Faculty Focus

Santillan, Mark

Mark Santillan, MD

What is your hometown?

Chicago, Illinois via Evansville, Indiana and Cebu City, Philippines

When did you join the University of Iowa faculty?


How/when did you become interested in science and medicine?

I have loved science and medicine for as long as I remember.

My science nerd-ness has been cultivated since grade school. If there was a grade school science camp I could do, I did it. I did a lot of volunteer work in medical settings since junior high, but I only got inspired to do medicine when I volunteered at a pediatric hematology/oncology ward in Chicago.

What interested you to pursue a career in Obstetrics & Gynecology?

To be honest, Obstetrics & Gynecology was the last specialty I thought I was going to practice.

I went to medical school thinking I was going to become a pediatric hematologist-oncologist. When I did my Obstetrics rotation especially with high risk obstetrics I was hooked. I loved helping women through one of the most exciting and scary times in their lives. When my wife, then girlfriend, told me I would not shut up about how much fun I had in labor and delivery despite being up for 36 hours, I knew that Obstetrics & Gynecology was it for me.

Is there a teacher or mentor who helped shape your career?

I have been blessed with many excellent mentors at the University of Iowa and at Loyola in Chicago, but the reason why I am a Maternal Fetal Medicine specialist was because of my Obstetrics & Gynecology chairman at Loyola when I was a medical student and resident.

He had an unparalleled passion for his job as a clinician and teacher. He did not have to take call, but he did because he loved it. He did not have to spend hours with medical students and residents teaching obstetrics, but he did because he loved it. What made me in awe of him was how he could deliver very difficult news to an expectant mother and family, and how he took healing beyond the medicine and the physical. Although I am far off the mark, I still try to emulate him in all these aspects.

How or why did you choose the University of Iowa?

Truth being told, I never thought I would still be in Iowa. I only applied for my Maternal Fetal Medicine fellowship in Iowa because one of mentors said I should and because I respected her. I had a big city bias when I came to interview for my fellowship.

When I interviewed, I was amazed at the facilities, the breadth of pathology, and the advanced medicine that was practiced here. Above all, I was impressed by the faculty and staff at the University of Iowa. There are internationally known scientists and clinicians who I only had read about.

Now I get to work with them. The reason I stayed was because of these people. Not only were they smart and excellent at what they do, but they were just good human beings and good Midwestern folks!

Please describe your professional interests.

Although clinically, I am interested in a whole range of high risk obstetric conditions, my research focuses on hypertensive and vascular diseases and immunology of pregnancy. We are interested in the immunovascular cause and genetic regulation of preeclampsia, and other placental based diseases.

What led to your interest in Preeclampsia?

My interest in preeclampsia was sparked during residency by a patient with severe preeclampsia who was incredibly close to dying. She ultimately recovered, but it has been the stories of the young women that still succumb to preeclampsia that drives me to work for the best outcomes, and to find a cause and treatment for preeclampsia.

How does working in a collaborative and comprehensive academic medical center benefit your work?

Iowa’s world renowned research in all fields including Obstetrics and Cardiovascular Disease has provided me with a plethora of mentors and collaborators from whom I can learn and grow my academic interests. Clinically, as the only academic center in the state, I have benefitted from seeing the most severe pathologies and being challenged on how to properly manage each case, one patient at a time.

What are some of your outside interests?

I love spending time with my family and love living in a house of girls. I like making music. I play guitar, bass, and the manly flute. My near-midlife crisis gift from my wife was a mini-recording studio in our house.

If this medicine thing does not work out, I want to play bass for an unknown Chicago jazz band and run a recording studio on the side.

Do you have an insight or philosophy that guides you in your professional work?

You can’t possibly know everything about everything. Be humble and learn from everyone.

If you could change one thing about the world (or the world of medicine/science), what would it be?

It has become very difficult to find funding and many excellent scientists are leaving the lab because of it.

What is the biggest change you've experienced in your field since you were a student?

Although we have a long way to go still, our molecular treatment and understanding of perinatal disease is increasing exponentially.

What one piece of advice would you give to today's students?

Persevere. Be honest with yourself. Do what you love and you won’t work a single day in your life.

In what ways are you engaged with the greater Iowa public (i.e. population based research, mentoring high school students, sharing your leadership/expertise with organizations or causes, speaking engagements off campus, etc.)?

I am proud to be part of a newly formed University of Iowa based foundation called the Shelly Bridgewater Dreams Foundation with a family whose daughter died due to severe preeclampsia. The goal of our foundation is to: foster patient and obstetrics education, support research, and raise awareness of the devastating effects of perinatal diseases such as preeclampsia.