Mark Schoenberg, M.D., is the chair of urology at Einstein and Montefiore and an internationally recognized authority on the treatment of bladder cancer. Dr. Schoenberg came to Einstein and Montefiore in 2014, after 20 years at the James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute at the Johns Hopkins University, where he served as the director of urologic oncology.
Both your father and grandfather were physicians. Did they influence your career choice?
Not at first. In college, at Yale, I was interested in Russian history and went to Russia to study and learn the language.
Was there family pressure to study medicine?
The only one who pressured me at all was my paternal grandmother. She told me that studying Russian was a waste of time because I was going to be a doctor. I laughed and told her it wouldn’t happen.
After I got back from Russia, I started reexamining my professional options. I was curious about medicine and took premed courses to figure out if that’s what I wanted to do. With no prior background in science, I really struggled. I applied to several medical schools but didn’t get in.
How did you wind up going to the University of Texas School of Medicine in Houston?
On my father’s advice I moved to Texas, which had a surplus of medical schools and a shortage of qualified applicants. I took additional science courses, improved my grade-point average, and worked in a couple of research labs, including one at MD Anderson Cancer Center. The combination of those extra experiences and Texas residency was enough to get me into the med school there.
How did you become interested in urology?
At first I was attracted to psychiatry, but ended up liking surgery and urology even more—to the amazement of my father, who was a urologist.
And cancer research?
I always wanted to do clinical research, but the question was, what field? Cancer seemed to be the most exciting choice. This was the early ’90s, when scientists were just starting to understand the genetics of cancer, which had enormous implications for diagnosis and treatment. That led me to a fellowship looking at the genetics of prostate cancer at Johns Hopkins.
Why did you switch your focus to bladder cancer?
After my fellowship, I was offered a position at Hopkins to work on bladder cancer. When I said I didn’t know anything about it, I was told, “You’ll learn.” And I did. Hopkins, like Einstein, has a tremendous bench of scientists with whom clinicians can do translational research. It turned out to be a very productive time. I promised my wife we’d stay just a few years and then we’d return to Philadelphia, where both of us are from. But we stayed in Baltimore for 20 years.
What are the greatest challenges in treating bladder cancer today?
First of all, we need more therapeutic options to offer patients with bladder cancer. Checkpoint inhibitors have transformed how we manage individual patients with metastatic bladder cancer, but we’re still not able to markedly change the clinical course of disease for most of them.
Your department has a high percentage of female urologists. Was that a conscious decision?
They weren’t recruited because they are women, but because they are excellent clinicians and researchers. Our department is about 40% female—five times the national average. This has paid tremendous dividends. It has introduced different points of view and pushed all of us, male and female, to rethink work-life balance, which of course is a particular challenge for female surgeons in training who are considering having children. We don’t have all the answers, but at least we’re grappling with it.
Does having more women on staff affect patient care?
Women in general want to see female doctors. Oncology was once the fastest-growing subspecialty within urology, but today it’s female pelvic medicine—problems such as female urinary incontinence, pelvic pain, and recurrent urinary tract infections. In collaboration with obstetrics and gynecology, we now have a Pelvic Floor Center at Montefiore, which is dedicated to these health issues.
How do you envision your role as department chair?
My goal is to support a culture of openness and the habit of clear-eyed questioning. I want our faculty and trainees to ask, “Why are we doing what we’re doing?” Don’t accept as gospel what you’re told. We have a young faculty, and it’s important to get this message across early in their careers. I also tell my faculty, “I don’t care what you work on, so long as you really dig into it.” That’s the path to a fruitful career in academic medicine, to personal intellectual growth, and to innovation.
In retrospect, your grandmother knew you best.
Maybe. But I do use my Russian now and then, when treating patients here in the Bronx.