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Sunil Joshi: ‘There’s a fire inside of me’ to help patients

Research Week 2019: OHSU M.D./Ph.D. student’s experience translating for his family fuels his desire to treat underserved communities
Sunil Joshi
Last month it was announced that Sunil K. Joshi, M.D./Ph.D., a student in the OHSU School of Medicine, was among 30 students selected to participate in the prestigious Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship program, and notably, the first-ever fellow named from OHSU. (OHSU/Joe Rojas-Burke)

At the young age of 11, Sunil K. Joshi first delivered medical information to a patient. The patient wasn’t his, of course. As one of the few members of his family who spoke English, Joshi served as a translator for his grandfather, who was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer and ongoing hypertension. Since then, Joshi has served as the liaison between his family, who primarily speak Punjabi, and their health care team.

That early experience spurred his passion to advocate for patients, Joshi says, and, in particular, patients from underserved communities who may not have the ability or access to communicate their thoughts.

“Translating for my family gave me exposure to the world of medicine I might not have had otherwise,” says Joshi, an M.D./Ph.D. student in the OHSU School of Medicine. “I learned, at a young age, I needed to be the one to advocate for my family.”

The notion of advocacy was a long-held belief in the Joshi family.

“My parents always told me to ‘be my own advocate,’” he says. “That advice has served me well. I’m pushing my projects, my research, my studies. There is a fire inside of me.”

Thinking on his feet

Joshi came to OHSU in 2015 from the University of California, San Francisco, and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he was a research associate and medical assistant at an outpatient HIV clinic. His time at UCSF cemented Sunil’s desire to become a clinician-scientist. He had more than eight years of research experience before landing at OHSU.  

“I knew I wanted to continue pursuing bench research — what I enjoy most is having the opportunity and space to chase a research question and hopefully find solutions. Not everything I do works but I enjoy the process itself,” he says.

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Before choosing the laboratory where he would pursue his Ph.D. thesis, Joshi rotated in several labs, including those of esteemed researchers Joshi Alumkal, M.D., in the area of prostate cancer research, and Louis Picker, M.D., in the field of immunology and HIV/AIDS research. He also had the opportunity to contribute to the laboratory of renowned cancer researcher Brian Druker, M.D., where Joshi ultimately found his fit. Now, he’s pursuing his thesis research in the Druker lab, studying intrinsic and extrinsic mechanisms of drug resistance in leukemia with co-mentors Cristina Tognon, Ph.D., and Elie Traer, M.D., Ph.D.

Striving to ‘do it all’

Joshi cites Druker as a significant influence on his career to date.

“Brian is very humble,” he says. “I’ve never met someone so humble. He truly cares when he gives you his time, and that makes a world of difference to a student like me.”

He says Druker, Traer and Tognon have inspired him to work hard every day and encourage his desire to one day be a principal investigator for cancer research in his own laboratory.

“They are just really good people and have made this training opportunity that much more enjoyable,” Joshi says.  

Apart from his Ph.D. mentors, Joshi says that he is fortunate to receive mentorship and support from many others at OHSU, including: David Jacoby, M.D., Chris Evans, M.D., Letisha Wyatt, Ph.D., George Mejicano, M.D., Sharon Anderson, M.D., Dean Wirz, Ph.D., and the ARCS foundation.

When thinking about the future, Joshi sets his sights high.

“I want to conduct my own research, see patients, and teach students — I guess I want to do it all! I think it’s incredibly important to take questions we learn in the clinic back to the lab.”

Contributing to the ‘American Dream’

Last month, Joshi was among 30 students selected to participate in the prestigious Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship program, and notably, the first-ever fellow named from OHSU.

The members of the 2019 fellowship class were selected from more than 1,700 applicants across the country who were recognized for their potential to make significant contributions to society, culture, or their academic fields. All fellows are the children of immigrants, green card holders, naturalized citizens or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA, recipients. 

Joshi, whose parents immigrated from India, was selected to represent the medicine and cancer biology field. He is a student and ARCS Foundation Scholar in OHSU’s Medical Scientist Training Program. He’s also a National Cancer Institute National Research Service F30 award recipient.

“This award is not just for me,” he says. “This moment is the culmination of my family’s and my hard work for the past 20-plus years. It’s an opportunity to reflect on my journey, an opportunity to be a part of something bigger — contribute to the American Dream. It comes with a responsibility to continue pushing myself to become the best clinician-scientist for my future patients.”

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