Faces and stories of the USI Faculty of Biomedical Sciences: Silke Gillessen Sommer


Institutional Communication Service

7 September 2020

One of the strengths of the Master in Medicine at USI is to have leading figures in research and teaching in the various medical disciplines. This is the case of Prof. Dr. med. Silke Gillessen Sommer, considered a "key opinion leader" internationally in the field of prostate cancer and malignant genito-urinary diseases. With an outstanding medical-scientific curriculum built in Switzerland, the United States and the United Kingdom, since 2018 the main activity of Prof. Gillessen Sommer has been focused on teaching and research. As of January 2020 she is Medical Scientific Director of the Istituto Oncologico della Svizzera italiana (IOSI, EOC group), the first female figure in this role, and Full professor at the USI Faculty of Biomedical Sciences. Recently arrived in Ticino, Silke Gillessen Sommer shares, among other things, a few stories of her experience as a medical student.

Prof. Dr. med. Silke Gillessen Sommer (Swiss, b. 1965) graduated in medicine from the University of Basel in 1990, where she received her Ph.D. in 1992. After working as an assistant physician at Thurgauisch-Schaffausisch-Höhenklinik in Davos and as an associate researcher in the Department of Inflammatory/Autoimmune Diseases at Hoffmann-La Roche in the USA, she worked at Claraspital and Kantonsspital in Basel and then moved to the St. Gallen Cantonal Hospital, where she obtained her specialisation in internal medicine. From 1998 to 2000 she worked as a researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, in the U.S. She then returned to Switzerland to the St. Gallen Cantonal Hospital, where she obtained her specialisation in medical oncology, with subsequent appointment as Head of the clinical research department and lead for GU cancers. In 2011 she was appointed Adjunct professor at the University of Bern. Prior to her appointment, in 2019, as Medical and Scientific Director at IOSI and full professor at the USI Faculty of Biomedical Sciences, she was Professor at the University of Manchester in the Division of Cancer Sciences, responsible for research in the systemic therapy of genito-urological tumors, also carrying out mentoring activities and post-doctoral training.  


Professor Gillessen-Sommer, what would you like to share with us about when you were a medical student?

I was studying in Basel and I moved in a shared apartment with three friends. It was a very stimulating time, all of us had different circles of friends and we mixed them all together. I remember very well these times and we are still close friends. Most students at that time were using bikes to move around and so we all met already in the bike lanes when biking to our lectures or internships and discussing together. I liked very much the first lessons we had with patients. Until then we had learned so much theory and basic knowledge, but I remember well the first time we had a bedside teaching. It was very special to be in the white coat with a very new and hardly used stethoscope. We were introduced as students and the patient was a very nice man who let us all examine his lungs and told us that he wants us to learn something and study well since there would always be a need for good doctors. Some of the main events that marked my career were patient driven, feeling the need to develop better treatments. And then there are a lot of other inspirational people that you will meet in your professional and personal life. You can learn from their strengths and try to create a vision where you want to go. For me one of my former bosses, Prof. Thomas Cerny, was a great mentor, gave me the feeling that you can reach almost anything and we shared the enthusiasm for our field, oncology: We are fortunate, we have a wonderful job, you learn every day, not only from your colleagues and collaborators, but also from your patients.


One of the Faculty's strengths lies in its close relations with the region, conveyed to the students through the MDs, professors and researchers who will accompany them during their studies, but also thanks to their being involved with the hospitals and clinics in the Canton. In short, what added value can the Master's students draw from the ‘local’ context?

I think we have a wonderful opportunity here to build up a very authentic university that is well suited to teach students since our different hospitals are not only tertiary structures where only selected patients with complex histories are seen but there are also patients with classical pictures of diseases that are important to understand before learning the very exceptional topics. A close relationship could be developed because the hospitals are smaller and more familiar.


For many students, Ticino will be a place to explore and learn more about: is there a place in particular in Ticino with which you feel connected and that you would like to recommend?

Ticino is beautiful. I just moved here in January and I am still surprised every morning when I have a coffee on my terrace about the beauty of the region. My husband and I like the Monte Brè for hiking, I can recommend to walk up there and having a picnic with a wonderful view.