Alumni Spotlight: Bonnie N. Joe, MD, PhD

Bonnie N. Joe, MD, PhD, (Class of ’02) is a professor in residence and chief of breast imaging in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). The connections she forged during her residency at Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology remain strong and have brought her back to campus not only to teach — but to learn as well.
What attracted you to radiology?

As I was considering specialties while at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, I had an opportunity to do research making volumetric measures of brain tumors with Carolyn Meltzer, a neuroradiologist on faculty. She was a great role model who introduced me to the specialty. I decided then that radiology was for me; it seemed to encapsulate my desire to combine technology and patient care.

Why did you choose Mallinckrodt for your training?

I wanted to do research and be in academics. When first visiting, I was struck by the Mallinckrodt “tower” being in the center of the hospital. It visually makes the point of how important radiology is to the medical center and embodies our specialty’s central role; radiologists are often the first physicians to make the diagnosis which then drives appropriate next steps in care. 

Which faculty at Mallinckrodt made the greatest impression upon you?

That’s the beauty of training at MIR; I was able to learn from the likes of Stuart Sagel and Lou Gilula. Watching Barry Siegel systematically analyze what looked like random dots on film to uncover a patient’s story was always impressive. Dennis Balfe never said “no” to add-on study requests. The unspoken emphasis on patient care modeled by so many of the MIR faculty has definitely become a part of my own practice and what I try to teach. Ty Bae taught me to embrace new ideas and explore; under his guidance, I received an RSNA Research Fellow Grant to study breast MR in cancer patients during my MR fellowship year. During that year, Vamsi Narra taught me how to scan and troubleshoot MR images — a skill set I still use today. Bob McKinstry was always available for practical advice.

“Cooky” Menias and Sanjeev Bhalla helped me survive residency. Although not one of the faculty, Shelly Meese imparted a great pearl of wisdom that I have since imparted to others. During a period of extreme maternal guilt about leaving my child in day care for long hours, Shelly (a fellow working mom) simply reassured me that “a happy mom is a good mom!”

What are your major areas of research?  

Most of my current research relates to working on ways to better detect breast cancer early and to reduce false positive biopsies. We also have a well-established program evaluating tumor response to therapies with MR. A new area we’re working on is molecular breast imaging. The concept of being able to image specific receptor targets with PET is exciting. 

Tell us about your current position.

I’ve been chief of our breast imaging service since 2008. I’m proud of transitioning our group off film to digital mammography and ramping up our breast MRI program. Most of my clinical days are spent on breast imaging work: reading mammograms, performing biopsies and diagnostic imaging. On research days I try to preserve time to focus on my own research, but I also spend time mentoring faculty and trainees and doing administrative work to keep our clinical services running smoothly. 

I work with a great group of dedicated and shared breast-imaging faculty. I really like that our practice group is multidisciplinary; we have frequent interactions with surgery, oncology and other clinical colleagues. Everyone understands the importance of translational research and integrating that into our clinical enterprise. 

It’s also critically important to spend “face-time” with patients. Everyone in our clinical section is behind this; we’re not a group to hide in a dark room reading images. We’re happy to be front and center with our patients so they know a radiologist is caring for them.

How did your Mallinckrodt ties serve you well as you took on a leadership role? 

When my chair asked me to take responsibility for our breast imaging services, it was a time of transition. I needed to learn and gain some perspective on how to revamp the practice at UCSF. I visited Mallinckrodt for a week to see how an excellent clinical practice was run. Barbara Monsees, a recognized national leader in the field and chief of MIR’s breast imaging section at the time, was highly supportive. I learned about equipment and room layout and most importantly, workflow. I am so grateful for her generosity and continued mentorship.   

You returned to Mallinckrodt a year ago?  

Kate Appleton, current chief of breast imaging, invited me for grand rounds. I did a talk on screening from a historical perspective — how we have decades of experience showing the beneficial effects of early breast cancer detection to save lives. I felt extremely welcomed and loved meeting the residents and fellows. It was very nostalgic to return to the same auditorium where I’d spent so many days as a resident listening to faculty speak. 

What are your interests beyond radiology? 

These days, life revolves around the kids’ activities. My daughter, 16, plays the oboe and loves ballet and contemporary dance. My son, 12, is a French horn player and enjoys swimming. When I accepted the position at UCSF, it was driven by the desire to be near extended family in the Bay Area who have been a great support network as we juggle the challenges of a two-physician family. While in St. Louis my husband and I were avid ballroom dancers —something we both hope to be able to revisit one day.