New Professor for clinical dermatology at Vetsuisse Bern

Elisa Maina started her new position at Vetsuisse Bern in February 2024. In this interview, we talked about her previous positions, what she finds fascinating, challenges, her goals and more

Elisa Maina (Foto: Rüegsegger)

Elisa, please tell me some about your professional career.  

I grew up in Bergamo, Italy.  

After studying Veterinary Medicine. I graduated from the University of Milan (Italy) in 2008. Following graduation, I worked as a general practitioner until 2010. In the same year, I undertook an externship in dermatology at the University of Florida, Gainesville. 

Later, I completed a dermatology residency program under the guidance of Dr. Chiara Noli and Dr. Silvia Colombo, obtaining a European College of Veterinary Dermatology (ECVD) diploma in 2015. In 2012, I was awarded a prestigious grant (BOF) for a four-year PhD program in immunology at Ghent University, that I finished in 2018.  

This grant was a new topic, namely the pathogenesis of food allergies in dogs, in that research group, but my supervisor encouraged me to write it, and it was amazing to receive this prestigious grant for the time of my PhD. Besides pathogenesis of food allergies in dogs, my research during the PhD was also dedicated to treatment, and I successfully developed a sublingual vaccination for dogs with food allergy.  

Are there allergy tests in pets and what are the most common causes for allergy?  

At the moment, there are still no tests for a reliable diagnosis of food allergy in our animals. Many research groups are working on it, and I feel we are close, but it still requires some patience. Food allergy is not as common, although there is a lot of media and commercial attention; it remains an overdiagnosed condition. Currently, atopic dermatitis not caused by food – referring to allergy to environmental allergens – and flea bite hypersensitivity are more common in dogs and cats respectively. 

After the PhD, did you also work towards obtaining another specialization degree? 

Yes indeed. In 2018, I obtained a postgraduate specialty degree with honors in Small Animal Pathology and Clinic. This achievement was made possible after completing a three-year specialized program aimed at enhancing theoretical, scientific, and professional knowledge in the fields of pathophysiology, functional and instrumental diagnostics, clinical practice, and therapy of individual organ systems. 

What have you pursued after these qualifications? 

I'm committed to delivering advanced diagnostic and therapeutic care for pets with skin and ear conditions at a Swiss referral clinic. I maintain a keen interest in allergic diseases, alongside exploring new advancements such as interventional dermatology, laser- and cryo-therapy, and dermatosurgery. My passion for research led me to apply for the position of Professor of Dermatology and Head of the Dermatology Service at the University's Small Animal Hospital Vetsuisse in Bern. My published work focuses on companion animal dermatology in reputable national and international journals. I actively engage in knowledge exchange through speaking engagements at national and international events, and currently serve on the scientific organization committee for the congresses of the European Society of Veterinary Dermatology (ESVD/ECVD) and as a Past Chair of the credential committee for the ECVD College. 

Why did you want to specialize in dermatology?  

I've always been fascinated by the field of dermatology. It presents a myriad of puzzles to solve, each visible to the naked eye, making diagnosis both engaging and tangible. Dermatological conditions, frequently chronic, extend beyond the individual, impacting their families and reducing their quality of life. This highlights the crucial role dermatologists play in not only restoring health but also enhancing the well-being of both patients and their loved ones. 

Clinical dermatology offers a unique blend of reward and challenge. It is incredibly fulfilling, yet it also demands constant problem-solving and adaptability. 

What's particularly appealing about dermatology is its compatibility with family life. With fewer emergencies compared to some medical specialties, it allows for a more balanced lifestyle. Furthermore, it's a specialty where one can begin practice without the need for extensive, high-cost equipment, making it accessible and feasible for those starting out in their careers. 

It appears that clinical dermatology is not that easy as many practitioners finally do not succeed?   

