Washington People: Jennifer Silva

Pediatric cardiologist views the heart through a new lens

Jennifer Silva, MD, a pediatric electrophysiologist at the School of Medicine, treats children with abnormal heart rhythms. She has co-founded a startup company that is developing technology to help doctors see real-time 3D holograms of the heart during procedures to fix erratic heart rhythms. (Video: Huy Mach/Gaia Remerowski)

Jennifer Silva, MD, seeks order where most might find only chaos, and mastery where others might see only baffling complexity.

Whether she’s taming the erratic signals of a heart beating out of rhythm or navigating the circuitous paths of founding a startup company, Silva works to bring logic and clarity to all she does. As a pediatric cardiac electrophysiologist, she cares for young patients whose hearts don’t maintain a proper beat; and as an entrepreneur, she’s developing a technology that she hopes will help doctors like her see the heart in a whole new way — a way that may help them provide better care.

“When someone tells me, ‘That’s too hard,’ that’s going to be the thing I choose to pursue,” said Silva, an associate professor of pediatrics and director of pediatric electrophysiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “I chose to specialize in heart rhythm abnormalities because it was hard, but it simultaneously made sense. There’s a logic to it. There are clear rules and order in what seems to be a chaotic situation, like when the heart beats 300 times per minute, for example. I don’t see the chaos; I see very organized ways to solve the problem. And it can change patients’ lives. The work is very gratifying.”

Read more stories of women innovators on Fuse.

In kids, like adults, such abnormal heart rhythms can be life-threatening. Eighteen-year-old Chase Jeffrey, one of Silva’s patients, experienced an extremely rapid heartbeat after playing in a high school soccer game three years ago and was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. This congenital heart defect results in an extra electrical pathway between the upper and lower chambers of the heart. The additional circuit can lead to dangerous arrhythmias, and Silva performed catheter ablation procedures to shut it down, as is often done for young athletes at risk of sudden cardiac arrest during high-intensity sports. She hopes the new technology she is developing will help visualize such arrhythmia circuits to make them easier to treat.

Silva, who sees patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, also serves as the School of Medicine’s inaugural faculty fellow in entrepreneurship. Based on her own experience co-founding a startup company called SentiAR, she is providing advice and guidance to colleagues considering their own startup ventures.

“You have to be willing to step outside your comfort zone, to be able to talk to anyone and everyone,” Silva said. “You never know who is going to be able to help you with all the pieces as you move through the process. Our journey started with Washington University’s Office of Technology Management (OTM), which provided training and encouragement throughout the process of applying for a patent. They helped us step-by-step as we crafted the original patent on our ideas.”

Read the full profile on the School of Medicine site.  

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