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Nima Kokabi, MD, is an Associate Professor of Radiology, Vice Chair of Clinical Research, Interventional Oncology Director, and Cancer Imaging Director. He recently joined the UNC Department of Radiology from Emory University, where he spent the last five years of his career. He joined us to answer some questions so we can get to know him.

Dr. Kokabi was born in Iran and grew up in Canada. He graduated with honors from the University of Sydney Medical School in 2011. From there, he completed his internship at MetroWest Medical Center, Harvard Medical School before moving on to his Diagnostic Residency at Emory University School of Medicine. He completed his Vascular Interventional Radiology Fellowship at Yale University School of Medicine in 2017.

What attracted you to the Department of Radiology at UNC?

The first thing that attracted me to UNC Radiology was the people in the department, particularly in the Interventional Radiology division. It was the starting point. As I got to know the department, I realized how much potential it has for growth, particularly for research.

Can you go into some of the research that you do?

My main area of research is Interventional Oncology, delivering minimally invasive cancer treatments for patients with many different cancers, including GI, genitourinary, and bone cancer. I’ve conducted several clinical trials. Many of these are supported by our industry partners, and I’d like to continue doing so at UNC.

What attracted you to Radiology?

My undergrad major was engineering. During that time, I worked on image-processing projects. That was my introduction to Radiology. While collaborating with some doctors on those projects, I realized there needed to be more connection between people who practice medicine and those who create medical devices. I intended to bridge that gap as much as one person could. That is where my interest in Radiology originated. I thought that of all the fields in medicine, it’s the one that relies heavily on technology and advancement. During medical school, I was in a unique small group of people that wanted to do Radiology from the beginning. So many of my peers and colleagues didn’t even know what Radiology was when they entered medical school.

Why your specialty?

The beauty of Interventional Radiology is that you get to do life-saving procedures. Many areas of radiology are heavily diagnostic and have no interaction with patients. However, IR is integral to many treatment teams, whether for cancer or non-cancer-related diseases.

What medical advances would you like to see in Radiology or your specialty in the next five years?

I would like to see more personalized, cancer-directed therapies for different types of cancers in areas we are not part of. For example, it targets and treats colorectal cancer directly inside a patient before surgical resection. The future is developing comprehensive technology such as radioisotopes created to seek out tumor cells around the body and only attach and kill those tumor cells through radiation. Thus, treating cancer all over the body in a very minimally invasive fashion without much toxicity because you’re not affecting the normal noncancer cells. That’s the future of medicine and cancer therapy in general. But many of those areas still need to be met. So I think the future of cancer treatment will be a collaboration between nuclear medicine and interventional radiology to target those cancer cells and deliver treatment.

Why did you decide to pursue academic medicine rather than private practice?

From the beginning of my residency, I started doing clinical research. Suppose you want to stay at the forefront of this rapidly changing field, innovating and creating new procedures and helping patients with lethal cancer. In that case, staying in an academic setting is better than entering private practice. Academic medical centers like UNC Radiology are the exciting epicenters of new research that help change medicine and save lives.

What advice would you give to people interested in pursuing radiology?

For medical students considering radiology, I advise them to seek mentorship or at least preceptorship as early as possible. Try to attend a rotation that reviews a day in the life of a diagnostic radiologist or an Interventional radiologist. Learn about the kind of procedures and skill sets they use every day.

When deciding the type of residency you want to apply for, I advise students to do a proper month-long elective or rotation at their institution or elsewhere before applying for the residency.

For people that have gotten into Radiology already, there are multiple subspecialties. Almost everybody that does Radiology now eventually does a fellowship within a subspecialty, sometimes more than one. During the internship year, if electives are offered, try to do those in Radiology and get a head start in learning about different subspecialties. Although you want to learn as much as possible about Diagnostic Radiology in general, it’s nice to have some different rotations or activities, including research or teaching. Diagnostic Radiology also has a path to Interventional Radiology, so I would explore IR and neuro-interventional Radiology.

What is one thing you wish your patients or co-workers knew about you before they even met you?

I’m an easygoing guy, but I’m a straight shooter at the same time. So what you see is what you get.

What did you want to grow up to do as a kid?

Growing up, I wanted to be a pilot for a commercial airline. I chose not to go down that path because I was turned off by the length of the training required and the number of flying hours needed to get a proper job. The airline market in Canada is less vast than in the US, and the opportunities in the field were limited, which steered me from pursuing that dream.

If you could pick the brain of someone, alive or dead, who would it be and why?

Albert Einstein is one of the people I wish I could get to know in person. I want to understand his train of thought and how he devised many extraordinary hypotheses and ideas that nobody else did. His thought processes, his steps to thinking in general, and getting to a specific idea. He seems like an interesting person to sit down with and pick his brain.

What do you do when you aren’t working?

I love sports. I used to play soccer and hope to find a good group of people to play with again. I’m a huge soccer fanatic in terms of watching too. I also enjoy Hockey, so I’m looking forward to attending some Carolina Hurricanes hockey games, although my first team will always be the Vancouver Canucks.

Describe yourself with one word.


What does it mean to you to be able to be a teacher and mentor to others?

Being a mentor is something that I take very seriously. I am grateful for the opportunities that were given to me along the way. I had some excellent mentors. I also had some bad mentors. I learn from all of them to make myself a better mentor to others. Mentorship significantly changes the path of medical students, residents, and fellows regarding how interested or disinterested they become in a field or even academic versus private practice. It makes a big difference. If you are in an academic center by default, you should be willing and able to mentor people. So I am looking forward to doing that at UNC.

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