An Oncology Leader Whose Immigrant Parents Taught Him by Example About Life and Service to Humanity

Sunil R. Hingorani, MD, PhD

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According to Sunil R. Hingorani, MD, PhD, his parents figured heavily on who he became as a person and on his career choices, which ultimately led to his current position as Director of the Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine, Omaha.

“My father emigrated from India to the United States in 1959 to pursue graduate studies in civil and structural engineering. He received his degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Troy, New York. His plan was to return to India, get married, and live his life there. However, at RPI, he encountered an academic environment that opened a world of incredible opportunities that he wouldn’t have had in the more boundary-setting culture back home in India. He planned on starting a family one day and wanted that feeling of limitless opportunity for his children. So, he went back to India, married his fiancée, and convinced her to resettle in the United States,” Dr. Hingorani related.



Professor of Internal Medicine, Division of Oncology and Hematology; Director, Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence; Nancy Armitage Presidential Chair in Pancreatic Cancer, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha


MD, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut; PhD in Cellular and Molecular Physiology, Yale University School of Medicine


“It was nothing short of an extraordinary experience. I would sit still for some 8 to 10 hours in front of a textbook in a trance-like state, just immersed in it—and would not get up until I understood the concepts deeply; that was the desire. The greatest transformation in my intellectual capabilities happened in those 4 years at Yale. It was the most rigorous, immersive, and challenging experience I’ve ever had.”

His parents’ career desires were shaped by circumstances. “In the 1950s, India needed to build a modern infrastructure, so high-achieving students like my father were recruited into engineering. My mother’s father decided she didn’t need any further education after high school; he thought it was time for her to get married. My mother was the youngest of seven children, and she was a force of nature—like fire and ice—and had her own thoughts about her future. She therefore went on to earn a college degree in history and economics. At that point, however, her father did not permit her to go on to medical school,” he said.

Dr. Hingorani continued: “I was born in New York City, and then shortly thereafter, our family moved to Norwalk, Connecticut, a place at the time where no other Asian/Indian families lived. This happenstance proved both challenging and illuminating for a kid growing up in the suburbs of Fairfield County.”

Being the Other

Being the sole Indian kids in their school and community, Dr. Hingorani and his two younger sisters battled with social acceptance issues during his childhood. “Growing up, my two best friends in school were Chris and Steve, and one day we went to the local five-and-dime store to get those little license plates with names you put on the back of bicycles. We found ‘Steve’ and ‘Chris’ license plates in abundance, but, not surprisingly, there was no Sunil—no matter how hard I looked,” shared Dr. Hingorani. “So, things like that made it clear I was in certain ways, the other.”

Classmates in school would also frequently ask him what tribe he was in, confusing his Indian background with Native Americans. So his mother contacted the principal and informed him she would come to teach the third-grade class about India. “She dressed in an elegant silk sari, cooked a typical Indian meal, and gave a lecture on the country. She had me prepare a visual report about the currency, the religion, major monuments, etc. It was an extraordinary experience and filled me further with pride for my heritage.” And, he says, he was never asked again what tribe he was from.

Dr. Hingorani credits the unbounded love of his parents with providing him and his siblings with a strong sense of self. “When we came back home, we were nurtured with this deep sense of worth, value, and purpose. We wore our parents’ love like armor, and it was impenetrable. And we were filled with a sense of duty to apply ourselves. We had to take this knowledge of self and these values and apply them so that we could give back to the world.”

Dr. Hingorani and his siblings were also encouraged to take advantage of all of the extracurricular activities that were available, opportunities that his parents did not have when they were growing up. “I immersed myself in violin lessons and played every sport in each season. I also found that if you are the starting pitcher and shortstop on the baseball team—and especially if the team wins—your teammates are going to rally around you. Same if you become captain of the tennis team. And that helped to break barriers, something I suspect my parents also knew and anticipated.”

Dr. Hingorani’s parents also had a hand in his decision to pursue a career in medicine. “My parents were Hindu, and their worldview was profoundly influenced by the Hindu perspective of a connectedness to all of life. One of the ways to an enlightened mind was to live in service of humanity, and I saw that in the way they lived their lives. This exposure was coupled with my curiosity about nature and biology. We had woods around us, and I spent a lot of time just studying caterpillars and tadpoles and chasing butterflies. Putting the ideals of service to humanity together with a love of biology, medicine became an obvious career choice,” he explained.

Road to Medical School

A high school teacher became one of Dr. -Hingorani’s first mentors, helping the young student navigate the college decision-making process. “I had a teacher at Norwalk High School who had two PhDs, one in theology and one in philosophy, and decided at some point to leave university teaching and come to the local public high school. It was like a gift sent from the heavens. He saw potential in me and took an interest in me, basically becoming my guidance counselor. He helped orient me to the college application process, something my parents had not experienced in this country, and he challenged me to strive to the standards of an academic life well beyond high school,” he related.

Dr. Hingorani continued: “I had somewhat fanciful notions of what the premier universities and colleges were like, and Yale and Princeton were two that always stood out for me. I was fortunate to be accepted to every college I applied to, and when I visited the campuses, Yale was the one that spoke to me. It was nothing short of an extraordinary experience. I completely immersed myself in the quest for knowledge and to push myself to see what my mind was capable of. I could sit still for 8 to 10 hours in front of a textbook in an almost meditative state and just absorb and lose myself in it. The greatest transformation in my intellectual capabilities happened in those 4 years at Yale. It was the most rigorous, immersive, and challenging academic experience I’ve ever had.”

