Dialog Box

Skin Health Institute

Spotlight On: Mohs Senior Scientist Sonya Odhavji

Mohs' surgery is a highly technical, micro-surgical technique used to treat skin cancers. Mohs' surgery is the most exact and precise method of tumour removal, which offers the highest potential for complete removal of the cancer while sparing the surrounding healthy tissue. Learn more about Mohs surgery

How and why did you get into science?

I always wanted to be a pharmacist and follow my father’s footsteps. Unfortunately, I just missed the cut off score in HSC and received my second offer, which was Medical Lab Science. I had no idea what this was, it just sounded good, so I wrote it as my second choice.  In hindsight, I ended up choosing the perfect career path for me as I’ve always like the empirical method and logical thinking associated with science and the scientific method.


And how did you find Mohs specifically?

I worked in a laboratory hospital scientist role 8 years after graduating. Then I worked in quality assurance at the Royal College of Pathologist Australasia Quality Assurance Program (RCPAQAP) for 7 years where I did the technical and diagnostic proficiency testing of anatomical pathology. This exposed me to many facets of histology.

Having a vast background in laboratory medicine, anatomical pathology and quality assurance management in a hospital environment, I realised Mohs was an area of histology that needed more guidelines/protocols - accreditation in these labs is not yet essential. I helped to develop the Mohs technical proficiency module during my time at RCPAQAP. I focused on standardising lab Mohs procedures and processes to optimise outcomes of quality and accuracy, as well as a fast turnaround time of Mohs diagnosis.

RCPAQAP was relocating to Sydney, so I decided to take a redundancy package as I didn’t want to be a commuting mother. I was then offered a job at the Skin Health Institute, as they knew of my work with the Mohs technical proficiency module. I’ve worked in Mohs surgery ever since.

What does your role of Mohs Scientist involve?

A Mohs Scientist is an integral part of the Mohs procedure. I work closely with the Mohs Surgeon to ensure a timely and precise set of sections is available to the surgeon for diagnosis.

My role involves the evaluation, as well as appropriate tissue handling and histological processing, of Mohs samples.  I develop routine histological and immunological protocols to ensure precise and timely preparation of sets of cryotomy sections within the Mohs guidelines and offer specialist advice. I also participate in the training of medical scientists and train specialist medical staff in Mohs histological procedures.

What do you enjoy about being a Mohs scientist?

Being a Mohs Senior Scientist allows you to work directly with the surgeon in a fast-paced work environment to give immediate results to skin cancer patients, with best cosmetic results. The goal of Mohs surgery is to remove all the cancer while doing minimal damage to the surrounding normal healthy tissue. Being a female, I know the importance of removing the entire skin cancer and having minimal scars for a woman’s self-esteem and confidence. To be able to contribute and provide a satisfactory outcome is rewarding for me.

What have been your proudest moments in your scientific career?

Establishing my own Mohs consulting business, SP Mohs Path Services, which specialises in the design and set up of Mohs laboratories in Australia and overseas. My services include all aspects of Mohs lab implementation including design, instrumentation, Mohs protocols, consumables, quality documentation, recruiting and training Mohs Scientists.

With an ageing population, rising skin cancer rates and growing concerns in the healthcare system, I’ve have found more Mohs Dermatologists wanting to incorporate a Mohs laboratory into their practice. These laboratories I set up are small yet highly functional and allow for patients to be diagnosed and treated within the same practice.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?

The biggest obstacle I faced was juggling my responsibilities as a mother and trying to advance in my career as a professional. Having 2 gorgeous daughters, balancing being a great mum and a dedicated scientist, and climbing the ladder in my career was hard. I would start work early at 6.30am to ensure I would be there at school pickup for my children. 

From my observations, most of the senior scientists (Grade 3 and 4) are predominately male. This is because most private and public hospital employers were reluctant to employ senior scientists on a part time basis. I found it exhausting trying to prove I was just as career driven as they were.

In your opinion, what changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science?

In science, women are still underrepresented in senior and leadership positions. We need to promoting STEM subjects in schools from a young age.

Partnering with university’s societies to inform and show opportunities available for women wanting to pursue a career in Science should also be explored. It is important to break the stereotype of a scientist being portrayed as the old white man wearing a lab coat holding a beaker, though this is now slowly getting better.

More leniency should also be given for those seeking career progression whilst still working part time, and more gender equality should be promoted on an executive level to provide role models for women seeking career advancement.

Who are your scientific heroes? 

I definitely look up to the late Hedy Lamarr as a great hero and role model. She had a double identity that is so inspiring – during the day she was on movie sets all day with the biggest stars, actors such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart. And at night, she went home to invent in her home laboratory. She pioneered the technology that is the basis for today’s WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems.

She was a pioneer in her day. She excelled in multiple fields and showed me that you can be smart and glamorous at the same time.

What would you say to other women who are contemplating a career in science?

The most important trait needed by all women in all careers is the desire and will to pursue and excel within it.

Times are changing; there are now more women in senior and leadership roles. I don’t deny that combining a career and family isn’t easy, compromises must be made by both men and women in a relationship.

In science, we are now embracing strong, intelligent and competent men and women equally.

I worked part time and was still able to create my own niche, achieve a great career being a Senior Mohs scientist and establish my own Mohs pathology consulting business. I believe I lead by example and I’ve shown my daughters and work colleagues that girls can do anything boys can do.

Any woman can pursue their dreams, as I have and so can you.

19 August 2020
Category: News
Tags: mohs surgery, science, scientist,