings into clinical practice. She recognised early the need for the translation of research into Anatomical Pathology practices – “there is a need for Anatomical Pathology to remain modern and pertinent, and for developments to be informed by research.”

Her approach to creating a research active workforce in Anatomical Pathology was two-pronged. For research to flourish, Sophia believed it is important to create a supportive work environment. She followed the lead of her predecessor in the Head of Unit of Anatomical Pathology (RAH) role and created communities of practice by aligning the anatomical pathologist workforce into discipline groups, with clinical leads and deputies. The advantages of this approach included forming a critical mass of knowledge and expertise that resulted in more pathologists engaging in research and increasing knowledge of research within the clinical groupings.

Equally important was the formation of better relationships between the research and clinical communities. She encouraged clinician involvement in research, recognising the critical perspective they provided in understanding problems and developing solutions.

The organisation has benefitted greatly from her appointment as Clinical Service Director, and she has brought with it her passion for developing research in pathology. She sees it as important to support research at SA Pathology (“a powerhouse of research”) and to use the knowledge, tools, specimens, data and experience in the organisation to improve patient care. She wants the organisation to exert leadership in this area and be known as more than a repository of data.

Sophia became Clinical Service Director as the world was emerging from the emergency created by the pandemic and as SA Pathology was emerging from the critical role it played in the South Australian response to COVID-19. Sophia has responded to the challenges that the new role has brought and focused her effort on ensuring SA Pathology is a clinical leader in pathology into the future.

Sophia undoubtedly leaves SA Pathology in a better place because of her passion, leadership and focus on better outcomes for patients. She will be greatly missed.  On behalf of all the SA Pathology staff we wish Sophia the very best in her future endeavours and thank her for her contribution to our organisation.  Thank you, Sophia.

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