The Lunch Hour: Adetunji Toriola, Professor of Surgery, Washington University

Adetunji T. Toriola, MD, Ph.D. is a Professor of Surgery at Washington University in St. Louis, United States. He was named in October 2022 as the second recipient of the university’s physician-researcher award, a distinction for medical doctors whose pioneering academic research has transformed their fields. Adetunji attended Government College, Ibadan, and graduated in Medicine from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife in 1998. He obtained a PhD in Epidemiology from the University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland in 2011 and conducted postdoctoral studies at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), Heidelberg, Germany, between 2011 and 2012. Adetunji is also a recipient of the prestigious American Association of Cancer Research Outstanding Investigator Award for Breast Cancer Research (2022). His other many awards include Susan G. Komen Career Catalyst Award. Adetunji is currently the principal investigator on two grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The secondary school I attended, Government College, Ibadan (GCI), also shaped how I looked at the world. We were exposed to several wonderful achievers in school that made us believe we could achieve anything.

What did you study at the university?

I studied Medicine at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife. After my housemanship and NYSC year, I started my residency training in Anaesthesia at the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan. I worked at UCH for four to five years. While there, I observed that a lot of things could be done differently. We would have recorded a reduced number of patients if our preventive services were top-notch. That sparked my desire in me to undergo more training and increase my expertise in prevention.

As a result, I chose to have my Master’s Degree in Public Health in Finland. It was a wonderful experience especially as Finland is a leading country in the application of public health evidence for the improvement of community and national health. There was an increased incidence of cardiovascular diseases in Finland. This gave birth to the North Karelia Project. Findings from the trial showed that heart disease mortality reduced significantly in Finland over the years. I was fascinated by how they used evidence from studies, especially epidemiology and public health studies to inform national policies and institute prevention. I worked at the national level. 

After my Master’s degree, I did a Ph.D. in Health and Epidemiology. My focus was on early diagnosis and prevention of ovarian cancer prevention. I transitioned to my post-doctoral fellowship at the German Research Center in Heidelberg. My focus was on the prevention of colorectal and breast cancer. While in Heidelberg, I got a job opportunity at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri for a faculty position as an assistant professor. 

During my time at Washington University, I continued my survey and worked on my interest in cancer prevention. I explored areas of contribution and settled for breast cancer prevention. However, I discovered I could provide additional insight into the field and create a new space and niche for breast cancer, especially in younger women. I also worked on colorectal cancer as part of a multi-institutional cancer center project.  

What are the key differences in studying medicine in Nigeria, Finland, and the USA?

There are differences in expectations, facilities and resources available. There were not many high-tech gadgets as we have here in the US. MRI scans were very few and far in between. So, the burden on these few resources was huge. You couldn’t do it for everyone as at when due. As a result, most of our training focused on physical examination, taking a good and detailed history from patients. Hopefully, the situation of things has improved.

The unavailability of machines indirectly helped us in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases back in Nigeria as we didn’t have to rely on high-tech diagnostic equipment. That’s one of the major differences I have witnessed here. 

Also Read: The Lunch Hour, Subomi Plumptre, Co-Founder, Volition Capital Investments Ltd.

The diagnostic pieces of equipment are wonderful. They are high-tech and easily accessible. So, from the first interaction with the patient, there is less emphasis on physical examination and detailed history taking here than we are used to then in Nigeria. Instead, we prioritize the use of advanced technology diagnostic machines. 

That is a major difference that I’ve seen in all the countries I have trained in. The training physicians receive in Nigeria prepares them to be outstanding professionals. Even when they work or train outside the country, the diagnostic machines they use end up complimenting the skillsets built while training in Nigeria.  

What were your parent’s professions and what is the biggest lesson you took away from home to bring into the outside world?

My father was a university administrator. He was a registrar at a Nigerian university. My mother was a nurse. She has since retired many years ago. Three of my family members are back home in Nigeria. I have a younger brother, Toye, who is an accountant in Lagos, and a younger sister, Toun, who is a lawyer in Australia. Growing up, my parents, just like other parents, always had ideas on what they thought was best for us. So, they had opinions on the best courses, we, their children should study. The staple was Medicine, Accounting, Law, Engineering, and Architecture. Fortunately, my siblings and I got into at least three professions. 

My father was a great inspiration to me because of his intellectual curiosity. He influenced the development of my intellectual curiosity and ensured I did not limit myself to one area. The secondary school I attended, Government College, Ibadan (GCI), also shaped how I looked at the world. We were exposed to several wonderful achievers in school that made us believe we could achieve anything we set up with him. 

There was a time Professor Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for literature back in 1986. I was still a student at GCI, in form three and the school organized a reception for him. It was inspiring seeing him in person, just after he had won the Nobel Prize, coming to give us a lecture. That kind of event leaves a lasting impression and makes you believe you can achieve whatever you want, so long as you set your mind to it. 

Literature was one of my best subjects at GCI. It is quite unfortunate I haven’t been able to do more work on that. But right from the early age of 10, I have always wanted to be a physician. My parents also influenced my desire. Seeing my mum as a nurse was also inspiring. 

