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Alum of the Month – February

Suzanne Schofield Connolly ’65

A Trailblazer in the Field of Dermatology

The first woman on the staff in the department of dermatology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and the founding chair of the department of dermatology at Mayo Clinic Arizona, Suzanne Schofield Connolly ’65 has blazed trails throughout her career in medicine, persevering in the face of gender bias.

For example, when Connolly’s husband, Peter, helped prep her for medical school interviews, he peppered her with questions that she thought would never be asked in the real world. She was wrong. “I was asked by one professor about prospects of pregnancy!” she recalled.

“There were just 10 women in my medical school class of 120, and we worked and studied hard,” she said. “Looking back, one regret is that there were no female physician mentors at the ready. That would have been helpful. Fortunately, the importance of mentoring is now emphasized.”

Connolly graduated from Santa Clara University, where she pursued pre-med studies, and then earned a master’s degree in immunology with an emphasis on virology (study of viruses) at UC Berkeley.

She received her medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco, and did her dermatology training at the Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota.

Connolly switched to medical school from the PhD track to have greater opportunities working with people, rather than mice. She chose to specialize in dermatology because it encompasses all medicine including microbiology, virology, oncology, and immunology – and all age groups. It also involves patient interaction as well as surgery.

The Path to Professional Fulfillment

When Connolly initially decided to pursue a career in medicine she didn’t fully consider the years she would have to invest in completing the requisite training – four years of medical school and four years of residency. “My husband was and is my ‘rock’ and my biggest supporter,” she said.

Yet Connolly relished every opportunity for learning – in particular working at the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester alongside the world’s top physicians. “A breadth of clinical cases are seen and the strength of care is really founded in working as a team – within a specialty department and among different departments – to address the needs of the patient,” she said. “Continuous professional development and learning were the real benefits of working in that type of environment. It was both humbling and stimulating, and there was always more to learn.”

After 12 years at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Connolly was asked in 1987 if her family would consider a move to Scottsdale, Arizona, where the Mayo Clinic was establishing a branch.

“We were thrilled to return to the West and it was an opportunity for me to head the Department of Dermatology at Mayo Clinic Arizona (where she remained until her retirement in 2010). It was a big task, but so worthwhile. I experienced lots of challenges and personal growth,” she said. “Although I’m now retired from active practice, I continue to work with residents and mentor medical students. Medical students from many schools across the country rotate at Mayo, but with Mayo’s opening of a medical school campus in Scottsdale, there is the opportunity to mentor individuals over their four years of med school training here which is terrific!”

“Patient care has always been my focus,” she said. “But education – working with medical students and residents as well lecturing on a local, regional, national, and international basis – and clinical research has always been a part of my activities,” she said.

Working in the field of medicine has been rewarding on a number of levels, Connolly said. “It’s a very service-oriented career,” she said. “And it was great to have the ability to be both a problem solver and a teacher.”

Connolly treated Senator John McCain from the time of the diagnosis of melanoma in his temple until she retired. “It was a privilege to participate in his care,” she said.

There are several precautions people can take to minimize the risk of skin cancer, said Connolly, including:

  1. Cover up

  2. Wear sunscreen- even on cloudy days (UV rays penetrate cloud cover) and reapply about every 2 hours when active

  3. Generously apply a broad spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB wavelengths of light), SPF 30 water-resistant sunscreen to all exposed areas of skin

  4. Seek shade

  5. Be skin aware – know your “spots” and be aware of changes in them, such as itching, bleeding, changes in size, color, or shape

  6. Wear sunglasses

During her career, Connolly held a host of leadership positions, including serving as vice president of the American Academy of Dermatology – the world’s largest dermatological society. She has also chaired the American Academy of Dermatology Task Force on Appropriate Use Criteria for Mohs Micrographic Surgery. Mohs is a precise surgical technique in which thin layers of cancer-containing skin are progressively removed and examined until only cancer-free tissue remains.

“I’ve actively participated, giving lectures, preparing posters, and writing articles for peer-reviewed journals in my specialty in local, regional, and national dermatological organizations,” she said. “It’s important to participate. Be there and be engaged!”

The opportunity to make a difference in the lives of patients has been the most rewarding aspect of her career, says Connolly. The most challenging? “There were never enough hours in the day!”


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