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Eve Tsai

CHRISTOPHER PIKE/©Globe & Mail©Christopher Pike

Eve Tsai wants to fix the spinal cord. "And I want to do it tomorrow," she says definitively. "After I fix the spinal cord, I want to fix a brain."

She appears to be well on her way, although perhaps not as quickly as she would like.

Dr. Tsai was recruited by The Ottawa Hospital three years ago to spearhead research into spinal cord injuries. But besides being in the research lab, she is also in the operating room as a staff neurosurgeon as well as seeing patients in the emergency room, clinics and on hospital rounds. On top of all that, she is in the classroom as an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.

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Dr. Tsai says she first became interested in nerve, brain and spinal cord injury, and regenerative research in high school when she had the opportunity to work in a chemistry lab with "an excellent mentor."

But she says she was also moved by the tragic consequences of spinal injuries, which usually strike young people. She remembers one patient in particular.

"He was a kid. He spent the whole summer working on a car with his father and he got into an accident with the car. His father saw him flip the car. Right now, when I see him in emergency, the only thing I can do is stabilize his spine. So I operate and I fix the spine . . . but what I want to do is fix the spinal cord."

Dr. Tsai gained early admittance to medical school at the University of Toronto in 1991 at age 19 and after only two years of undergraduate work and without having to complete a degree. She began her residency in 1995 during which she also received a PhD from the Institute of Medical Science in 2004. She also completed a one-year spine fellowship at the University of Cleveland in 2005-06.

"In neurosurgery you really change things," she says. "I remember as a resident having some students with me and we saw this patient who was literally dying and in a deep coma. But because of our neurosurgical intervention, when the students saw him the next morning, he was nearly back to normal. The students were so amazed. In neurosurgery you can really make a huge difference in patients' lives. And that's extremely satisfying."

Dr. Tsai says she and her siblings - her sister the anesthesiologist and her brother the ear, nose and throat specialist - were encouraged from an early age "to do something important."

"My father came from Taiwan and my mother came from China with a suitcase and that was about it. They kept saying education is key to everything so the message was work hard and study hard."

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Dr. Tsai says now she is particularly proud of establishing research relationships with high-school students.

"You've got potential and you've got bright minds. My hope is that you can encourage them to be the researchers of the future so that they can take the problems we can't fix now. The reason I am where I am now is because I had a good experience in high school with a mentor."

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