Dr. Despina Sanoudou, professor and leader in the field of pharmacogenomics, delivered a faculty seminar during the third stage of the Aspire Leaders Program. Sanoudou is a professor at the Medical School of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and head of the Clinical Genomics and Pharmacogenomics Unit at the 4th Department of Internal Medicine.
Sanoudou’s research focuses on pharmacogenomics – a specific form of precision medicine. Aiming to tailor medical treatment to an individual or a specific group of people, pharmacogenomics looks at how someone’s DNA affects the way they respond to drugs. Her research focuses on deciphering pathogenetic mechanisms in cardiovascular disease.
In addition to her professorship, Sanoudou is a collaborating faculty at the Biomedical Research Foundation of the Academy of Athens, a non-profit dedicated to understanding, treating, and preventing human ailments through biomedical research.
Sanoudou’s work brought her to Boston nearly 20 years ago as a postdoctoral fellow and instructor at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. One of the earliest scientists to screen an entire genome, she shared her experience and excitement with the Aspire Leaders Program participants.
“It was an honor and a challenge to help create this methodology and really play a part in the beginning of genomics,” Sanoudou said. “I want to share my journey with the students, and especially all the challenges along the way.”
Over the course of her career and upon her return to Greece, Sanoudou trained deeper in cardiology, continuing to search for better therapeutics inside the cells and at the DNA level. Her lab focused on what mutations cause a disease and if any of these are genetic.
Instinctively drawn to curious minds, Sanoudou works with Aspire for the same reason that she decided to go into academic medicine — she loves to teach.
Although her childhood in Greece included many opportunities, her father instilled the importance of hard work and understanding that life is not all roses.
Her father was an orphan who lived through a national war, major poverty, a volcano eruption, and an earthquake where he witnessed his brother die in their childhood bedroom. During his childhood, his cousins and him used to share clothing, books, and school supplies. However, he successfully made it to university and medical school. After becoming a heart surgeon in the U.S., he returned to Greece and brought cardiac surgery to the country.
Sanoudou continues to support others who may lack guidance or resources. She is the Founder of the Scientific Outreach Program for High School Students at the Biomedical Research Foundation at the University of Athens, which has hosted over 6,000 students from majority public and some private schools across Greece, exposing them to STEAM and helping them hone their interests. Dr. Sanoudou considers her work with youth, both in this program and through Aspire, to be the most meaningful contribution to her life – apart from her family.
“I have had students that tell me attending a course changed their dreams and convinced them to pursue what they really wanted to,” Sanoudou said. “When they tell me they are doing something they love, and it’s also something that I love, I am really moved.”
Sanoudou immerses young minds in everything that science has to offer — all while bringing together youth from different socioeconomic statuses to learn together.
Sanoudou enjoys sharing wisdom about all the things she was not privy to at her age. Recognizing the hesitation many first-generation college students feel in embarking on journeys that appear impossible or too ambitious, she aims to change that mindset.
“I wanted to convey to these students that they have nothing to lose, especially at this early stage in their career,” she said. “This is the perfect time to learn what works, what doesn’t and what else is out there to explore.”
When asked what advice she had for this cohort and young adults paving their professional path, Sanoudou kept it simple.
“Aim where your heart is, and just keep going,” she said.