The brain medicine

Vital Signs » Summer 2011
Photo of Sophia Apple, M.D.

Alumna Sophia Apple’s (’92) love of investigation led to directorship of breast pathology at UCLA Medical Center

Sophia Apple, M.D., contracted polio when she was just two years old and living in her homeland of Korea.

The time of her illness holds no memory for Apple, but a slight limp reminds her every day that it actually happened. Still, Apple doesn’t regret the effects left from the disease and is, in fact, rather thankful for them.

She was driven to become a doctor because of her disability and dreamed of one day becoming a rehabilitation physician to help those much like herself. But in the second year of medical school she was introduced to the subject of pathology, and everything changed. She was instantly drawn to this particular practice of medicine because it fulfilled her insatiable desire to learn.

“To me, pathology is the brain of medicine,” Apple said. “I have a deep interest in investigative knowledge, and (in pathology) I learn new things every single day.”

Apple’s fate would be unveiled even further when in 1992 she was accepted into the anatomical and clinical pathology residency program at UCLA. The second year of her residency was an enlightening time. It was then that she had the privilege of seeing the work of renowned breast cancer surgeon Susan Love, M.D.

“The way she was treating patients was just dynamic, and she was very charismatic,” Apple recalls.

It wasn’t only Love’s work inside the surgical suites that left Apple speechless; it also was the scene in the waiting room. Apple recalls walking through the waiting room and seeing it filled to capacity with women holding their mammography slides in hopes of getting a meeting with Love. It was in those moments that Apple knew she wanted to devote her life’s work to women’s health, particularly breast pathology.

Apple spent some of her residency examining specimens removed by Love and was challenged and inspired by her work.

“I thought it would be exciting to work with someone like (Love) as a pathologist,” she said. “She was kind to pathologists and sometimes demanding, but often it is necessary to be demanding to serve the patient better.”

In 2002, Apple’s aspirations became reality when she became the director of breast pathology at UCLA Medical Center. Now she’s the one challenging students while studying cases sent to her from around the world. She even recently co-authored her first book on breast pathology and had the joy of seeing it hit the market.

Hard work and drive played a major part in placing Apple in her esteemed position, but she is continually humbled at the work she is enabled to do.

Embracing opportunity

Apple came to the United States at the age of 13 after being born in Korea and living a few years in Japan. She grew up in New York City and instantly fell in love with her new home. She received her bachelor's and master's degrees from New York University before coming to Wright State.

“I define myself as an American more than anything because of the opportunities this country has provided me,” she said. “If I would have stayed in Korea, I would never have become a physician.”

Her ability to rise in education would not only have been limited because of her sex, but also because of her disability. Many of the facilities in her homeland do not accommodate those with disabilities, creating a barrier to someone like herself to reach higher education.

“In the United States, it didn’t matter who you are and what problems you have,” she said. “I wasn’t defined by the condition I am in, but the dreams that I have.”

Apple is extremely thankful for the education she received at Wright State and is very proud that she was able to attend the school. Wright State provided an opportunity for her to receive a top-notch education at a price that didn’t burden her with debt upon graduation.

“I came to the UCLA residency program thinking UCLA may have taken me by mistake. Everyone in the program was Harvard, Stanford, and Ivy League graduates, and I was the only one who came from Ohio,” Apple recalls. “But I soon realized that Wright State trained me equally well to equip me to handle the pathology program. In fact, I was the only one who was accepted as a faculty at UCLA from my class.”

Working toward a cure

Apple starts each day around 8 a.m. actively teaching residents while they pour over cases together and meticulously examine each patient’s specimen. The pathology that she teaches to her students is so much different from when she first entered the field.

When Apple first graduated, she would provide a one-line diagnosis from her findings. Patients and their physicians would simply be told if it was cancerous or non-cancerous, for instance. Today, her work adheres to much more rigid guidelines, so if a specimen is found to be cancerous, she now has to follow another 12-step process to diagnose it in further detail.

The result is a more comprehensive report that provides better patient care, Apple said. The ability to give such detailed information means the difference between a woman being able to keep most of her breast tissue or losing it to surgery.

Apple hopes to promote more comprehensive patient care by teaching students and physicians in a book she recently co-authored with three other individuals. The book, which focuses on breast imaging, talks about the importance of correlating radiologists’ findings with pathology. It is the first book of its kind to address both radiology and pathology together.

“Most of the time, the radiologist looks at a film and what they are looking at is a shadow of a lesion, whereas we look at the actual tissue,” Apple said. “It is critical that we work together to make sure that what they saw is what we are seeing as well.”

It is an exciting time for Apple to be in her field. Most women can live a long time after being diagnosed with breast cancer compared to just 20 years ago. Apple would love to see more funding devoted to breast cancer research, in which she plays a significant role. Meanwhile, she continues to devote most of her time and energy to the field with the confidence that she will live to see a cure for the disease.

“I am an idealistic person,” she said. “But I still have hope.” VS

Last edited on 03/08/2016.