Orange Alert

The Ultimate Mensch

Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller '53, G'55 has been revolutionizing medicine for more than half a century--and she's far from done.

Dec. 17, 2014, by Ron Enslin

Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller ’53, G’55 is proof that age need not stop one from being productive. The New York-based epidemiologist is still pumping out research projects that are just as relevant today as those produced at the onset of her career, some 50 years ago.

“I love my work,” says Sylvia, a Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Epidemiology and Population Health at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “I still work part time and continue to mentor students.”

An expert in cardiovascular disease and associated risk factors, Sylvia holds other titles at Einstein, whose faculty she joined in 1969 and include the Dorothy and William Manealoff Foundation and Molly Rosen Chair in Social Medicine Emerita. She’s also principal investigator of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), a landmark longitudinal study of more than 160,000 postmenopausal women.

Sylvia is especially proud of WHI because it is the largest study of its kind of women over 50. Experts say it has revolutionized medicine by proving that hormone therapy after menopause not only increases risk of heart attack, but also leads to stroke, dementia, and breast cancer.

“While the clinical trial of hormones is complete, we continue to look at the biomarkers and genetics of various diseases, as well as the biological and environmental factors that predict survival after cancer,” says Sylvia, who earned master’s and bachelor’s degrees in psychology and biology, respectively, from Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a landmark study, and I’m proud to be part of it.”

Other research projects with which she is involved are the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos, a multi-center epidemiologic study of more than 16,000 Hispanics and Latinos; and the International Genetics Stroke Consortium, designed to further understanding of the genetic basis of Stroke.

Sylvia owes much of her success to her liberal arts training at Syracuse. When she arrived there in the early ‘50s, the campus was attracting not only growing numbers of women and minorities, but also copious amounts of sponsored research. She threw herself into her studies and quickly made her presence known.

Among those who took notice was David Wassertheil ‘52, G'55, whom she married after he returned from the Korean War. Their union was tragically cut short after 13 years, when David died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1968, leaving Sylvia with a six-year-old son, Jordan. 

“That’s when my research career started,” she says. “I knew nothing about medicine and wanted to know what Hodgkin's disease was, what caused it, and how such a devastating thing could happen.”

A year later, Sylvia earned a Ph.D. in statistics from New York University and was hired as the first statistician in what was then Einstein’s community health department, the precursor to today’s Department of Epidemiology and Population Health. Over the years, her warmth and generosity have earned her a reputation for being the “ultimate mensch.”

Sylvia wears many hats—investigator, educator, researcher, and mentor—and, in the process, has inspired numerous students, research fellows, and junior faculty members to greatness. But it is her son of whom she is most proud.

“In 1969, I was a single mother, trying to take care of Jordan and put food on the table,” Sylvia says. “Today, he is a fine man in every way, brilliant and humble, with the highest integrity, wisdom, humor, and compassion. Sometimes, we even get to work together.”

Sylvia is referring to Biostatistics and Epidemiology: A Primer for Health and Biomedical Professionals (Springer, 2014), which she has co-authored with Jordan and whose fourth edition is due out shortly. They also have co-written numerous scientific papers.

“I am inspired by my mother’s courage, optimism, and love of life, despite the inevitable losses and sadness it can bring,” Jordan says. “I’m amazed at her ability to balance work life and family life and to turn her work life into a family life."

Jordan is a psychiatry professor and genetic researcher at Harvard Medical School and an epidemiology professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He also holds multiple appointments at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Besides being the most wonderful mother, she’s been the ultimate role model for me. Her intellectual curiosity, her compassion, and the joy she takes in the collaborations with and successes of others are remarkable. I wish I had half the energy she has," adds Jordan, author of The Other Side of Normal: How Biology Is Providing the Clues to Unlock the Secrets of Normal and Abnormal Behavior (William Morrow, 2012), a highly regarded book for the educated public.

Sylvia has come a long way, literally and figuratively, from her student days at Syracuse. She recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of publishing a novel, Rachel and Aleks: A Historical Novel of Life, Love, and World War II (iUniverse, 2007). Her other passions include reading and literature. She even has started studying music theory.

“One of the great pleasures of life, for me, is learning new things," she says. "I believe deeply in the power of lifelong learning--particularly science, where continous learning is essential because there are rapid advances."

Sylvia is also proud of the role she has played in making research less male-dominated. 

“When I was starting out, a woman’s voice was sometimes listened to but was not taken as seriously as a man’s,” says Sylvia, who has published more than 200 scholarly articles. “Today, it’s much different--research has become sex blind. What counts is merit and hard work. It’s a good time for a woman to be in science.”

Media Contact

Ron Enslin