Omar Mian, MD-PhD'11, shared his perspectives with M.D.-Ph.D. students at their 2019 fall retreat. Photography by Skip Rowland

It was his father's death from prostate cancer that changed the career plans of Omar Mian, MD-PhD'11.

As an undergraduate at James Madison University, he'd considered a computer science career.

But, "My father's illness was a very influential time in my life," Mian says. "I began thinking more about how I might make a difference so I turned to cancer research and medicine. And I haven't looked back."

A post-college internship at the National Institutes of Health solidified his desire to work as a physician-scientist to try and eradicate certain cancers.

Today, Mian works as a radiation oncologist and physician-scientist at the Cleveland Clinic, where he specializes in the care of patients with genitourinary malignancies. An assistant professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University, he also has appointments in the Lerner Research Institute and the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine.

Mian, who earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University and trained in radiation oncology there, credits his time on the MCV Campus with providing his foundation in medicine and science.

"I've never had a more focused period of learning and being steeped in passion for medicine and basic research like I had at VCU," he says. "That grounding that started in the M.D.-Ph.D. program and continued in my medicine internship at VCU Health — looking back now years later and having been at other institutions — I really feel that VCU got that right. That was such a valuable time for me and the important lessons I learned there have never really left and I hope they never will."

Mian names VCU Massey Cancer Center's Gordon Ginder, M.D., his thesis adviser, as someone who influenced him significantly.

"He is also a physician-scientist and remains a great mentor," Mian says. "He set me on this path, and I give him a lot of credit and gratitude for that."

This past summer, he got an invitation to return to campus. Anuj Tharakan, an M.D.-Ph.D. student who's in the first year of his Ph.D. phase, contacted Mian to ask if he would speak at the annual M.D.-Ph.D. fall retreat.

"I remember as a student how much I looked forward to that retreat every year," Mian says. "It's quite an honor to come back and be a speaker."

For this year's event, Tharakan says the planning committee was looking for a recent graduate who had been successful in research and clinical practice.

"Dr. Mian fit the bill," he says.

At the retreat, Mian shared advice about the different phases of training involved in the M.D.-Ph.D. program. His talk resonated to those in attendance.

"It was really useful to get his perspective," Tharakan says. "He is someone who has been in our position and understands our training process. It was a powerful message that made us feel more optimistic about our futures because sometimes you wonder, 'What am I still doing here?'"

Dean of Medicine Peter Buckley, M.D., says engaged alumni bring tremendous benefits to the medical school and its students. "We are so appreciative of alumni like Dr. Mian who return to campus to share their experiences and perspectives with our students. Medical school is a time of intense focus – and the M.D.-Ph.D. program in particular requires perseverance to keep your eyes on your ultimate goal. This was a great opportunity for our students to hear from a physician-scientist who's putting those years of training to work helping patients, through both research and clinical care."

For his part, Mian was delighted to dispense any advice that might be helpful. He certainly feels lucky to be living his dream professionally as a physician-scientist at the forefront of cancer research and care.

"And it all began at VCU," he says. "There is a very important role that physician-scientists have always played and will continue to play in medical discovery and research, and generating the breakthroughs that will advance biomedical science and improve the management of disease and health. That's what I got into this for and I feel like I'm doing that most days — it's a great feeling and quite a privilege."