Gelareh Zadeh
Dr. Gelareh Zadeh has been appointed to the position of the Dan Family Chair in the Division of Neurosurgery at University of Toronto. (Photo: UHN)

After an international search, Dr. Gelareh Zadeh has been appointed to the position of the Dan Family Chair in the Division of Neurosurgery at the University of Toronto (U of T). Dr. Zadeh, the first woman to hold the position at the university and the first female neurosurgery chair in Canada, will follow Dr. Andres Lozano, who has held the role for the past 10 years.

Immigrating to Canada as a teenager, Dr. Zadeh attended medical school at University of Manitoba and completed her neurosurgery residency and her PhD at U of T. She spent time in the U.K. completing a fellowship at University College London, before joining the neurosurgery faculty at Toronto Western Hospital, part of UHN, in 2008.

Dr. Zadeh is currently co-Director of the Krembil Brain Institute at UHN, a Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, as well as Division Head of Surgical Oncology and the newly appointed Division Head of Neurosurgery, at UHN.

Q-and-A with Dr. Gelareh Zadeh

What do you remember about moving to Winnipegas a teenager?

I remember cold, snow, winter, short days, early and long nights, the many challenges of being part of an immigrant family with little money, no job and knowing only one family from before. It was quite isolating in the beginning. I also remember not quite fitting into high school, though they had been most welcoming to accept me in the last six months of Grade 12. But, more importantly, what I also remember from those early days, are the kind and humble Manitobans. The motto of the province – "friendly Manitoba" was totally right! When summer started, the province transformed – I'll never forget the first warm sunny day after the long winter of 1989.

Did you always want to be a doctor and a scientist?

My father always told me to pursue what makes me happy and not to work too hard, to enjoy life. My mother encouraged me to do what came naturally, rather than force myself into a career path. I got into medicine truly by accident. I was on my way to becoming a mathematician, but through a simple act of fate, I had one professor who turned me off from the field. She did a huge service to me, in hindsight! I'm thankful for her and learned that truly every challenge brings an opportunity, quite befitting of the pandemic.

What inspires you in your work?

As a neurosurgeon, in the majority of brain tumours, I can remove the tumour and have a positive impact. But, there are a number of Glioblastoma cases where my impact as a surgeon is limited. I can resect 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the tumour, but that additional component that is left behind is where the challenge remains. So, when I think about why I want to understand more about the tumour biology, it's really to be able to tackle that 10 per cent to 20 per cent that we can't help with surgery. That is why we do the research that we do. We want to understand more about the biology of the tumour, why the cells came about in the first place, what makes them grow and where can we intervene to stop the tumour cells from growing and from coming back. That's where my motivation comes from, to be able to find cures that add to surgery and that can ultimately prolong our patients' lives and help them have a better quality of life.

Why aren't there more women in the field of neurosurgery?

The number one reason women give for why they do not choose neurosurgery is due to a lack of role models and mentorship opportunities. I never had a single female mentor in my training. For example, I have never operated with a more senior female neurosurgeon, as a trainee or colleague. As well, 15, 20 years ago, going into neurosurgery as a woman may have meant that you felt you had to sacrifice having a family. But, I have just had my second child and I truly feel that we are in a different generation and one that recognizes the value of diversity. We need more role models to show women that they can have a family and a very successful, fulfilling career. I have had great role models – all men – who have embodied many of the values and characteristics that are important to me and which I try to emulate.

What is your advice to anyone considering neurosurgery as a career? 

If it is something that you think you might enjoy, explore it. If after you have the exposure, you know you want to do it, go for it no matter what! There are challenges in everything that matters in life and you have to find what works for you and not just go along with the path that is expected or prescribed for you. Being a neurosurgeon is not easy, there are many sacrifices and challenges along the way, but it can also be incredibly rewarding both personally and professionally.

How do you feel about your appointment as Chair of Neurosurgery? What does this mean to you?

I am excited! I am energized and charged to bring together an ambitious and creative modern vision for the future of the Division. I am thrilled about the opportunity to foster diversity and build partnerships within the Division and with all hospitals in the University of Toronto network, plus nationally and internationally. I know that what I will be most proud of, is the legacy of training the next generation of neurosurgeons, embracing their diversity in strength, talent, interests and who they are as individual people.  

I feel most rewarded and accomplished when I can successfully make reality of creative ideas and projects I dream of. I have always been driven by making my own path, dreaming my own dream and making it happen. I am most motivated by doing something that is unique and different rather than what is common. 

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