Dr. Justin Ahn and Dr. Joseph Scales: John D. McConnell Award for Excellence in Urology

By Lin Lofley

On the face of it, Dr. Justin Ahn and Dr. Joseph Scales couldn’t appear more different. The former comes from a family that includes several doctors; the latter is the first member of his family to finish college. 

Dr. Ahn graduated from the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School, a college preparatory school in Los Angeles, before attending Emory University and earning a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology. Dr. Scales graduated from Round Rock High School in Texas, worked odd jobs for a while, and then landed in entry-level health care jobs that brought him into contact with physicians who saw something in him.

Neither knew much about urology, but the specialty drew their attention. Both were honored recently with the 2013 John D. McConnell Award for Excellence in Urology.

Dr. Justin Ahn

Dr. Justin Ahn
Dr. Justin Ahn

Surrounded by physicians as he grew up – including his vascular surgeon father, Samuel, UT Southwestern Class of 1977, and his neurologist aunt, the late Dr. Suzanne Ahn, Class of 1978 – Dr. Ahn didn’t really start to think about medical school until his college years.

“I always wanted to be a fighter pilot,” he said. “But when my dad took me into the operating room and I saw the impact that surgeons have on the lives of people, it got my attention.”

Understanding urology was still to come, though. “I didn’t even know it was part of surgery. I grew up watching ‘ER’ and ‘House’ on television, but they never had urologists in those shows.”

Dr. Ahn, who has committed to a residency at the University of Washington, in Seattle, is intrigued by the many directions that a career in urology might take.

“There’s a lot of surgery in the field, and important procedures. But you also get to maintain the quality of care directly with the patient. I can’t wait to get started,” he said.

Dr. Joseph Scales

Dr. Joseph Scales
Dr. Joseph Scales

Dr. Scales identifies himself as a “nontraditional” student, which might be putting it mildly. While working in a group home in the Austin area, he made an important discovery: “I liked spending time with the patients. It was the best part of my day.”

Working as a case manager, he got to know the physicians who were caring for his clients. Some of them urged him to consider going to medical school, which presented a challenge because Dr. Scales, now age 30, had never taken the SAT or ACT tests. So he enrolled in Austin Community College, then earned entry to UT Austin and eventually to UT Southwestern Medical School.

His hard work and determination paid off in an upcoming residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and the opportunity to continue his unusual journey.

“I’m excited about going to the Mayo Clinic and to see what it holds,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m headed to a career in academics or in private practice. But I look forward to finding out.”

He and his wife, Layne, have an 18-month-old daughter, Ella, and moving to Minnesota is an adventure in itself. To reach this point, Dr. Scales credits the mentorship he received in the Department of Urology.

The McConnell Award honors the clinician whom many in the Department still credit for the success of Urology at UT Southwestern.

“John McConnell (now Chief Executive Officer at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.) was the third Chair of what was then the Division of Urology at UT Southwestern,” said Dr. Claus Roehrborn, Chair of Urology. “He oversaw the elevation of Urology to department status. He modernized urology here and brought us into the 21st century by introducing a doctoral program and increasing grant support for basic research.”

Dr. Roehrborn holds the E.E. Fogelson and Greer Garson Fogelson Distinguished Chair in Urology, and the S.T. Harris Family Chair in Medical Science, in Honor of John D. McConnell, M.D.

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