Dr. Mohamed Aziz, an internationally-recognized leader in anatomic pathology, cytopathology and oncology, joined AUC’s faculty last year as Associate Professor of Pathology.
Dr. Aziz has participated in numerous leadership positions with organizations and professional societies around the world. Last year, he moderated a full scientific session at the American Society of Cytopathology’s Annual Meeting and was invited by the Egyptian government to speak at the first annual cancer congress in Luxor, Egypt. In May, he will chair a session on current and emerging cancer diagnostic technologies at the BIT’s 10th Annual World Cancer Congress in Barcelona, Spain.
For this leadership issue, we sat down with Dr. Aziz to discuss his career and how he’s become a medical mystery solver.
How did you first become interested in medicine?
I come from a family of physicians. I have two sisters and four brothers and three of them are physicians. At first, we thought maybe we could go into business together but we eventually made our own way. Our father was a professor at university so we always had an intellectual curiosity—it’s probably why I ended up in pathology.
What else drew you to pathology?
For me, pathology is all about solving mysteries. I’m presented with a problem—let’s say a tumor or piece of tissue that has been removed by a surgeon—I put it under a microscope and use sophisticated tests and resources to try and reach a diagnosis. When I finally make that diagnosis, it’s rewarding and it opens the door for the next line of patient treatment. I also appreciate the constant reading and researching that you have to do as a pathologist. It’s a very stimulating field.
What were some of your earliest experiences as a pathologist?
After my fellowships (one in breast pathology, a second in bone and soft tissue and a third in cytopathology), I opened a lab in upstate New York. We subcontracted with Quest Diagnostics, a leading global provider of diagnostic information, and tested millions of cervical samples. We looked at everything from pap smear samples, small cervical biopsies, and cytology specimens—routine tests from local physician groups and hospitals.
The lab was a great but I missed feeling connected to patients, so when St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Manhattan asked me to oversee their cancer pathology department three years later, I jumped at the chance.
What did you do at St. Vincent’s?
At that time, St. Vincent’s had a small cancer center mainly focused on breast cancer. As the chief of pathology, I was responsible for all of the arriving diagnostic tissues and for coordinating between the radiology and surgery departments. A patient would arrive, be seen by a surgeon and that same day we could test a mass, get results, and put an action plan together. It was really a great model because everything was onsite and we were all working together to give as much information as possible to the patient.
It was an exciting time in my life because I had to learn a whole new set of business administration skills. I was in charge of hiring staff, managing budgets, and overseeing quality assurance and regulation adherence. I stayed there for nearly a decade, until St. Vincent’s closed in 2010.
And after that?
I was hired by Northwell Health (formerly North Shore-LIJ Health System) in New York to direct their division of cytopathology. At that time, Northwell was consolidating its operations across 17 NY-area hospitals and I was brought in to help standardize their system. It was a massive undertaking that took several years but when it was all finished we became a national model for systems consolidation. It was one of the most challenging positions I’ve ever held.
Where did your desire to teach come from?
I was very active in college and my professors were always asking me to go to conferences and present. Talking in front of people, sharing my knowledge—I loved it. Now, teaching is big part of who I am.
I taught pathology to first and second year medical students at New York Medical College while I was at St. Vincent’s and when I moved over to Northwell, Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine was being built. I joined their faculty in 2010 and taught the inaugural class. Looking back, I’m most proud of the strong relationships I developed with students—many of them have stayed in touch with me.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you give to students?
I always encourage students to seek out research opportunities. In the past, and now here at AUC, I let students review my cases and write case reports. It’s an important part of the research and discovery process and one that doesn’t require much time.
Tell us more about these case reports. How can AUC students get involved?
I have a stack of cases—notes, images, other subject-related information—that for one reason or another I’ve earmarked as interesting. They’re cases that divert from what is commonly accepted or known about a disease or patient base and can provide significant new information about that disease area. But first, they need to be reported.
If a student is interested in reviewing the case, I hand it over and walk them through the entire process of writing the report—from start to finish. Two or three weeks later, it can be done. Then, we look at the report together and decide if it’s interesting enough for journal publication. Many of my student’s cases in the past have been published and it’s such an accomplishment. You leave your print on history.
Over the past 6 months, I’ve handed out 20 cases. There’s no pressure to turn it around quickly but the opportunity is there if students want it. Even for clinical students who haven’t met me, I’d be more than happy to hand over a case. Or, talk about one of their own patient experiences that they feel has potential for publication. It’s what I love to do and I have several resident and physician contacts that can help out.
Interested students can contact Dr. Aziz at MAziz@aucmed.edu.
How do you define leadership?
A leader comes from having a sense of responsibility. And as a physician, that responsibility is toward the medical field.
Leaders learn from their mistakes and they are comfortable enough in themselves and their abilities to say “I don’t know.” It’s important to know our limitations and to ask for help.
How do you show leadership?
For me, it’s all about motivating and recognizing people who do good work. We always hear when we make a mistake but we rarely get a pat on the back when we do something right. I think that’s important and I try to appreciate the good work of my students, colleagues—anyone. A small “thank you” goes a long way.
Who has been a leader in your life?
Professionally, it was Dr. John Gillooley. He was the Chairman at St. Vincent’s when I was in residency and the person who recruited me back there years later. He guided me early on in my career and was an incredible listener and advisor. He was the kind of leader who was just as powerful as he was quiet, thoughtful, and compassionate. He passed away six years ago but his lessons still guide me today.