Mariana DeFreitas, MD, is an Assistant Professor in the UNC School of Medicine, Department of Radiology. Dr. DeFreitas was born in Brazil and moved to Italy when she was three. When she was eleven, her father, a mechanical engineer, moved the family to a Detroit, Michigan suburb to work for the automotive industry. Dr. DeFreitas completed her Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering and her medical degree from the University of Michigan. She concluded her training at Duke University through her diagnostic radiology residency, a six-month abdominal mini-fellowship, and a neuroradiology fellowship.
What attracted you to the Department of Radiology at UNC?
We love the triangle area. My husband and I started a family here, and we knew we wanted to make this area our home permanently, which is what initially attracted me. Ultimately, though, two of the missions of UNC and UNC Health resonated with me on so many levels, making the decision a no-brainer. One of them is patient care. UNC is a central hub in serving the people of North Carolina. The state has become our home, and I am passionate about serving its people.
The other mission centers around education. It’s important to consider how we will care for our community today. But another bigger question is how we will care for the community for generations. How is our field going to evolve? Focusing on educating the next generation of physicians is essential to me. I’ve watched my husband as a member of the UNC family for years. I had both children at UNC, a teaching hospital with residents. That mission is not just something I read on the website; I have felt it since we moved to this area.
The UNC Department of Radiology’s mission of patient excellence and commitment to educating the next generation of radiologists aligned with my goals. That’s when I knew they were very passionate about this, too. Those two things made it evident that joining UNC Radiology’s established and compassionate team was the right choice.
Why did you choose to become a physician?
When I was little, I had this fascination with doctors. Whenever I would go to the doctor for minor ailments, it seemed like what they did was magic. Our health is so vulnerable. We don’t choose our diseases. Here was a group of people that when you visit them when you’re sick, they cure you or make you feel better. I remember thinking from a young age that I wanted to do that someday. It is a magical gift that you can give to others. I wanted to be part of that club, and that’s when it all started.
What attracted you to diagnostic radiology?
I had this fascination with doctors brewing in the background but was also really influenced by my engineer father. Ever since I was a little girl, I have been captivated by how things work. I would take things apart to see inside, figure out how it worked, and try to understand the mechanics. That ultimately led to my undergrad degree in biomedical engineering. Through my undergraduate studies, I learned how the human body works and realized it is an amazing machine. I wanted to find a way to combine my passions of engineering and medicine.
I was first introduced to the concept of radiology early in medical school. I saw it as a tool to do what I did to other machines: look at what’s inside and see how each piece works together in a larger picture. I could find problems and fix them. I learned that Diagnostic Radiology is a puzzle waiting to be solved. I found that exciting, and I learned about the unique value it provides. Guiding referring doctors. Being able to contribute to various patient issues and broad patient care. The perfect combination of interests and skills in one specialty.
Can you describe your role within emergency Imaging and why you chose that specialty?
One of the things that’s been super fun about emergency radiology is that it reminds me of being a resident on call because you just don’t know what you’ll see. It’s a variety of modalities. It encompasses multiple specialties. The emergency room is when many patients first present with an issue. We have all these tools and the ability to help them through that.
Emergency Radiology has been a little bit of everything. I was excited about this role because it combined two things that I was debating between. On one hand, I wanted to be in a subspecialty and be an expert in certain things. On the other, I also wanted to keep up my General Radiology skills and be able to teach a variety of things to residents. I also really wanted to be in an academic center.
Ultimately, I did spend some time subspecializing. I did a six-month rotation in abdominal imaging and then a full-year neuro fellowship. After my first few weeks, those skills have become super helpful during calls. But also, I started to see more general issues, and it reminded me of how broad Radiology is, how exciting it is, and how we use multiple modalities to care for patients.
What medical advances would you like to see in Radiology in the next five years?
The history of radiology has been interesting because it arose first as a diagnostic specialty and more and more in multiple subspecialties of radiology, there have been opportunities to be a therapeutic specialty. Whether it’s interventional procedures, lumbar punctures for headache relief, or the field of nuclear medicine, which offers targeted therapy. I see continuous growth as an option for Diagnostics and Therapeutics. I think we will have more and more to offer in both fields. In the area of Diagnostics, I see it as our machines are getting faster. They’re more efficient. Our images are of higher quality, and the resolutions are better. So, I see the diagnostic quality going up and the opportunities for therapeutics expanding. I see our value in the field of medicine continuing to increase.
What’s your number one piece of advice for people interested in going into Radiology?
Don’t give up. It’s a very challenging field. I know that we go through medical school, which is very demanding, and we act out on what we learn as interns, and it’s a steep learning curve. Pursuing Radiology feels like starting at the beginning, learning a new language. My advice would be to stick with it because I think it’s a field that has such a huge growth potential. Don’t be threatened by things like AI or automation of certain processes. Instead, think of them as opportunities to make our work more valuable. There is so much to unpack in using imaging to diagnose and treat problems within the human body that I do not think those things are threats.
What is something you want people to know about you before they meet you?
Our work is serious. A way to balance that is to recognize when we’re taking ourselves too seriously and be able to stay friendly and jovial. Keep a positive attitude in the reading room. I’m a strong believer that as humans we really absorb the energy around us. So, whenever I can make a colleague or a patient smile and laugh, or distract them from something that’s giving them anxiety, or fear, I feel like we’re both showing up to that occasion and bringing the best versions of ourselves. That’s how we’re going to work as a team and provide the best patient care we can provide. I like to be light-hearted. I like to joke around. I want to make the reading room, a friendly environment where nobody feels threatened and everybody feels there’s opportunities to learn. I want people to know that I like to bring that to the reading room.
What is one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
You can do it. There’s a world of people that are going to doubt you and your abilities. Maybe they doubt it because it’s a way of manifesting their own insecurities. Nobody can tell you what you can and cannot do. There’s going to be a lot of obstacles along the way. Nobody is in charge of your future as much as you are. That’s what I would tell my younger self.
If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be and why?
I would choose Marie Curie, a physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She did contribute to the field of radiology. (She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win a Nobel Prize twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two scientific fields.) I’ve learned about her in history, and she inspires me. I would love to learn about her challenges of being a female scientist in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. That is so wild to me. I would love to hear what kind of advice she would have for us as career women and women with a family. I would be interested to hear about her experience.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
I love spending time with my family. I have a three-year-old boy and an eight-month-old girl. We love taking them on new adventures. It’s amazing to watch them. To see your child experiencing something for the first time, you see it through their eyes and its new again. That’s been an incredible journey. We love to travel; we love to take them to new places. I’m from Brazil. We were able to take my son there a year and a half ago for the holidays. Then, more recently, we took them on a Mediterranean Disney Cruise. It was an adventure. I’m excited to plan more trips with them.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
I would love to fly. Ironically, I do have a small fear of heights, but it would still be the superpower I want. I’ve grown up in different parts of the world. I have these incredible dreams of hovering over all these beautiful cities on one flight. It would be amazing if I could do that, see the best things in every city, and head home whenever I want.