Dermatology may appear to be an accessible field, as many general practitioners practice it. However, what often escapes notice is the complexity of dermatological diseases. While the skin presents a narrow range of lesions, the broad spectrum of diseases means that many lesions are common to different conditions, further complicated by their chronic nature. This complexity makes a methodical approach crucial. Such an approach demands not only a deep understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the skin but also a detailed comprehension of the various manifestations of skin diseases. This is where the fundamental difference with the general practitioner emerges: the ability of the dermatologist to carefully analyze symptoms, assess the clinical context, and apply a rigorous method to reach an accurate diagnosis and an effective treatment plan. Additionally, the majority of skin diseases are chronic, making long-term maintenance challenging. 

How do you like Bern as a city? Or let’s start with the Italian community here at the faculty 😉 

Yeah, I met several Italians at the faculty, e.g., small animal surgery, anesthesiology, clinical neurology. They are very nice, but everyone welcomed me here, which made my start a lot easier.  

However, I am committed to immersing myself fully in the local culture, and learning the language is an essential part of this process. That's why I actively seek to surround myself with German speakers. I truly want to thank everyone here at the university for welcoming me so warmly. The old town in Bern, beautiful, but I did not explore the city yet. I was and still am so focused on my start at the department, but I really want to see the city, it is definitely on my bucket list. I waited till the magic of spring to explore Bern.  

How was your start at Vetsuisse Bern, and what expectations do you have?  

I had a great start. Everyone has been really welcoming with me.  

I was a bit stressed to figure out what I want to do, improve, and have plans. First, I need to understand the current workflow, and then I can decide what to change. Right now, I am focusing on the teaching for the upcoming dermatology block.  

I am also interviewing candidates for an ECVD OA (Oberarzt) position. The current OA has a pensum of  only 20% at the moment, and I am actually looking for someone who not only complements my skills and language proficiency, particularly in German (I speak Italian, French, English, and Spanish), but also serves as an excellent research partner. 

Do you want to start a residency program in clinical dermatology? 

Yes, definitely, but probably next year. For now, I want to focus on teaching and service and research. 

I also plan to have a PhD student later on, maybe in 2025.  

What language do you use for teaching undergraduates?  

English is definitely the preferred language among the students. I'm dedicating three hours every day to learning German through an online course. It's proving to be quite challenging, but rewarding. Thus far, I've mastered the skill of ordering food in German for lunch!😉 

What are your biggest challenges at the moment?  

Right now, I have a few challenges. One is making sure I'm a good teacher and that students are happy with my classes. I'm also learning German so I can talk to more people. I want to make the dermatology department stronger too. Once I've done all that, I'll focus more on research. 

What are your research interests? 

Allergies, with a greater emphasis on cats, are currently my main focus. In particular, I am continuing to study food allergies in animals and improve the protocol for food allergy immunotherapy. I am also passionate about exploring how new technology can benefit my patients. To achieve this, I believe in fostering collaborations with human medicine.  

What are you doing in your quality time (hobbies):  

I have a family consisting of two lovely young ladies, aged 4 and 7, along with my husband and our beloved bull terrier named Mirtilla, and two terrestrial turtles, Giulio and Cloetto, who reside in our garden year-round. With the arrival of March sunshine, the turtles wasted no time venturing around the garden. 

In my spare time, I cherish moments spent with my family, whether it's skiing, swimming, or tending to my growing passion for gardening and nurturing plants. While my vegetable-growing skills are a work in progress, I find solace in caring for fruit trees and immersing myself in nature. Painting and socializing with friends are also hobbies I enjoy. 

Despite not having a sweet tooth, I've gained a reputation for baking cakes, and I take pleasure in sharing them with others. Additionally, I relish hiking in the mountains with my dog, even though he's not as spry as he once was. These activities provide me with relaxation and rejuvenation after a day's work." 

We also talked about the  meetings of the female professors, “Professorinnen Lunch”, that we have in Bern, and we decided to organize the next one together very soon.  

Thank you so much Elisa for the interview and see you soon.  


Dieser Artikel erschien im Original in der VetsuisseNews 1/24.

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