Real-life Wonder Woman: UofL School of Medicine dean shares her serendipitous journey into medicine and science

Real-life Wonder Woman: UofL School of Medicine dean shares her serendipitous journey into medicine and science

Toni Ganzel, M.D., M.B.A., dean of the UofL School of Medicine

Toni M. Ganzel, MD, MBA, dean of the UofL School of Medicine, joined UofL in 1983 as an assistant professor of otolaryngology. In 2001 she was named associate dean for student affairs and in 2003, senior associate dean for students and academic affairs. In 2013, Ganzel became the first female to be appointed dean of the UofL School of Medicine. In 2020, she was appointed vice president for academic medical affairs.

In honor of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, UofL News talked with Ganzel about her journey into medicine and science.

UofL News: Tell us about your journey into medicine.

Toni Ganzel: I didn’t grow up with the goal of going into medicine. In fact, my first life aspiration that I can remember was wanting to be Wonder Woman because I fancied the idea of flying around the world and saving people. And I also was fond of the red high heel boots and the outfit.

The sixth grade was a pivotal time in deciding what career to pursue because it was then that I fell in love with science. Science mesmerized me – especially biology – and I was fascinated by how the body worked. So, what I thought I wanted to do then was to be a high school biology teacher. My other two areas of avid interest in middle school and high school were cheerleading and student government. This led to deciding my dream job was to be a high school biology teacher, cheerleading coach and student government sponsor.

But when I got to college and took more advanced sciences, I realized that teaching high school biology may not challenge me enough and I considered medical research instead. A friend suggested I take the MCAT and go into medicine, which is something I hadn’t considered. I took the advice, took the MCAT, applied to medical school, got accepted and have never looked back. I can’t imagine any other profession bringing me the joy and fulfillment that being a pediatric ENT surgeon and medical educator did. And for the past 10 years, being the dean is equally rewarding and has been an amazing opportunity to help shape the future of the institution and to work every day with talented students, residents, faculty and staff.

My path to medicine was almost serendipitous and I tell students today that path doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, that more intentionality is needed. As I take a step back and think about how to find the sweet spot of a career, it’s marrying your goals and passions and seeking opportunities to bring those two things together. I loved science, loved helping people and loved learning. Medicine was the perfect marriage.

UofL News: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?

Ganzel: The biggest challenge was and is the time commitment. The time challenge started in medical school and has continued ever since. While I try and make a conscious effort to balance work and family, it’s always a struggle.

UofL News: What has been your most rewarding moment in medicine?

Ganzel: Rather than a single moment, it has been a series of moments and it’s on really two tiers – thinking about being a physician versus thinking about being dean. My field of training was ENT surgery and specifically pediatric ENT, so I did lots of tonsils and tubes and airway work and every one of those was so rewarding. I probably did 15,000 tubes and 10,000 tonsillectomies and adenoidectomies, and never got bored. Children had repeated ear infections and hearing loss and they nearly always got better when they got tubes. Children snored and obstructed at night from large tonsils and adenoids, and they nearly always got better when they had their tonsils and adenoids out. It was so gratifying to be able to improve the quality of life of not just the children, but their families as well.

Then, when I think about being the dean, and previously the student affairs dean, it has been so rewarding to touch students’ lives and watch their own professional growth and development. I had the joy of teaching students and then watching them develop incredibly successful careers as physicians and as leaders. Now, as dean, I not only get to work with students and trainees, but with incredible faculty and staff and fantastic colleagues and leaders across the institution and across the country. I am very blessed to be able to do work that I love.

UofL News: What would you tell other women interested in joining the medical field?

Ganzel: If you love science, if you love learning, if you love helping people, it is a wonderful field. However, you also need to be mindful of the time commitment because it’s a big one. And while work-life balance will be a challenge, it is a profession that will bring you great joy, humility and gratification.

UofL News: What is one thing you wish you could tell your past self during medical school?

Ganzel: I would tell myself to remember that medical school is not a destination, but it’s part of a career journey. And on those days that feel daunting, to keep the long view in mind and take time to remember why I chose this life career.

UofL News: What do you like to do outside of work?

Ganzel: I love spending time with my family and my dogs. I like to exercise, my husband and I like to travel and we love mountain sports of hiking, skiing and mountain biking. And while we like to be active, we also enjoy reading and relaxing as well. 

UofL News: What is your hope for the future of medicine?

Ganzel: That this pandemic gets over. It has been a nightmare. But I’m proud of the way that we have risen to the occasion and the resilience that we have shown.

Another hope for the future of medicine is that our increased focus and commitment around health equity will result in better health care and better health for all. Finally, I hope that our research discoveries will continue to lead to new cures and healthier people.