A Surgeon’s Life Did Not Fit

Asked about his decision to pursue the challenging field of oncology, Dr. Hingorani responded: “I planned to be a neurosurgeon up until probably the last 9 months or so of the combined MD/PhD degree program. My PhD was in neurophysiology and I imagined I would then go onto to study the neuronal basis for consciousness. In a gift of generosity, the chair of neurosurgery, Dr. Dennis Spencer, invited me to do my elective rotation with him during which I would get to operate with him every day for 4 weeks. He would come in the morning and turn on opera—something I enjoyed as well—but these operations could be 9 hours long and painstakingly slow and cautious, understandably. I began to wonder whether this activity would continue to engage me day in and day out. Dr. Spencer, who was aware of my love of basic research, started to recognize that as well, and at the end of a rotation, he shared his concern that I might not find the highly repetitive and extremely cautious nature of neurosurgery fulfilling in the long run. He was right. I asked myself then what would be the next most challenging of scientific and medical problems: studying and curing cancer. And that’s how I ultimately made the decision to become an oncologist.”

Dr. Hingorani completed a residency in Internal Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a clinical fellowship in Hematology and Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. In 1998, as he was completing his fellowship training in medical oncology, his father was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. After the only approved drug for the disease at that time, gemcitabine, inevitably failed, Dr. -Hingorani took a leave of absence so he could care for his father at his home in Connecticut.

“My dad had built a well-recognized civil and structural engineering company in New York City with over 100 employees, designing roads, bridges and buildings for the city and state,” he explained. “He ran the engineering company like an extended family for 24 years. And in that time, he never let one person go, and no one ever left the company. He knew he’d die soon and had only one wish. He asked me if I could keep him alive long enough so he could find a parent company to take over his business—one that would commit to keeping all the employees. I told him I wasn’t sure but I would try.”

Dr. Hingorani got his father discharged from the hospital and began an aggressive, all-encompassing in-home supportive care regimen, converting the first floor of the family home into a clinic. “After being told he had only one week to live, my father instead lived almost 4 months beyond that. And he closed the deal with the parent company that was going to take over his business. With witnesses present, the new leadership committed to retaining every single employee. Less than 3 hours after signing the documents, my father passed away.”

It was that experience that made Dr. Hingorani realize he would spend the rest of his life working relentlessly to find a cure for this devastating disease, and it was his mother’s unequivocal message at the time to make sure that no other family should have to watch their loved one go through that, that has spurred him on ever since.

Opportunity Knocks

As a postdoc with Dr. Tyler Jacks, at MIT and a junior faculty member at Penn, working with Dr. David Tuveson, Dr. Hingorani helped develop the KPC mouse, which faithfully recapitulates how pancreatic cancer develops and spreads. When he had the opportunity to move to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, he took it with the stipulation that he would see only patients with pancreatic cancer in the clinic and study only pancreatic cancer in his lab.

“Over the years, we developed a program to a nationally recognized level. The real-time multidisciplinary clinic that we built became a prototype for something that the Canopy Collective decided to help spread across the country. We wanted to create a model of care for pancreas cancer that was built around the patient experience and Canopy is helping tobring that model to the rest of the country. This Learning Health Network is an active ongoing program that now has 14 sites. We got to the point where we built a translational research program and clinical care center that I was very proud of,” said Dr. Hingorani.

According to Dr. Hingorani, an unusual confluence of circumstances led to his decision to join the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), where in 2021, he was named the inaugural recipient of the Nancy Armitage Presidential Chair in Pancreatic Cancer and the first Director of the Pancreatic Cancer Center of Excellence at UNMC and Nebraska Medicine. “The state of Nebraska committed to putting up funds if UNMC would match them.”

When initially asked if he would be interested in directing a new pancreatic cancer center of excellence in Omaha, he politely declined. “I knew some of the scientists here well and had even collaborated with them and they are superb. I had also known of Dr. James Armitage, a pioneer in the development of lymphoma treatments and stem cell transplantation, here at the University of Nebraska—and the founding and current Editor-in-Chief of The ASCO Post. However, I didn’t really know anything about this part of the country. But I ultimately agreed and traveled to Nebraska to visit the university and the team. And when I saw the level of resources and commitment they had, I began to change my mind. They had a grand ambition.”

Dr. Hingorani spends most of his time at UNMC conducting and overseeing a comprehensive translational research program. However, he also leads the development of a real-time, multidisciplinary clinic for patients with pancreatic cancer at Nebraska Medicine and is working with a talented team of individuals across all scientific and clinical disciplines to put together a comprehensive center devoted to all aspects of scientific inquiry and clinical care.

Asked about his current position, Dr. Hingorani replied: “The hardest part of my day is trying to take an idea from the laboratory and reduce it to practice in the clinic — so-called translational research. Across the country, we’re all trying to figure out how to bridge these two worlds and, yet, we keep them sequestered on different parts of the campus which has never made sense to me. If you want to solve this problem, you need the scientists and the clinicians bumping into each other in the hallways daily, constantly, to give serendipity a chance.”

The Nebraska Way of Life

Dr. Hingorani is still settling into his new life in Nebraska, which he notes is quite a shift from his time as an oncology fellow in Boston and his work in Seattle. “I just bought a house, and right now there’s not much more than a mattress on the floor. I must admit, I did have some trepidation about acclimating to both the weather and the culture in the Midwest after living my whole life on either coast. However, I can tell you the people are extraordinarily welcoming and generous.”

For instance, the day he moved into his new home, his neighbors knocked on his door to introduce themselves and welcome him to the neighborhood. “I’ve happily lived in several wonderful places during my life and over time came to know some of my neighbors. But no one had ever knocked on my door the day I arrived to introduce themselves and welcome me. The neighborliness is extraordinary. When I try to express my gratitude for their help in so many ways, my neighbors will say, ‘You need to stop that. This is Nebraska. That’s just what we do.’”