Ophthalmologist leads field in research, instruction
Tsai, former resident of Hollidaysburg, continues family’s dedication to patients
Former Hollidaysburg resident Dr. James Tsai, 58, has forged an impressive career in ophthalmology research, instruction and leadership.
Tsai is president of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai in Manhattan — America’s first and longest operating specialty hospital — and is system chairman of the Department of Ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Mount Sinai Health System.
Tsai’s a fourth-generation physician.
Local residents may remember his late father David Tsai, a cardiologist who modeled dedication to patients — a legacy continued by James and his younger sister Linda, an ophthalmologist in
Altoona ophthalmologist Robert M. Budd, who specializes in glaucoma diagnosis and treatment, called Tsai’s research and resume impressive because glaucoma treatments “expanded because of Dr. Tsai’s research contributions … (especially) research he has done on the neuroprotective agents to preserve sight and prevent further damage and the use of (surgical) shunts. He’s written on different surgical and medical therapies and we need leaders like that in medicine to keep things moving and make treatment more efficacious.”
Born in Taiwan, Tsai and his parents, David and Janet Tsai, came to the United States in 1967 so his father could pursue further education to become a cardiologist in New York.
The family later moved to Blair County.
David Tsai served patients in his private cardiology practice in the Duncansville area, at the Van Zandt VA Medical Center and as chairman of the internal medicine department at Mercy Hospital in Altoona.
After attending public schools in the Flushing/Queens area of New York, James Tsai described moving to racially homogeneous Hollidaysburg as “a total 180,” but still found acceptance. The few exceptions were hearing racial slurs while traveling with Hollidaysburg sports teams to rural areas. He played junior varsity basketball and played varsity tennis in ninth and 10th grades.
“You have to remember that this was in the mid- to late ’70s, so many teams didn’t expect to see an Asian-American athlete,” he said.
The summer before his junior year, his mother “thought I was slacking off and sent me to boarding school,” Tsai said, laughing. He finished high school at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.
The move invigorated Tsai’s pursuit of academic excellence and imbued a lifelong love of travel.
“My parents were always focused on academics,” he said. “I look back fondly on the teachers and classmates I had at Hollidaysburg. I love to go to the reunions and reconnect with folks. I realized Hollidaysburg had a lot of great students and that made me a better student.”
He last visited the area in September to attend the Class of 1981’s 40th reunion.
His time at Phillips Exeter set him on a prestigious educational path. Tsai earned a medical degree from Stanford University, then completed his residency in ophthalmology at the LAC-USC Medical Center and Doheny Eye Institute, then affiliated with the University of Southern California. He did several fellowships at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, University of Miami Health System and at Moorfields Eye Hospital/Institute of Ophthalmology in London.
He later earned a Master of Business Administration from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, which, he said, broadened his perspective and sharpened his skills.
“An MBA made me see medicine differently — More through the eyes of the consumer and patient,” Tsai said.
Prior to Mount Sinai, Tsai served as the ophthalmology/visual science department chairman at Yale University School of Medicine and Chief of Ophthalmology at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He previously directed the glaucoma division at the Edward S. Harkness Eye Institute, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
He became enamored with the body’s vision system as a neuroscience major during undergraduate studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
“The vision system is so interesting and plays such a major role in how we interact with the world. In college, I became involved in research and studied artificial visual pigments with a professor who had been a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Nobel prize winner Dr. George Wald. Dr. Wald won the (1967) Nobel in Medicine for isolating rhodopsin, the main visual pigment that absorbs light energy and starts the complicated process of converting this energy to electrical signals in the brain. Vision is such a complex sense and so much brain function is dedicated to vision. It’s fascinating.”
Throughout his career, Tsai said he’s been energized and motivated by challenges, whether as a professor teaching the next generation of doctors, in the lab doing research or treating patients.
“I love the challenge in treating glaucoma,” Tsai said. Research continues to show how vision health continually impacts other areas of health and life. Poor vision in later years, such as from cataracts, contributes to increased risks of hip fractures and dementia.
In addition to his roles as hospital administrator, researcher and healer, Tsai has mentored others, including Dr. Christopher Teng of Yale University. Teng serves as vice chair of clinical affairs, director of glaucoma and is an associate professor of Ophthalmology at Yale University School of Medicine. He is also pursuing an MBA at Yale upon the advice of Tsai.
“Dr. Teng is the glaucoma specialist of the future,” Tsai said of the colleague, who is 15 years his junior.
The two met in 2005 when Teng was in residency training and Tsai gave a lecture.
“He really leads by example. Throughout the pandemic he’s been a leader who is seen and present,” Teng said.
Throughout the pandemic, Tsai has been leading New York Eye & Ear Infirmary, a world-renowned facility. He arrives at his office by 7 a.m. and focuses on his academic research and writes letters of recommendation prior to his administrative day at 8 a.m. Like many, remote meetings have replaced many of the evening in-person meetings and dinners. He also sees patients several days a week in-person and performs complex laser and incisional surgery procedures.
As an administrator, he’s made it a priority to be visible since the pandemic hit in March 2020.
“When running a hospital, frontline people have to see you every day. You have to walk around and talk to the patients, nurses, staff and surgeons and thank them,” he said. “I let them know I am grateful for them every day.”
The pandemic will continue to transform medicine, especially its delivery to patients. He likens medicine today to the banking industry prior to ATMs and electronic banking which put banking tasks more widely available and convenient.
“In the old days, it was very difficult for a patient to communicate with a physician outside of office hours, Monday through Friday. Now with electronic medical records and instant message functions it’s evolving. Medicine is still a bit of a dinosaur, but it’s evolving to give patients more access 24/7.”
Regardless of what challenges lie ahead, Tsai said he’s doing “what I’ve always liked to do — to make someone’s life a little better and to have a positive impact.”
The Tsai file
Name: James Tsai, M.D., M.B.A.
Residence: Scarsdale, New York
Family members: Wife, Tracey; daughters, Jessica, 23, and Emily, 18
Education: Magna Cum Laude graduate, Amherst College, Massachusetts; earned his medical degree from Stanford University School of Medicine and Master of Business Administration from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. He completed his residency in ophthalmology at the LAC-USC Medical Center and Doheny Eye Institute, then affiliated with University of Southern California
Employment: President of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai; clinician-scholar