Home > PUM Women's History Salutes: Dr. Sally Wenzel, Director of the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute and Professor of Medicine

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PUM Women's History Salutes: Dr. Sally Wenzel, Director of the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute and Professor of Medicine- One of the World’s Top 10 Asthma Doctors.

“Science, for better or for worse, has traditionally been considered a man’s domain, but an incredibly important one to move society forward.  As long as there are very few women in this field, women are less likely to be associated with momentous breakthroughs, cutting-edge technology, and achievements to improve the health of broad numbers of people, accomplishments that are generally valued in our society.  When women are not participating fully, women as a whole are not thought to be as important as men in these arenas.  I strive to be a role model and to mentor bright, young women--not only in medical research and patient care, but also in succeeding in a male dominated realm.”  Dr. Sally Wenzel

Dr. Sally Wenzel completed her MD degree at the University of Florida in 1981.  Following her residency in internal medicine at Wake Forest University and her fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, she spent 19 years at National Jewish Health and the University of Colorado, where she rose to the rank of Professor of Medicine.  During her years at National Jewish, she served: on the Pulmonary–Allergy Advisory Committee to the FDA; as Assembly Chair for the American Thoracic Society (ATS) section on Allergy, Immunology and Inflammation; and as chair of the ATS International Conference Committee.  She received the Elizabeth Rich Award for her role in promoting women in science.  She moved to the University of Pittsburgh in 2006 to take a position as director of the Asthma Institute at the UPMC/University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.  She also holds these titles: Professor of Medicine (with tenure); professor in the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (secondary appointment); and UPMC chair in Translational Airway Biology.  In January 2013, she was named Subsection Chief of Allergy in the university’s Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine.

 

Dr. Wenzel served as Deputy Editor for the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, is a reviewer for the New England Journal of Medicine and other publications, and served on the Lung Cellular, Molecular, and Immunology Study Section for NIH grant reviews. 

 

Dr. Wenzel has a passion for understanding and improving the treatment of asthma, in particular severe asthma.  She served as Chair of the International American Thoracic Society/European Respiratory Society Guidelines on severe asthma.  Dr. Wenzel is one of seven doctors in the Severe Asthma Research Program (SARP) network funded by the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute.  Through SARP and her own efforts, Dr. Wenzel has accumulated a clinical database of nearly 700 patients with asthma and individuals who do not have an asthma diagnosis, most of whom have matching airway tissue, cells and sputum/lavage.  Her lab is one of very few labs in the world which are able to match clinical characteristics of a patient with responses at a cellular/molecular level.  Her current interests include the role of epithelial cells in controlling airway inflammatory responses, as well as their interactions with mast cells.  She was the first author on a recent New England Journal of Medicine paper which described perhaps the most promising results for a new asthma drug in decades.

 

PUM One on One with Dr. Wenzel, Director of the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute and Professor of Medicine

 

PUM: Celebrating Women's History Month what does that mean for you in terms of what you have been able to accomplish in your career?  

 

Dr. Wenzel: Women have played an important role in medicine for hundreds of years despite incredibly small numbers of women in medical careers and the enormous bias against them.  However, those women still served as pioneers for people like me.  When I started medical school, women made up 10% of the total class size.  For the past 10 or more years, women have made up around 50% of the classes.  These are tremendous gains and clearly help to promote the success of women, partly due to the growing pool of talent available. 

 

PUM: In your position as one of the world's top Asthma Specialist and one of the few women in this field -what is your specific area of expertise that has set you apart in this field? Do you see more women following in your career path, if not, what needs to happen?   

 

Dr. Wenzel:  I became a doctor to take care of patients.  I learn from my patients every day I see them.  They are amazing teachers.  But as a scientist, as well as a doctor, I have done the reverse of what the vast majority of current scientists do.  I go back to the research lab and try to figure out the research reasons or mechanisms for the puzzles that the patients present me with.  And I do that by looking at data, blood and sputum samples and in some cases tissue that we've collected from research participants.  While this is extremely difficult work, with clear limitations the results are so much more easily “translated” into ideas and even therapies that are relevant for human disease.  In many cases, even without new drugs, these individualized approaches to treating patients can considerably improve their care. 

 

Unfortunately, these are challenging career paths.  National Institutes of Health funding levels are at their lowest levels ever.  Research in general is suffering, and, I think with competition from family and perhaps other paths perceived to be “easier” there are not a lot of people-- and particularly women--following this pathway.  Lobbying congress to improve NIH funding will be a start, but encouraging our young students, medical students and doctors to continue to focus on the patient and to better understand and utilize tools we have available to study human disease is also incredibly important.

