News at Medicine - May 2009 - Alumna named one of Top 40 Under 40

Alumna named one of Top 40 Under 40
May 13, 2009

Dr. Fiona Costello, Class of 1995, has been named one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 by the Globe and Mail. Dr. Costello, 39, is an associate professor of neurology and ophthalmology and a multiple sclerosis-treating neurologist at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, University of Calgary.


Fiona Costello grew up in Stephenville, one of three children born to Fintan, originally a teacher, and Teresa, a nurse, who had emigrated from Ireland in 1967. She did her undergraduate degree at Memorial Biochemistry before entering medical school. She is now a neuro-ophthalmologist and MS – treating neurologist at the University of Calgary.

When she started at Memorial University, she considered journalism because she liked writing. She is quoted in the May 1 article in the Globe and Mail as saying that she thought journalism was the only creative outlet that there was, “but I realized ... science was creative in its own way. In science you don't have to accept anything anyone tells you, you can come up with a hypothesis and test it yourself. And you can be the first one to do it.”

She knew right away about her interest in neurology and it didn't take too long for Dr. Costello to pinpoint the sub-specialty she would pursue. "We didn't have a neuro-ophthalmologist in Newfoundland ... and I noticed [while at medical school] that everyone seemed to be a little bit afraid of it. So I said to myself 'I can go through the rest of my career trying to avoid this or I can just jump in headlong.'

“I went after neuro-ophthalmology because it seemed to be the one people knew the least about. ... It's a real grey zone area between disciplines and you either have to live there or never go there.”

Dr. Costello remembers many of her professors at Memorial who influenced her in her career. “During my undergraduate studies in Biochemistry, Drs. Willie Davidson, Eric Bullock and Peter Golding had a major impact on me with their teaching and the support they provided in my application to medical school.”

During her undergraduate medical studies, Dr. Costello said Dr. Wally Ingram, Dr. Mary O’Brien had a significant impact on her. “They both brought a standard of excellence and ‘sixth sense’ to patient care that I was incredibly impressed by.”

During her clerkship, Dr. Fiona said she was very much influenced by the work ethic, humour and sheer artistry of Dr. David Jewer. “I did my first clerkship rotation with him in Plastic Surgery. I knew I would never have the ‘hands’ to be a surgeon like Dr. Jewer, but I was so impressed by what he did I urged my classmate Don Fitzpatrick to work with him...and Donny went into Plastics!” 

Dr. Costello’s first internship rotation was in Neurosurgery, and she was amazed by the dedication and competence of Dr. Falah Maroun and Dr. Gerry Murray. “I was so awed by their work that I briefly considered going into Neurosurgery as a discipline. Neurosurgery is lucky that I didn't!”

As a Neurology resident, Dr. Costello said her mentors were Drs. Alan Goodridge, William Pryse-Phillips and Abayomi Ogunyemi. “I owe these men a tremendous debt because they put up with me through three years of core neurology and were tireless in their teaching and mentorship despite serious manpower shortages and overwhelming demands on their time. They have all worked hard to provide me opportunities in my career for which I am grateful as well. Alan Goodridge still manages to do more in an hour than anyone I have ever met. I met Dr. Pryse-Phillips in my second year clinical skills teaching, and after one hour in his teaching group I vowed to do Neurology and never looked back – he is an incredible clinician and mentor. Dr. Ogunyemi taught me the power of independent thinking – he showed me how important it is to never stop questioning and challenging accepted norms in neurology and to come up with my own hypotheses about things.”

Dr. Costello said the heart of the Neurology program was clinic nurse John Murphy, an incredible person and friend. “John always had the interests of the patient as a top priority and we all miss him.” 

Fellow resident Dr. Mark Stefanelli motivated Dr. Costello by his knowledge, compassion and humanity for others. “He will be mortified to hear me say that, because he is so understated.” 

Dr. Costello said she was also influenced by Dr. Gordon Mathieson in Neuro-Pathology, who taught her the value of methodology, precision, and excellence. “He was tireless and very selfless in the time he took to teach. And Dr. David Buckley in Pediatric Neurology showed me how one could remain fiercely academic, even as a relatively independent entity.”

Dr. Costello said she has many memories of medical school that she cherishes. “I was the class of 1995, and got to go through medical school with a fantastically gifted group of people. There are too many good memories to mention, but our graduation definitely stands out.  Dean David Hawkins was presented with white gloves because the entire class graduated together after four years.  That moment captured the spirit of camaraderie that defined my class.”

Dr. Costello went on from Memorial to study Neuro – Ophthalmology at the University of Iowa for two years.  She then accepted a co-appointment to the Departments of Medicine and Ophthalmology at the University of Ottawa, where she worked from 2002 to 2007.  Opportunity drew her to Calgary two years ago; she is teaching and doing both research and clinical work. She has developed a system model of MS that is being applied in clinical and experimental models of the disease.  Her research focuses on nerve damage in the eye and its apparent similarities to nerve damage in multiple sclerosis patients, with a view toward potential new MS therapies.

“I would love to see MS cured, because this disease affects so many young people in the prime of their lives,” Dr. Costello said, adding she sees the real chance of a cure, particularly given the strengths of the “great group” she's working with in Calgary.

Married to Kris Norman (MUN BComm Class of 1995), and with two boys and two girls ranging in age from eight years to six months, Dr. Costello says she doesn't want to perpetuate any idea that being a working mother is easy “because that would devastate a nation of mothers. And they would all know I was lying.”

She said she doesn't know anyone who’s expert at balancing the demands of work and family. “I think the reality is ... you can maybe do one thing well at a time. ... What I hope is that on a good day my kids see it's important to work hard toward something that matters, that helps people.”