An impactful event happened when I was younger. A younger cousin came visiting and had a convulsion. We had to get her to the hospital as quickly as possible. I was impressed with the level of care she received from the doctors and nurses. What could have been a very serious and fatal episode was averted with no long-term adverse events. 

Based on other things I have seen, a physician could have a meaningful impact on the lives of people. Initially, I desired to be a physician, but in the later part of my career, I streamlined my focus on research that impacts people individually. Most of my research over the past few years has been translational.  

Generally, most of my experiences from my childhood, within my home and school environment prepared me and opened up my eyes to what I do now and why I do what I do.

Are there any teachers or lecturers you remember for being a big influence on you? 

Many people have influenced me positively, even right from secondary school. One of them was Mr. Oladele, my English and Literature teacher at GCI. He was a fantastic teacher who moulded us into responsible men. Another was Professor Adeyemo from my university days. He was a competent clinician and a good man.

Being in that kind of environment, it was encouraging to see that a person can be a wonderful clinician, a great father, and a good human being to your students. I also admired others because of their intellectual capacity. Professor Ajayi was one of them, a brilliant cardiology professor at Ile-Ife who was non-conforming to the system. 

During my residency training in Ife, I admired several people but Professor Sanusi, who is still at UCH, stood out to me. She was a wonderful anesthesiologist and clinician passionate about creating the right environment for younger anesthesiologist trainees. I have always respected her and I still do.

Professor Jussi Kauhanen was my mentor in Finland during my Master’s program. He was always providing me with opportunities for international students. I respect what he did and I will always be grateful. During my Ph.D., Professor Matti Lehtinen was my supervisor, and it was so refreshing and nice seeing how hardworking and passionate he was to ensure that his scientific discoveries had an impact on the population at large. His research was on HPV vaccination and how the vaccine could prevent cervical cancer. He further led clinical trials in Finland and other parts of Europe on how to make the HPV vaccine available. I respect being a part of that process. 

Remember, I arrived at Washington University from Germany as a newbie to the US system. I came in as an assistant professor which was a great deal to me but with the help of my mentor, Graham Colditz who recruited me to Washington University, I had a great time settling in. Several people have at one point in time or another other played impactful roles in my life. Some things I have been able to achieve are a result of their influence and to date, I appreciate their impact on my life. 

Who was the bigger influence on you between your mother and father? 

Both of them have influenced me greatly, albeit in different aspects of my life. 

My mother was caring especially because of her profession as a nurse and this influenced my view of medicine. My father was intellectually curious. He valued top-notch delivery and being the best at whatever you do. The environment I grew up in and the values I imbibed from my parents had a remarkable impact on different aspects of my life. They made me who I am today. 

What is the major thing you remember from your first job?

It was an ASUU strike period or something else. OAU, Ife was quite notorious for other disruptions as well as student riots too. So, we had to vacate the school premises for about 6 months. I was probably in my third year in medical school. After staying home for a few months, I was bored and convinced my dad to get me a job at his colleagues’ office. It was a small office at an agricultural research institute. But I was fascinated with the dedication people gave to their work.

It also made me realize there was a huge difference between being a student and an employee. While an employee works in a structured environment, a student sets their own hours. Learning was fun but earning a salary monthly was worth it. 

What would you say account for most of the great things you have done in life?

Talent, hard work, and opportunities are vital to a person’s success. It is impossible to maximize your potential without a combination of all three. Many Nigerians are talented and hardworking. But there are not enough opportunities for them. I think I have been very fortunate to have talent and to have realized the importance of hard work early in life. I have embedded that into my daily existence as well. 

A thriving environment also goes a long way in ensuring success. If you have all talent, hard work, and opportunities and are in a place that limits thriving, you won’t reach your full potential. 

A combination of all these helps but at certain points, an attribute tends to dominate and gain more relevance to helping you reach the next phase or stage.

What are the three main recognitions or awards you are most proud of in your career?

Recently, I received the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) award for Outstanding Investigator in Breast Cancer Research for the year 2022. AACR is the world’s leading cancer research organisation. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation also supports the award. So, receiving an award from them left me astounded. It served as a recognition of my team’s contribution to breast cancer prevention over the past few years. 

Another reason I hold the award dearly is that the AACR is an organization with over 52,000 leading scientists, physicians, and researchers on various cancers. Yet, I received an award specifically for breast cancer research. I appreciated that a lot. I had to give a talk on December 9th at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. The talk was a summary of my work on breast cancer prevention; the basis for my award. It was a wonderful opportunity to showcase my ideas for my research work.

Another award I received in June or July last year that I admire and love is the William H. Danforth Physician-Scientist award by the Washington University School of Medicine. I was the second person ever to have won the award. That was phenomenal because the Washington School of Medicine is one of the top five medical schools in the US. It has a faculty of more than 2001. So being the second person ever to be given an award specially reserved for physician-scientists, that is, doctors who are also researchers (with MD PhDs), is a great recognition of what I do within the medical school. 

