Even as an elementary school student in West Orange, New Jersey, Utpal Pajvani showed a capacity for thinking big. “I don’t know why, but I wanted to be the Chief Executive Officer of Texaco,” Dr. Pajvani recently recalled. Today, he is an MD/PhD at Columbia University’s Berrie Center who sees patients on the clinical side and heads a lab on the research side.
In the lab, he studies a developmental pathway called “Notch” and the role it plays in the onset of type 2 diabetes. Dr. Pajvani also studies the experimental use of existing therapeutic agents (originally developed for cancer therapy) in the treatment of obesity-induced diabetes and fatty liver disease, currently the fastest rising indicator for liver transplants.
When an MD/PhD studies basic science at Dr. Pajvani’s level, it’s unusual to also maintain a clinical practice. Not for Dr. Pajvani. “I’m a doctor full time and a scientist full time. That’s how I see myself. I couldn’t fathom giving anything up.” In addition, he says, “An MD/ PhD program is intended to develop physician scientists, with the intent that the science makes a person a better physician and vice versa. It’s unclear if that’s universally true, but I think it is for me.”
Dr. Pajvani, 37, decided he wanted to be a physician when he was 16 years old and eventually traded the two years he spent in high school as an EMT for four years of premed at MIT. Also at MIT he was exposed to biomedical research by some of the field’s best and brightest, and that inspired him to earn his MD/PhD degrees from Albert Einstein College of Medicine and complete his residency training in Internal Medicine and a fellowship in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at Columbia University.
“In the care of patients with diabetes, both aspects of my training come into play,” he says. “The pure clinician in me enjoys the interaction with patients, the conversation, the nuance in finding a strategy to reach a glycemic target. The scientist in me revels in exploring different therapeutic options, based on the range of pharmacological and technological options we now have in the care of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. It’s an enjoyable challenge.”