Despite her extensive list of professional credits and global recognition in the field of vision and ophthalmology, native New Yorker Penny Asbell, MD, FACS, MBA, FARVO, now calls herself a hometown Memphian, excited about progress toward the goals she's pursuing as chair and professor of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) Department of Ophthalmology and director of the Hamilton Eye Institute.
As a tenured professor of ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, and demonstrably a master multi-tasker, Dr. Asbell distinguished herself as a clinician, academician, surgeon, scholar, lecturer, researcher and prolific author -- as well as a dynamic leader and organizer. Her delight in multiple involvements is "a life passion," she admits. "I love doing many things!"
History bears out her claim. An early interest in science at the grade-school level led her to a BS in biochemistry from the University of Chicago, to the broadening experience of world travel, then to earn her medical degree -- as first in her class - from State University of New York (SUNY). She pursued post-doctoral studies in internal medicine at Yale before being encouraged by her brother - an ophthalmologist - to give ophthalmology a try at New York University Medical Center.
She enjoyed it so much that she also pursued fellowships at NYU, and cornea study at Louisiana State University Eye Center, before earning an MBA from Baruch College, New York, and completing the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine program at Drexel University.
She was drawn to Memphis in 2018 by the opportunity to apply her skills in organizational development and leadership as Chair for Ophthalmology at UTHSC. "Being a chair gives you a greater opportunity to make lives better, not just our patients, but also our faculty, staff and everybody involved."
She points with pride to UTHSC's Hamilton Eye Institute (HEI), which offers not only patient care and an ambulatory OR for eye surgery, but also a research floor where both translational and clinical research are in progress.
"This is an area that's dear to my heart," she said. "I've been very active in clinical trials that set the standard for patient care in certain areas, such as eye infections caused by a virus, herpes simplex virus infections and refractive surgery. Clinical trials give us an opportunity to take interesting and thoughtful ideas in clinical care and determine more definitively their ability to do what they're supposed to be doing, as well as their safety. That's how we make strides to improve patient care.
"One of the things that I developed since I came here is having a specific area within our institute for clinical research. I'm really excited about expanding our clinical research opportunities, and we are already doing that with the dedicated space, and hiring clinical coordinators to help us move trials forward."
Her growing department has recently added four new faculty members on the clinical side and one on the research side -- "which gives us even greater opportunity to address the needs of our patients and the world at large," she said.
She points to exciting areas being explored and developed -- inspired by ongoing research efforts by UTHSC's Siamak Youselfi, PhD, that use artificial intelligence as a tool to detect glaucoma.
Dr. Asbell describes other efforts to develop biomarkers -- minimally invasive methods to better define, diagnose and treat dry eye and other diseases. Current studies are examining proteins in tears to determine neurological diseases like Alzheimer's.
She also cites recent discoveries that identify methods of addressing macular degeneration, the leading cause of significant vision loss in the U.S. -- among them gene therapy to grow new retinal tissue.
"I think we will definitely see new opportunities to maintain vision and also to correct it, in cases of macular degeneration," she said.
She outlines current plans for the Vision 2020 CME event that HEI will host in April -- an objective meeting for medical education on research and clinical care, featuring world-renowned speakers from Europe and the U.S., including FDA leaders in devices and pharmaceuticals for eye care.
This large-scale summit conference will demonstrate, she hopes, a commitment among experts, clinicians and researchers to collaborate and to foster a growth mentality toward innovation in order to universally protect and improve vision for all.
In addition to pursuing and sharing advancements in research, Dr. Asbell's other priorities include mentoring and mission work.
One role of an academic medical center, she believes, is "to grow new people who become collaborative, committed to a team approach for professional care, and who demonstrate the core values of integrity and dedication."
Mentoring is key to the discussion and sharing of those core values with student volunteers, residents in training and medical students beginning their careers, she stresses. In fact, the personal achievement she values most, among multiple honors and awards, is the enjoyment of mentoring residents and students who go on to establish their own successful and productive careers. "Nothing could be more delightful than having the opportunity to be a part of their career growth, and see that they've become productive, dedicated individuals providing great medical care."
In further support of core value development, she has implemented a commitment to global missions that allow residents and participating faculty to help other parts of the world that may have less sophisticated or less available medical care. "It also allows our residents to see and learn ways of treating patients, sometimes without the most sophisticated equipment; so it's a win-win for everybody," she said.
Their recent mission, to impoverished areas of the Dominican Republic, enabled her team to diagnose and treat more than 100 patients, in some cases performing cataract surgery that enabled patients to see within 24 hours.
"It's very rewarding and very helpful to that community, in terms of teaching skills they could continue to use even after we left. This is an area I want to expand to allow for more global missions."
She applauds the strengths of Mid-South hospitals and healthcare providers: "One of the things that jump out as a real quality of excellence is the collaboration between the specialties - not only different sub-specialties of ophthalmologists, but between other departments and other specialists. That is really one of the positives of the medical community throughout Memphis in all of the hospitals - the collaboration."
Another positive she notes is "a commitment to unmet medical needs, regardless of insurance or financial concerns." This is reflected at UTHSC as well, where "the Hamilton Eye Institute and the Department of Ophthalmology are committed to taking care of everybody who shows up."
A wife and mother of two grown children--including an ophthalmologist daughter who also teaches-- Dr. Asbell enjoys spending her free time at the gym, walking wherever possible -- to work, in Overton Park and other area parks -- and listening to music that reflects the rich musical history of Memphis and the Delta, as shared by her favorite station, WYPL- 89.3 FM.
Enthusiastic about the support she enjoys from a great team of faculty, residents, administrative and professional staff, Dr. Asbell reminds colleagues and others within the Mid-South medical community that UTHSC's HEI and ophthalmology department are here to collaborate: "When you or your patients have questions, we're here to answer them. Feel free to reach out to me at 901-448-1911. I'm happy to help."