Teacher and researcher educates future doctors who help world wide

[by Dianna Ott]

Ophthalmologist Shlomit Schaal, M.D., Ph.D. is among those who will be recognized at the eighth annual MOSAIC Awards to be held on Thursday, May 30, at The Henry Clay. This fundraising event, which benefits Jewish Family & Career Services, honors immigrants and refugees who have made a significant contribution in their profession and in the community.

“I am surprised and honored to receive the award,” said Dr. Schaal, who was born in Haifa, Israel, and graduated Summa Cum Laude from Technion Israel Institute of Technology. “I think it is a very nice thing. Being an immigrant means there are unique difficulties. Your family is across the ocean and although you have your close family here with you there’s not much help around.”

In 2005, she moved to the United States to enter the University of Louisville School of Medicine with a fellowship in vitreoretinal research through the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. Following that was a second fellowship in vitreoretinal surgery, completed in 2008. She now serves as assistant professor and, in 2011, assumed the role of director of the Diabetic Retinopathy Service. “Many people come here, to the United States, like I did, to further their education,” said Dr. Schaal.

As both a teacher and a researcher, Dr. Schaal, 43, teaches a new generation of doctors at the University of Louisville. Many of the young doctors under her clinical supervision will eventually leave the U.S., taking their skills and expertise back to different parts of the world. She teaches medical students, residents and supervises retina fellows from the U.S., Israel, Turkey and Jordan.

Her original intention was to go back to Israel herself, but after a change of thinking and what she describes as “a new mindset,” she realized she if she stayed, she would have a greater impact by preparing other doctors. Schaal described the work of an Israeli doctor she supervised, who returned home last year. “When I saw how he implemented all the things I taught him,” she remarked, “I felt both pride and satisfaction. This is why I know it was absolutely worth it to stay.”

As a researcher, Dr. Schaal works with a team to isolate biomarkers to help diagnose and minimize the effect of eye diseases caused by diabetes before the damage occurs. “We already have one test with high potential, but as it takes years to develop these, we are hopeful for results within the next decade,” said Schaal.

Valedictorian of her medical school graduating class in 1995, she completed her residency and simultaneously earned her doctorate in 2005. Her interest in ophthalmology as a specialty came while she was under the tutelage of Dr. Itzhak Beiran while doing an internship at Nahariya Medical Center during her mandatory military service. Beiran, an army general and commander, later became Surgeon General of the Israeli Navy and the vice chairman of Rambam Medical Center.

During her residency, she opted to take time off to earn her Ph.D., which Dr. Beiran thought “was a little bit crazy, but he allowed me to do it.” Dr. Schaal, who calls Beiran her mentor, invited him to Louisville to give a visiting lecture at the University of Louisville in 2010.

Growing up in Haifa, artistically-inclined Shlomit Golen believed she’d one day become an architect. However her father, an engineer, encouraged her to apply for medical school first because, she said, “He told me I should always try for the most difficult, and medical school was the hardest to get into.” Both parents – father, Joseph, and mother, Ida Golen, instilled in her the importance of education, hard work and study.

“What did you learn?” was the first question her mother, a teacher, always asked. “It didn’t matter what subject, but study was the main thing. It was everything to my parents,” said Schaal.

“But my brother, Ofer, who is younger than me by three years, is the smart one. He’s a genius,” laughed Schaal. “He was allowed in the Talpiot program to study math, chemistry, physics and economics, which meant he was required to serve nine years in the army. He now manages a venture capital firm in Tel Aviv which is helping to develop new medicines.”

But one of the “most important things” her parents did was to encourage their children to take up the sport of swimming, which Schaal says taught her to take responsibility. “Since swimming is an individual sport, you cannot blame the pool, you cannot blame the water. Swimming demands thinking and concentration and is a lesson in how to live life. You cannot blame anyone but yourself.”

In fact, it was through swimming that she met Maor Schaal, who would later become her husband. They met as teenagers and still swim together on the Swim KY masters team, where she has competed nationally for the past three years.

Together they have four daughters. Noy, 20, is in her third year at Speed Scientific School studying to be a computer engineer, which Schaal attributes to the encouragement of Maor, who is the CEO of a computer engineering firm, Titan Pro. Seventeen-year-old Yuval will graduate from Manual High School this spring and follow her sister to the Speed School, also to study engineering. Twins Hala and Yam, 14, who attend Ballard and Kentucky Country Day, might be the best bets to follow their mother into medicine. Yam just won first place at the science fair in the medical/health category.

The four Schaal daughters spend their summers in Israel. All were born in Israel, and the family feels that it is important to maintain the language and the traditions of their home country. When they first arrived in Louisville, their oldest daughter was in eighth grade and found the adjustment to life in the U.S. difficult.

“It took three to four years for the children to feel comfortable in their new environment,” said Schaal.

Schaal describes people in Louisville as “welcoming and warm-hearted” and feels embraced by the community here. She likes the religious diversity in Louisville and in the U.S. in general. The secular nature of society and the fact that life is not dominated by religious practice or politics also appeals to her. The Schaal family is not religious but continues to celebrate Jewish holidays and traditions.

Schaal’s mother Ida Golen is now retired and has suffered some health issues in recent years. Joseph Golen died 12 years ago. Dr. Schaal travels to visit her mother in Israel frequently and hopes Golen can travel to Louisville to attend the MOSAIC Awards ceremony in May.

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