ARTICLE IN BRIEF
Ralph Józefowicz, MD, FAAN, was awarded the Leading in Excellence Through Mentorship award at this year's AAN Annual Meeting. Colleagues and mentees he has worked with over the years discuss the reasons why he deserves the award.
There are certain people who have the uncanny ability to make everyone they meet feel noticed, heard, and recognized.
Ralph Józefowicz, MD, FAAN, is one of those people, neurologists from all career stages told Neurology Today. It is why they said they were not surprised that he was selected to receive the AAN's second annual Leading in Excellence Through Mentorship award at this year's AAN Annual Meeting.
“What always comes across is his joy in what he does. You just feel like there's no place he'd rather be than talking with you,” said Allison L. Weathers, MD, FAAN, associate chief medical information officer at the Cleveland Clinic, who was mentored by Dr. Józefowicz as part of the AAN's Emerging Leaders Program and was one of the individuals who nominated him for the award. “You feel like he really sees you and who you are as a person. And he is able to use that to provide the advice and guidance that you need.”
Dr. Józefowicz, professor of neurology and of medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), said that his passion for teaching and guiding younger professionals began early in his career.
“Even as a resident, I was always teaching. During my second through third year of neurology residency, I began to teach neuroscience to first-year medical students, and I absolutely loved doing that,” he said.
“I like to explain to people what may not be obvious. Neurology is complicated; something like trying to figure out where a lesion is and what's causing it is a very systematic process. It frequently is taught poorly because the teachers are unable to get into the mind of the student. What might be very obvious for a senior clinician when they see a patient isn't so obvious to the student, but they have problems putting themselves into the student's head and thinking what pitfalls they might have gotten into. I always had a knack for doing this, taking a step back and building on the information so that by the end of a teaching session, it was obvious to the student how we got there.”
Dr. Józefowicz's aptitude for teaching small-group case studies to the students in the basic neuroscience course — “They were hungry for clinical information,” he said — led the course director to ask him, as a fellow, to become the co-director.
“In a one-hour meeting, we transformed the course, eliminating lectures and putting in more case studies. We got other residents to write those and got them involved in teaching.”
After many years co-directing the course, he took over as course director and also became director of the third-year neurology clerkship.
When URMC redesigned its curriculum in 2000, Dr. Józefowicz worked with a colleague from the department of psychiatry to create a new second-year course called Mind, Brain, and Behavior that integrates psychopathology with neural science and neuropathology, and today is considered one of the best such courses nationwide.
As chair of the A.B. Baker Section of Neurologic Educators at the AAN, and later chair of the Academy's Education Committee, Dr. Józefowicz has also mentored many Academy members, developing teacher-educators and guiding subcommittee chairs in leading their committees. He has also served as a member of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN), where he helped new members navigate the workings of the board and learn to contribute effectively.
“A lot of these things are not self-evident, and people don't know how to get into the minds of a new member of the committee, but I enjoy doing that.”
Dr. Józefowicz named two giants in the field as his own most important mentors: Robert Joynt, MD, FAAN, who founded URMC's department of neurology and later became dean and chief executive officer, as well as a president of the AAN and the American Neurological Association; and Robert C. “Berch” Griggs, MD, chair of URMC's department of neurology from 1986 to 2008, who also served as AAN president and as editor-in-chief of Neurology.
“A mentor is someone who likes you, opens doors for you, is not judgmental but is not afraid to tell you when you're screwing up, and is available when you have a crisis of decision-making,” said Dr. Józefowicz. “Both of them opened doors for me but didn't tell me what to do.
“When I told Berch Griggs that I needed a mentor, he said, ‘You're your own mentor.’ He was making a point that I was charting a new course as clinician educator in neurology at a time when the only way to be successful in neurology was to do research and get grants. He knew I was doing a fine job and didn't think there were people who could specifically help me design my career, but he always supported me.”
Good mentors mentor not by telling, but by asking, Dr. Józefowicz said. “Just the other day, a junior faculty member who is interested in education emailed me about the Emerging Leaders Program. He wasn't certain whether to focus on research, clinical, or teaching. It's easy to say, ‘focus on this,’ but that's not the way to mentor. I asked him what his passion was and said he should focus on that in order to be successful.”
Charlene Gamaldo, MD, FAAN, medical director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital in Maryland, who also nominated Dr. Józefowicz for the award, remembers being impressed by his credentials during an AAN meeting when she was still a resident.
“Fast forward almost 10 years later: I was fortunate to be in the inauguration class for the Transforming Leaders program, and it was a thrill to have Ralph be my assigned mentor,” Dr. Gamaldo said.
“For somebody who is seen by many within the educational arena as a legend, it was amazing how completely approachable and down to earth he was from the moment we had our first conversation all the way to the last AAN meeting when we had a chance to reconnect. Throughout the program he was so helpful not just from the standpoint of professional development and guidance, but he also gave me some very nice input with a personal project I was doing. It had to do with faculty development and how to maximize ways to implement different programs. With Ralph being so involved in education, those concepts are really in his DNA and it was helpful to get his insights.”
Even in subspecialty fields removed from his own, Dr. Józefowicz offers insightful guidance, said Dr. Weathers. Her career as a clinical informaticist is a relatively new field and not one he's had much involvement with. “It's not something a lot of neurologists do,” she said. “But he was able to tailor his advice to meet my needs, listening to the scenarios I was in and understanding my unique challenges.”
For more than two decades, Dr. Józefowicz has taught the neurology clerkship at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, one of the oldest universities in Europe. Every year, he spends a month in Krakow, bringing 10 of his medical students and all his senior neurology residents.
“My residents give lectures, they lead teaching rounds with patients, and the medical students lead case studies and teach the students how to examine patients,” he said. “I sit in on various groups, watching the students and residents do this, and I have the greatest satisfaction watching them succeed.”
As a mentor, he said he has one simple mission: to help people be successful. “I'm happiest when I make people happy. When you get to be senior, if it's still about you then you're a narcissist. It's about other people, making them successful. I am so proud of my residents and so proud of my medical students.”
Many of his former mentees are now leaders themselves. In Poland, four are now either deans or chairs of departments, while several of his former residents in the United States are now program directors or educators.
Given his many commitments, how does he find time to dedicate to mentoring? Time is always a challenge, he acknowledged. “When you get senior, you have a lot of responsibilities, especially administrative responsibilities. But busy people always find time to do things,” he said. “When there are students in my second-year course at Rochester who want to pick my brain, I'll go out for a beer and burger with them to talk about what they want to talk about.”
“I listen to what they tell me, I ask them questions, and help them formulate what they want to do. I make time for people. I never say no.”