First-generation physician becomes leader in digital pathology revolution

Dr. Anil Parwani looking at cancer cells under a microscope

Anil Parwani’s youthful pursuit of a career in medical science was prompted by his fascination for biology, his compassion for acquaintances with incurable illnesses — and a stethoscope from times long past.

“My great-grandfather had a physician friend who gave him an old stethoscope from the 1920s to pass on to the next generation,” says Anil Parwani, MD, PhD, MBA, the Donald A. Senhauser, MD, Chair in Pathology and director of the Division of Anatomic Pathology in Ohio State’s College of Medicine. “It was my great-grandfather’s dream that someone in his family tree would become a physician. I had enjoyed science, anatomy and biochemistry in high school, and I also liked working with people, so it was a natural thing for me to seek this career.

“I also saw a lot of people among my close family and friends who were diagnosed with diseases for which there was no cure,” he says, “so I was very interested in learning more about human disease.”

Dr. Parwani still has his vintage stethoscope, keeping it safely stored at the home where he grew up in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan. He’s the only member of his immediate family of five to have entered the medical profession. His father has a farming business in Pakistan, his mother is a homemaker and his two brothers are in business-related fields in the Middle East.

Finding a calling in pathology

Dr. Parwani became a U.S. citizen several years ago while pursuing his PhD in virology at Ohio State. He subsequently earned an MD at Case Western Reserve University and served his medical residency in anatomical and clinical pathology at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he also completed his fellowship training in urological pathology. He worked at the University of Pittsburgh for 11 years before joining Ohio State’s medical faculty in 2015. Since then, he also has earned an MBA at Ohio State.

“I decided to pursue an MD and a pathology residency after my PhD in virology so I could combine my virology and infectious disease training with medical training,” Dr. Parwani says, explaining that he believed pathology would enable him to combine basic research in immunology and virology with understanding the patterns of infection and immunity in a host. “This also allowed me to interact with patients, which made me feel that my research was relevant to the advancement of diagnosis and therapeutics, and particularly the impact of vaccines.”

Now a globally renowned expert in his field, Dr. Parwani is leading a 10-year project to establish a Digital Pathology Center at Ohio State that will provide an end-to-end digital solution for primary diagnosis of disease, research, education, consultations and all aspects of pathology. The project, which essentially is replacing microscopes with digital images for faster and more accurate diagnoses of cancer and other diseases, began in 2017, so Dr. Parwani and colleagues are midway through it and going strong.

He’s pleased with his decision to pursue pathology. “If I had to do it all over again, I would still do it,” he says. “It was the best career choice I could have made, because it has allowed me to combine my research curiosity with patient care and translating findings from research to patients’ bedsides.”

A digital pathology revolution is leading to faster, more precise cancer diagnosis.

Dr. Parwani in his digital pathology lab
Dr. Anil Parwani is confident that the digital transformation of pathology is improving patient care and educational opportunities by providing cancer researchers with access to annotation-rich data that accelerates their studies.

His research curiosity and compassion for patients continue to guide him in transforming his field to the digital age, but he admits he’s had much help in his journey to the pinnacle of his profession.

“There have been several key leaders, educators and scholars who have guided and mentored me,” he explains, mentioning a professor at the University of Pittsburgh “who was considered to be a founder of modern-day pathology informatics.”

“And I have learned a lot from the cancer center leadership at Ohio State about institutional operations, and how they conduct their meetings and make decisions. By simply absorbing, you can learn a lot.”

Considering his many roles in the Department of Pathology, he says one of his biggest challenges has been achieving a work/life balance. He and his wife, Namrata, who works as a realtor and yoga instructor, have three children in their 20s, and he has always tried to be there for them despite his workload.

“I think the challenge is always to give time to your family and not feel like you’re compromising on your research,” Dr. Parwani says. “I’ve been fortunate that my wife and kids have been very supportive. They have excused my absences when I’ve needed to be away, but they’ve also shared a lot of their important moments with me.

“As I’ve progressed in my career, I’m not really doing work/life balancing anymore, but rather work/life integration, which is different because you don’t have to suddenly turn off your work or your life when you’re at work or at home,” he continues. “You can move forward, but you can do it in a way that everybody will benefit from.”

Like his wife, Dr. Parwani practices yoga and finds it helpful, especially when he arises at 5:30 a.m. each day. “I just take a deep breath and relax for a few minutes, and I prepare for the day mentally. I don’t rush into it. Every morning when I wake up, I stay in silence and drink a cup of tea and stare at the wall and prepare mentally for what my day is going to be like.”

Whatever each day brings, Dr. Parwani hopes it all plays into his lifework of “being helpful to colleagues and patients, being innovative and taking care of small things and big things alike, and connecting dots to solve problems. I hope to someday be remembered as someone who dedicated his career to the grand spectrum of pathology.”

There’s a good chance that will happen, considering his key role in transforming pathology to a digital discipline and sharing that expertise through global connections he’s fostering with other institutions for the benefit of researchers, clinicians and patients everywhere.

Dr. Anil Parwani reviewing a screen with a microscopic view of cancer cells
The digital transformation of pathology has become reality at the OSUCCC – James. Pathologists such as Dr. Anil Parwani, shown in the Digital Pathology Scan Center on 8 James, use these tools to improve diagnostic pathways and enable patient-care teams to more expediently manage cancer care.

A lifelong learner

Dr. Parwani is humbled by his realization that there is always much more to learn in his demanding discipline. Which is why — apart from “arriving at the right patient diagnoses using the best tools in pathology” — the part of his work he enjoys most is sharing knowledge with pathology residents and fellows.

“When they’re first starting out, they often have no clue what’s going on,” he says. “They all have the credentials to be here, but then to see them grow and mature as physicians and pathologists is very fulfilling to me. I’ve trained many people, and when I go to national meetings and see that they are now program directors and professors, it’s satisfying to see where their journeys have taken them.”

He admits that he started out as they did, “where I didn’t know what I was looking at under the microscope. I came from a research background and had no pathology training. But gradually, with patience and hard work and motivation and mentorship, I was able to become successful.”

Successful, but continuing to gain knowledge. “I’m still learning,” he says with a smile. “I’m still a student.”

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