Finally, this isn’t an award but career-themed. I was promoted to a full professor late last year. It is something I am most grateful for. I spent just two and a half years as an associate professor before becoming a professor. That is a big deal because it typically takes a long time to transition from being an associate professor to a full professor. Of cause, this is a testament to the kind of environment I find myself in and the recognition of what I bring to the school of medicine. 

Were there any moments in the first 15 years of your life where you dreamt of being the world’s best in anything you chose to do?

I have always nursed the desire to be good at my work. I wanted to be one of the best, thanks to my father’s teachings. 

Growing up, I wanted to be an avid contributor to society in whatever field I choose. I never thought I would be the best, but I desired to be one of them. I just never thought it would be in the field of research.  

Also Read: The Lunch Hour, Dr. Jekwu Ozoemene, CEO, HIV Trust Fund of Nigeria

As a young boy, I loved soccer and was a good player in both soccer and cricket. In my year 4 in GCI, I won the Best Cricketer of the Year award in the state. So, I imagined being one of the best in cricket or sports in general. I was a part of the cricket team when I gained admission into the Obafemi Awolowo University. I was one of the best players at some point. 

However, I didn’t think I was going to be the best via research. We didn’t grow up with a culture of research in the medical schools in Nigeria. Instead, we only read journals from authors of other nationalities and admired the authors. I told myself I would love to have my name in a publication someday. Today, that dream is a reality. I have more than ninety publications. It’s amazing what a person can accomplish with determination and in the right environment.

What kind of books do you like to read and what have you read in the last year?

I love books. While I read fiction and non-fiction, over the last 10 years, I have focused more on non-fiction. I have limited time and so, want to make use of it effectively. I prefer books that are informative and educative. They include autobiographies, biographies, and historical books.

I have a long commute to my office, a 40-minute drive. So, I spend my time listening to audiobooks. Because I listen to audiobooks, I go through hundreds of books yearly. My favourite book of all time is The Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. It’s an amazing book that details the author’s rise in the midst of struggles. A common occurrence is that people only see achievements or the successes a person has attained, not struggles. So, it was wonderful adding the struggles he had to overcome. I also love Bill Browder’s Red Notice. It is an awesome read that chronicles his experience starting up an energy company, his experience in Russia and more. 

It’s amazing that you still have the time to read other materials despite being one of the top guys in your field

I know. I do so because getting various perspectives is essential for tapping into other spaces. It helps expand your knowledge base, both in and beyond your field.  

What is the best use of money for you?

Money is best used when it produces joy in people. I would want to have money in such a way  that I can easily provide for my needs and the needs of the ones I care about and love. I would also love to solve meaningful problems within the community.

Someone once asked me, “if you win 10 million dollars, what would you do with it? 

For starters, I would clear the items on my bucket list, take care of my family’s needs and take care of my loved ones. I also mentioned something that caught them by surprise. I said I would donate some funds to research, especially cancer prevention research. I would donate part of the money to a course I believe in.

In as much as money is a vehicle for achieving personal independence and pleasure, I believe it is also an avenue to effect meaningful society-changing ideas. 

What do you prefer between managing people and focusing on your research?  

I do have a laboratory with team members. They report to me and so, I have to manage them.  I have found an effective way to perform both. I have an assistant who handles the everyday management on my behalf while I focus on research work.

When I first started, I did people management on a one-on-one basis. But as the team grew, I realized the importance of outsourcing that to a senior and more capable person on the team so I could focus my energy on the intellectual components of the work.

Reflecting on the opportunity you had, what do you think about human destiny and economic policies for a few people like you who are able to make it to the top of the intellectual world?

Using my journey as a case study, focus and dedication is very essential. Lots of persons pursue fads. That’s not supposed to be the case. Instead, they should be grounded in their beliefs and unmoved by unfavourable circumstances and situations while on their journey. In times where these arise, belief and passion are the things that will sustain you. Stick to your ideas regardless of the difficulties or challenges you face. Zeal will also take you far in your journey.

Finally, highly esteem the people you interact and work with. People will equally admire and respect you when you first extend that hand. As the saying goes, respect begets respect. Mind you, the respect you give out shouldn’t be hinged on what you get. Instead, it should be your natural inclination.

So, these are the things that have been helpful to me overtime. Of course, different personality traits and types exist and so, things may work differently. However, what’s important is for everyone to understand themselves and work towards being the best version of themselves. 

Life is not always easy. I grew up in Apata, Ibadan and in my earlier years at GCI, my parents would drive us to school. However, in later years as teenagers, we would do the 20-minute walk with our friends and neighbors. It wasn’t easy, but it was a fun daily activity for us. 

If it were other persons, it would have impacted them negatively. However, the environment I grew up in, was an opportunity for character development. We became strong-willed and determined fellas who realized that they could surpass adversities. This is significant because challenges in life would surely come but how we react to them matters most.

I have had a lot of challenges but I never let them get to me. Never give up; instead continue fighting until you overcome your challenges. You would surely overcome if you stick to the course. 

Exit mobile version