 

PUM: You have been recognized for playing an important role in helping to promote women in science, tell us more about your efforts and why is this important to you that women focus more on science?  

 

Dr. Wenzel: Science, for better or for worse, has traditionally been considered a man’s domain, but an incredibly important one to move society forward.  As long as there are very few women in this field, women are less likely to be associated with momentous breakthroughs, cutting-edge technology, and achievements to improve the health of broad numbers of people, accomplishments that are generally valued in our society.  When women are not participating fully, women as a whole are not thought to be as important as men in these arenas.  I strive to be a role model and to mentor bright, young women--not only in medical research and patient care, but also in succeeding in a male dominated realm.  I strive to be a role model and to mentor bright young women not only in medical research and patient care, but also in succeeding in a male dominated world.  Given the overwhelming dominance of men in science, these are critical tools to teach. 

PUM: What is your advice and recommendations to women as they break through the glass ceilings in their careers?  How were you able to persevere?  

 

Dr. Wenzel: Believe in yourself.  Find a mentor, preferably a woman, but MANY men are sensitive to these issues and will promote women as well.  Become really good at something related to your field.  I think to succeed you need a combination of intelligence, perseverance, stubbornness and the rare, but incredibly valuable incidents when doors are opened for you and with a healthy dose of luck as well.

 

PUM: You have a special passion for understanding and improving the treatment of asthma, in particular severe asthma.  Why does this disease interest you so much and through your various studies and efforts do you feel we are making some serious improvements on how we treat and diagnosis Asthma?

 

Dr. Wenzel: I discovered at a very early stage in my career that a diagnosis of “asthma” could mean several different things.  In many cases, it can be a rather mild, manageable disease.  This is the face of asthma that many people imagine when they think of asthma.  However, it became clear to me that a large group of patients did not fall into that category.  These patients could have life-threatening disease which radically impacts their everyday lives.  But often physicians and society would not see that or even believe that it existed.  Interestingly, these patients were often women.  And honestly, it is my perception that given the dominance of male physicians in the pulmonary and allergy fields, that many times these patients were considered “neurotic,” “noncompliant,” attention-seekers without “real disease.”  But it became imminently clear that these women (and obviously some men as well) suffered from a horrible disease, which had been somewhat neglected by physicians for years.  Nearly 20 years ago I set out on a journey to change those perceptions.  To make certain that patients with truly severe asthma were recognized for what they are.  And that effort to improve their lives through research was undertaken.  We have, in fact, come a VERY long way in the last 20 years, in our understanding and even treatment of severe asthma. 

 

PUM: What about the issue of why asthma is more deadly in the African-American community and how is the Asthma Institute studying this issue?

 

Dr. Wenzel: African-Americans are twice as likely to have asthma as European-Americans.  And they are 4-5 times as likely to die of asthma.  The reasons for these differences are not completely clear.  But they likely involve differences in access to health care, environmental exposures and allergic issues, as well as heredity/genetics issues.  The Asthma Institute reported a few years ago that severe asthma in African- Americans was much more likely to have a hereditary component to it than asthma in European- Americans.  The actual genetic reasons are not clear but are the subject of intense investigation.  All these differences may also impact the response to currently available asthma medications.  Research studies currently underway at the Asthma Institute are being done to help to determine the best asthma medications to treat African- Americans with asthma.  We are excited that this is the first study to address this critically important issue which may also improve the health of African- Americans with asthma.

 

PUM: Balancing career and home life, what has worked for you on your path to success?

 

Dr. Wenzel: Having a very understanding husband has been enormously helpful to me.  He contributes more than his share of managing issues as they arise outside of work.  In addition, I (with my husband’s buy-in) decided NOT to have children.  And yes, while there are days I regret that, overall it has made my life much less stressful.  While I do think that some women can in fact “do it all”, I think it is incredibly difficult to do well.  Is that fair?  Well probably not…. But for me it worked.

 

PUM: What are you most proud of as a Woman whom inspires other women every day?

Dr. Wenzel: Several things, from seeing a young colleague succeed in her career, to seeing a woman patient’s face light up for the first time in years because someone “got it” to leading the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute at UPMC in the Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine Division. 

 

To Learn More About The University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute Click Here

 

 

 

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