By Jennifer Jang, ASTRO Communications
At the tender age of 11, sixth graders Aneesh Pirlamarla (PGY-4, far right), Rohan Katipally (PGY-5, far left) and Nishant Shah (PGY-5, middle) became friends in middle school. Fast forward 19 years, their most recent reunion took place at the 2022 ASTRO Annual Meeting, convening now as radiation oncologists. They joke, “what was in the water in South Brunswick, New Jersey?”
The trio came together at middle school under the identity of “comets,” the same cohort at school, meaning their classes and activities were often in parallel — a prescient indicator of what was to come. Their friendship thrived in fits and starts over the next two decades, and yet they landed in mystifyingly similar contexts.
Of the three, Rohan knew earliest on that he wanted to pursue medicine, attending Brown University’s combined undergraduate and medical school program, while Nishant started out with aspirations for engineering at Boston University, enjoying the process of design and science. He eventually migrated into medicine with an interest in surgery, a seemingly natural extension of his initial interest in engineering. However, as he came to the end of his surgery rotation, he recognized that the field didn’t match his personality, as he envisioned having more of a relationship with his patients. Around the same time, a family member was diagnosed with cancer, so his thought process was in a place primed to consider radiation oncology.
Among such an illustrious trio, someone has to be “last,” in which case Aneesh trailed slightly behind the other two, having taken a gap year, even though he was the one who initially prompted Nishant to think about the field of radiation oncology. While at Rutgers, Aneesh engaged in a shadowing program where he followed a breast surgeon, and during clinic with him, he met a radiation oncologist who made an impression. Fast forward a few years, at the end of his third year at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, he was compelled to survey his academic experiences and decided to revisit radiation oncology. Around this same time, Nishant was having a medical identity crisis and called Aneesh, unsure of what steps to take next and which specialty to hone in on, after having focused on surgery for so long. As Aneesh had RO on his mind, he prompted Nishant to explore the field as well. Meanwhile, as Aneesh was researching where to do his RO residency, he consulted Rohan and Nishant on where to apply, and both recommended Fox Chase Cancer Center where he is now.
The three have an ease that comes with having known each other for a long time, without pretense and with much good humor. They strike me as the type who won’t speak for months, and then call one another up late one night and pick up exactly where they left off. Rohan spoke with admiration of his friends, humbly remarking that to collaborate in the future in some capacity would be an honor. The other two were quick to point out that Rohan was class valedictorian, implying who it would really be an honor for, and poked light fun at his sincere compliment.
Prior to the interview, I had conjectured that the three had pre-medical dispositions from their youth, and that their journey to radiation oncology was linear, and I was quickly disproven. In fact, Rohan and Nishant chanced upon each other in the midst of residency interviews, oblivious that the other was engaged in the same process. The three weaved in and out of varying aspects of their medical education and landed on radiation oncology having taken different paths.
But a few common factors characterized the journey to their destination. All three tried other more common fields and found that they were ill fits for their personalities, hugely because of the lack of the opportunity to develop relationships with patients. As for radiation oncology, they were all drawn to the intellectual challenge of the science and diagnostics, the team-based treatment administration and the exciting future of evolving technologies.
When asked about the future of radiation oncology, they collectively viewed it optimistically, touching upon some endeavors necessary to grow the field. Nishant remarked the importance of having a grassroots effort at medical schools to raise awareness of this specialty. He pointed out that the influence of Neha Vapiwala, MD, FASTRO, was critical at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine as an Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, and that because of her, every medical student knew about radiation oncology from the get-go, something he observed while doing his internship there.
Aneesh noted that learning more about the synergies between immunotherapies and radiation held much promise, highlighting that Rohan has researched and published in this area. Aneesh commented that he was not exposed to RO in medical school, and that it needs to be better incorporated into curriculums so students know of it as an option. Rohan piggybacked on this comment, pointing out the need for broader oncologic education for medical students. Being able to impart to students that ROs work as part of a team, ranging from dosimetrists and physicists to medical oncologists and surgical oncologists, will help cultivate interest in the field. Aneesh also highlighted radiation’s growing potential to treat non-oncologic diseases as the method of delivery has improved significantly. The area is ripe for research to discover and apply novel ways to treat patients both within and outside of cancer. The three energetically conveyed wanting to be advocates for the field, broadening exposure, also touching upon payment reform, health policy, all as facets and contributors of delivering high quality care.
They concluded with a few sprinkled memories of Latin class together, group projects involving wildly involved homemade videos to depict scientific concepts, their moms’ active group chat, someone’s embarrassing AOL screenname that they respectfully kept to themselves so as not to embarrass anyone, and fantasy football leagues. Fast forward to today, Aneesh and Nishant both run podcasts with their NOT-abundant spare time and use it as a way to keep in touch with the community they’ve built over the years, extending to their college and medical school classmates. Clearly, connection is important to these three. And it’s that warmth, empathy and connection that bodes well for three meaningful careers ahead where they touch the lives of many grateful patients.
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