Rising Star: Rahul Tonk
Rahul Tonk is a cornea, cataract and refractive surgeon at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, Florida, USA, where he also co-directs the cornea refractive surgery fellowship and oversees operations at the Institute’s satellite facility, the Lennar Foundation Medical Center
Tonk was interested in medicine from early childhood, when his father gave him a very accessible book on anatomy, Charlie Brown's ‘Cyclopedia of the Human Body. “I became fascinated with science and how the body worked, physiology and so forth, but I just didn't know where exactly to put that energy,” he says. Going on to study Applied Economics and Management major at Cornell University, he believed he’d take a different career path. That was until he went on a mission trip to Nicaragua in 2005, and had an opportunity to work in providing ophthalmic care and ophthalmology in very remote rural areas.
“The nature of restoring somebody's sight, especially people who are needlessly blind through cataract surgery, left an incredible impression on me,” Tonk explains. It convinced him that he did in fact want to pursue a medical route, but at the same time, he didn't want to give up his interest in health economics, administration, and entrepreneurship. So, he started medical school on a dual degree program at Rutgers Medical School and Rutgers Business School. “It gave me a medical education, but also the opportunity to take curricula in all of those other varied interests of mine, which has been fantastic and has led to the type of work that I do now.”
From Rutgers Tonk went on to residency training in Albany, New York, where among “many great mentors,” he singles out John Simon, who was the chairman of the ophthalmology department at the time. “He was a pediatric ophthalmologist and really taught me the humanity of talking with the patient and understanding their concerns and their parents' concerns – no matter how busy your clinic was.” He adds that Martha Farber, the first woman to chair the American Board of Ophthalmology, “drove me to become my best and to realize my potential.” Also, Ted Wladis, who is now Chairman of Albany Medical Center’s Department of Ophthalmology, “was always there when I needed him.” And he credits Rob Schultz with inspiring his interest in cornea refractive surgery. He also points to his Bascom Palmer Institute mentors, Kendall Donaldson, Carol Karp and Anat Galor, who have “helped me understand how to create a program where research, education, and clinical care could all reinforce each other.”
Following in the footsteps of some of the leaders and visionaries he’s worked with, Tonk would like to make an impact in two different ways. “There's the impact of scope and there's the impact on individuals,” he says. “There's nothing that fulfills me more than seeing the individuals I've mentored or trained go on to achieve extraordinary things. So, my purpose on the individual level is to continue working to inspire and mentor those very intelligent folks that are coming up in ophthalmology right now.”
In terms of scope, clinical research is a key area of interest for Tonk – whether developing original ideas inspired by patients seen in clinic, or working with industry to bring new medications or technologies to market. At the same time, having scope means being involved as a leader with domestic and international societies where ophthalmology can come together as a field. “We learn from each other, we educate each other, we share things, and we raise the tides and that carries all the ships forward. If we can be strong as a community of ophthalmologists, there's nothing we can't achieve in eye care.”
Meet the rest of The Ophthalmologist’s Power List Rising Stars in this video series, updated every month.
Julian Upton is Group Editor of The Ophthalmologist and The New Optometrist. With 20+ years' experience of the magazine industry, he has covered many facets of science and healthcare.