Zarina Ali, MD

Zarina Ali, MD

Effective Jan. 1, Zarina Ali, MD, took the helm as chief of Neurosurgery at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. Ali, the first female neurosurgeon at Pennsylvania Hospital, launched her career with the health system as a neurosurgery resident with subspecialty training in peripheral nerve surgery. She is now an assistant professor of Neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine, senior fellow of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, and co-director of the multidisciplinary Penn Nerve Center. Ali spoke with Presby Bulletin about her new leadership role and her advice on working in a predominantly male specialty.

What are your priorities as Presby’s Neurosurgery chief?

I will shape and build upon the clinical practices of our current faculty at PPMC who subspecialize in the treatment of complex spine and nerve disorders, as well as cranial neuro-oncologic disease and neurotrauma. I also hope to further our research mission, including collaborating with other departments to build upon our traumatic brain injury, spinal cord, and nerve injury research, as well as grow our Enhanced Recovery After Neurosurgery quality improvement program at PPMC for elective spine and peripheral nerve surgery. In terms of education, our residency training program is a primary focus of advancement. We will further develop our didactic and hands-on training programs for our trainees and students. In addition to our multi-disciplinary conferences, our faculty plan to lead cadaver and simulation lab sessions which will allow for residents to master technical neurosurgical skills in a safe, educational setting.

You’ve been hailed as a trailblazing woman leading Philly medicine. What can you tell us about being a female physician in a leadership role?

Women are definitely in the minority in terms of gender representation within neurosurgery, and more so in leadership positions. It takes intentional recognition and investment in diversifying the talent pool to foster change. I’m grateful to my mentors, including Penn Medicine’s former chair of Neurosurgery, M. Sean Grady, MD, and current chair Daniel Yoshor, MD, for promoting my growth from a resident to junior faculty member, to now holding this leadership role. I recognize there are few women in similar roles at a national level, and while that can be discouraging, this is a real opportunity to demonstrate to the current and next generation of trainees what is possible. I’m also encouraged by Penn Medicine’s unique legacy in promoting and sponsoring talented women in leadership roles and know that I am in good company!

What advice do you have for medical students in your field?

Some of the best advice I got, when I was a student considering the field of neurosurgery and there were very few women going into my field, was to focus my efforts on being the best neurosurgeon I could be, regardless of gender. This requires a strong work ethic and dedication to your patients. It’s important in our high-stakes field to be humble, have integrity, and cultivate intellectual curiosity. Finding and surrounding oneself with people who will support and also challenge you is integral to one’s personal and professional growth.


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