Kisha Piggott, MD, PhD, is originally from Trinidad and Tobago. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Spelman College in 2003. She then completed both her MD and PhD at Emory University School of Medicine, where she studied mechanisms underlying regulation of giant cell arteritis (GCA) in the lab of Cornelia Weyand, MD, PhD. She completed residency in ophthalmology here at Washington University School of Medicine, and additionally served a year as chief resident. This was followed by a fellowship in vitreoretinal disease and surgery also at Washington University. She is now an assistant professor here in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, where she pursues research in management and treatment of uveal melanoma, serves as co-program director of the ophthalmology residency program, and has a thriving clinical and surgical retina practice.
Nicole Varnado: How did you choose your specialty?
Keisha Piggott: My PhD was in immunology and I studied a chimera model for giant cell arteritis. When I went back to the wards after my PhD, I had to do two electives. One of them was anesthesia, which I actually thought I was going to like, but did not love because the patients were asleep for most of the time. My roommate, ( who had long since graduated medical school), had recommended that I try ophthalmology which I did and loved it. I think it was because of the hybrid of the clinical and the surgical aspects. There’s so much diversity in practice in ophthalmology, the idea of seeing patients in clinic and then being able to also surgically treat their pathology was very appealing. I enjoy being able to talk to patients, and to follow them continually in clinic. Also, I love the procedural aspect, and so, just the time that I spent on that rotation was kind of eye opening. I have always been a pretty flexible person, and tend to take life as it comes, do what I enjoy, do what I’m passionate about. So I kind of fell into ophthalmology in that sense, luckily, because, as you know, most people don’t get great exposure to it in medical school. And at the end of the day, because my thesis project involved a model used to study an eye disease, it just worked out perfectly in terms of aligning my clinical interests at the time with the research interests that I had already pursued.
Varnado: What brings you joy in your career?
Piggott: I think, for me, it’s really the blend, which makes every workday unique for me. That’s one of the reasons I chose to pursue retina and ocular oncology as subspecialties. Not only can I address the surgical needs of my patients, but I have the chance to do lasers and injections in the clinic to treat other aspects of their ocular issues. Every day of my clinical/surgical week looks different and I enjoy the variety and the ability to switch up my practice daily. That keeps it fresh for me. In retina, there is that continuity, the macular degeneration patients, diabetic patients, those patients are with you for years. It brings me joy to help to make an impact on those patients through counseling at their visits, while stressing the importance of the management of their systemic disease for managing their eye disease. For me, it’s important to be able to continue to educate patients. Providing care to a patient pool that includes an underserved population is important to me and in retina, I have the opportunity to do that.
Varnado: Did you always want to be in leadership?
Piggott: Definitely not. It’s funny, because the chief year is kind of how it all began. Going through residency, my goal was to work hard and take care of patients. That’s basically the behavior I tried to model starting my first year of residency. And I think, again, just my personality, which I think is a combination of “laid back-meets assertive”, led to recognition by some of the seniors and faculty. I met with the chair of our department at the time and we discussed my goals which have always been centered around education. He shared insight into how those goals might align with doing the chief year. Leadership is not necessarily something you are signing up or volunteering for. It comes back to mentorship, working hard, taking care of patients. And people see that, they recognize that. That’s the story of how I agreed to do the chief year, very similar to the reason I agreed to be the associate residency program director. When I sat down and really thought about my career goals, my professional goals, what I’m passionate about, that’s education. How could I not take this opportunity to sign up for investing in a program that invested so much in me? Arsham Sheybani, MD, (the program director) and I both trained here, we had an amazing experience here. And the program director was a large part of that. What better platform to be able to give a voice to the residents, to also allow them to shape the program as it continues to evolve? So for me, it came down to giving back to the place that has given me so much.
Varnado: Are there opportunities you had had to say “no” to?
Piggott: Not yet. I think you’ll learn that early on it’s a little tricky to say “no” to things. Especially at this stage, as a junior faculty member, I say “yes” to most things. I think, at the beginning, saying “no” is probably not something that should come easily to you. Most people in academics, have all been down that path. The majority have been open and willing to try new things. And so I believe that’s how I got to this point. I think having a “yes” mentality goes much further than saying “no.” There comes a point in your career where you have to learn to say “no” but I’m nowhere close to that yet.
Varnado: Do you believe in work-life balance?
Piggott: My family does not live in St. Louis but I’ve made a lot of close friends here and spend a lot of time with them and their kids. That’s one of the nice things about ophthalmology, because it’s so small, it gives you that close-knit family unit feeling. Outside of that, I enjoy doing Zumba. In our primarily outpatient specialty, having that weekend space of not formally having to be at work is important. Ophthalmology really lends itself to a healthy work-life balance.
Varnado: What’s your favorite thing about St Louis?
Piggott: It’s easy living, for example the traffic is much more reasonable than in Atlanta where I lived for 12 years before moving here. I’ve actually also been pleasantly surprised by the food scene here. I love a good hole in the wall spot with incredible food, and have discovered a lot of very good Asian food restaurants. I appreciate that there are so many cultural options here, too. Growing up in Trinidad, my mother made sure to expose my brothers and I to a wide variety of cultural experiences, I grew up loving that. So coming here and discovering places like the Fox Theatre for example was just another perk of St. Louis.
Varnado: You alluded to growing up in Trinidad& Tobago being different.
Piggott: Mostly because from an ethnic and racial background, the majority of the population is black and Indian. I grew up as part of a majority. It’s interesting because I went to a historically black college in the US, attending Spelman College. It was a little bit of an adjustment coming from Trinidad where race had not necessarily been a central focus growing up. So in Trinidad, there was never a limitation or perceived limitation for me. I grew up with people that looked like me in the midst of a culture that we describe as a melting pot. We celebrated everyone’s culture, in a country where everybody’s religion and culture is celebrated. Being surrounded by a diverse group of people allowed me to focus soley on what I wanted to do and to then figure out what the steps were to achieving my goals.
Varnado: Is there any advice that you would have given your younger self knowing what you know now?
Piggott: So, I think I’ve tried to follow this advice … just do what you love. But also stay open, stay open to the opportunities as they present themselves. There’s a fine balance.
Nicole Varnado MD PhD is a third-year ophthalmology resident with an interest in glaucoma.