Board-certified plastic surgeon Ivona Percec, MD, PhD, is a rarity. Not only does she conduct research in addition to her surgical work, but by choosing plastic surgery as her focus, she knew she was entering an incredibly demanding medical specialty, historically popular among men.
Because of the sacrifices and schedule juggling involved in surgery and research, many women pursue other medical fields that give them a greater opportunity to balance family life. Dr. Percec, however, was undaunted. In fact, she ended up being the only woman to give birth to two children during her surgical residency without taking extra time off.
“I always had very strong female role models, so it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it,” says Dr. Percec, associate director of Plastic Surgery. She attended an all-girls school growing up, her mother was a scientist, and her undergraduate advisor at Princeton (a woman) ended up becoming the school’s president.
“I’m always excited by a challenge, and I just keep going. Not that it’s easy, but if you stop to think about it too much, you’ll scare yourself off,” Dr. Percec says.
Her love of science, art, and working with her hands naturally dovetailed into a career in plastic surgery, sculpting people’s faces and bodies. As a high school senior in Ohio, her first exposure to the field was during a six-week internship with the head of plastic surgery at the Cleveland Clinic.
She went on to Princeton University the next year, and during her spring break returned to the Cleveland Clinic. She then enrolled in an MD/PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania.
As she rotated through various medical specialties, she says she stayed open to the possibilities of each, but that going to plastic surgery “was like coming home. For me, it wasn’t necessarily that I was going to go into medicine. I was directly focused on plastic surgery from early on.”
Creativity in cosmetic surgery
While plastic surgery involves a broad range of surgical possibilities—from complex reconstructions to non-invasive aesthetic work—Dr. Percec says she felt drawn to the creativity of cosmetic surgery. A facial surgery was one of the first operations she ever witnessed, and the experience stuck with her.
“I liked the fact that you’re able to reconstruct or operate on any part of the body. Especially operating on the face, you’re really challenged. It’s basically working with people’s identity,” Dr. Percec says.
Not only that, but Dr. Percec appreciates making people happy. “We can change people’s psyche and make them feel better about themselves,” she says. “This isn’t superficial. I want my patients to be happy. I want them to come to my office and start crying because they’ve gone dancing with their husband for the first time in 20 years, and they were able to do that because they’ve re-gained their confidence.”
Now in her eighth year practicing at Penn Medicine, Dr. Percec says she chose the university first in 1998 because of the strength of the medical school. She stayed on for her residency and training because the school had “the best plastic surgery training program.” And when the medical center recruited her to stay on after, she says she did because “it was to do a job that wasn’t available anywhere else.”
In addition to her work in surgery, Dr. Percec runs the Percec Anti-Aging Lab, which she founded in 2010 to study how stem cells from fat tissue impact the aging process at various stages, as well as how those cells impact scar tissue formation and face and body rejuvenation. Through the research, Dr. Percec hopes to delay the aging process by intervening at the cellular level.
“I’m dedicated to my patients and to improving the field of plastic surgery as much as possible,” Dr. Percec says. She looks at each patient as unique, develops a vision and surgical plan specifically for them, and executes it meticulously.
“The best case scenario for my patients is that I have an affordable, feasible solution for them. I make something possible for them, but also achieve a result that I can put my stamp on,” she says.
Her love of travel helps her keep an open mind with patients and address the needs of multiple cultures, whether they’re from the Middle East or transgender patients.
“I love fashion, to read and to be creative, and travel helps me keep an open mind,” she says.
Beyond cosmetic surgery
Recently, Dr. Percec has taken on a new set of patients: women who have experienced painful genital mutilation as part of their cultural practices. Her first genital mutilation patient came to her through a referral from a gynecologist. No other surgeon would agree to take on the case.
Dr. Percec says she’d never done a genital mutilation revision procedure before and couldn’t find much literature on an approach. But that didn’t stop her. She wanted to help the woman look and feel more normal.
The woman was from Sierra Leone, and she had never allowed her husband to see her without clothing in the light. When Dr. Percec heard the woman’s story, she forged ahead without question.
“I had to be innovative, and I had to be the doctor. I came up with a procedure, and I told her that I hadn’t done this before, but said we’re in this together if she wanted to try,” Dr. Percec says.
The surgery was successful, and evolved the woman’s relationship with her husband. It evolved Dr. Percec’s practice as well.
“Female health and wellness for me is so important. It’s part of what we do for each other,” she says.
Since then, Dr. Percec has been featured in multiple publications for her work on female genital mutilation, including the New York Times. However, she does the work—and all of her work—for more than women. She does it for her children, as well.
“My life has become about making my kids proud and giving them somebody to look up to. I want my daughter to feel like she can do anything she wants, and I hope having a strong female role model will make my son a better man as he grows up,” she says.
Plus, whether she’s working on a person’s face or studying cells in her lab, Dr. Percec’s work enables her to pursue all the things she loves personally: art, science and beauty.
“I like beauty,” she says simply. “I like to create it, and I like to think about it. And here, I can.”
View Dr. Percec's clinical profile