Maya Vella, MD Spotlight

Maya Vella, MD Spotlight

March 3, 2022

Dr. Maya Vella, one of the newest members of UCSF Radiology’s cardiothoracic team, relishes her role as an academic radiologist, providing excellent patient care and using her passion for teaching to educate future physicians and radiologists.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Dr. Vella attended public schools including Rooftop Elementary and Lowell High School before pursuing her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Davis. Her love of medicine was sparked towards the end of her undergraduate studies. She was working in a basic science lab doing research on cancer immunology when she had the opportunity to go to Mexico to work in a hospital affiliated with the lab. While working closely with the physicians there and shadowing them as they provided patient care, Dr. Vella realized that she wanted to go into the field of medicine.

After earning her Bachelor of Science degree, Dr. Vella did genetics research in UCSF’s Ahituv Laboratory and then entered medical school at UCSF where she gained exposure to many different areas of medicine. In her first year of medical school, Dr. Vella thought it would be interesting to explore a field that she had not had any exposure to, and realizing that she knew little about radiology, selected the subspeciality for her research experience.

Dr. Vella spent the next summer in the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFG) reading room working with Dr. Steve Hetts and Dr. Matthew Amans reviewing stroke cases following neurointerventional treatment. In addition to appreciating the in-depth research experience, Dr. Vella was drawn to the atmosphere in the reading room. She enjoyed seeing radiologists diagnose cases and observed the dedicated hands-on teaching underway in the reading room with clinicians stopping by to ask questions about the studies and attendings reading out cases and discussing them with trainees.

Following her Neuro IR research experience, Dr. Vella contacted Dr. Emma Webb, the department’s Radiology career advisor, and began working with her on educational projects such as evaluating the interpretive vs non-interpretive skills taught in radiology textbooks directed to non-radiologists. These early experiences in the department were key to inspiring Dr. Vella to become a radiologist. Following medical school she became a UCSF diagnostic radiology resident, cardiothoracic fellow, and then, a faculty member.

Students learn about UCSF from Dr. Vella at the “Inside UCSF” event in 2019.

“Radiology is a great field for teaching,” shares Dr. Vella, who has been involved in teaching since working as a tutor in high school and college. “I love to walk people through how I would think about a case and how I would interpret whatever findings are present to help them do so in the future.” Dr. Vella enjoys working with trainees of all levels, from introducing medical students to the field of radiology to the teaching she does on a daily basis in the reading room with residents and fellows. She is also a section speaker on the monthly resident conference schedule, and recently prepared a formal recorded lecture to be given at the Society for Thoracic Imaging meeting in March 2022. Dr. Vella received the department’s Medical Student Teaching Award in 2020 and has served as an advocate and mentor to medical students considering a career in radiology.

A stereotype about radiology that Dr. Vella says is “not entirely true” is that the subspecialty has no patient contact. In the Cardiothoracic arena she sees patients regularly for procedures such as lung biopsies. And she notes that for many radiologic subspecialties such as breast imaging and interventional radiology, radiologists spend the majority of their time working directly with patients.  Dr. Vella says that depending on the patient’s underlying diagnosis, radiologists may provide long-term follow up care for an individual patient.

In addition to valuing patient contact, Dr. Vella also values the interactive relationships that develop with ordering clinicians. She maintains close ties with pulmonologists, infectious disease specialists, cardiologists, and cardiothoracic surgeons and enjoys discussing cases with her direct colleagues, and consulting with colleagues across UCSF. As an academic radiologist, Dr. Vella appreciates the collaborative approach to patient care gained from multidisciplinary committee meetings such as tumor boards and interstitial lung disease conferences that involve collaboration with colleagues from specialties such as pulmonary oncology, radiation oncology and pathology. She and her team members also attend valuable patient-focused conferences with pediatric and adult cardiologists, cardiothoracic surgeons, and the interventional cardiologists who perform valve replacements and minimally invasive procedures.

Dr. Vella says that during the pandemic, interdisciplinary teams stopped coming to the reading rooms and medical teams had to figure out new ways to interact using collaborator tools. Some of the multidisciplinary meetings transitioned to Zoom, a change, according to Dr. Vella, that had the benefit of facilitating resident and fellow learning since they could attend the conferences from any site. As the pandemic is easing, Dr. Vella observes that clinicians are starting to come by the reading room to discuss cases, a change she welcomes.

Outside of work, Dr. Vella pursues several hobbies including cooking, trying new restaurants, and dance. She does as many escape rooms as possible and has completed over 50 with her friends. Another talent is pumpkin carving. She has been carving pumpkins since middle school and with family and friends has carved up to 90 fresh pumpkins for display at her parents’ home for a single Halloween.

Looking to the future, Dr. Vella plans to continue her career in academic Radiology with the goal of becoming more engaged in radiology medical education and a long-term goal of radiology education leadership.


One of Dr. Vella’s intricate carved pumpkins is based on the painting The Kiss by the artist Gustav Klimt.

A carved pumpkin depicting the Golden Gate bridge.