January 25, 2022

Meet medicine leadership in 2022, a series: Get to know Anupam Agarwal, M.D.

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artwork 01 1Our Academic Medical Center kicked off 2022 with a significant change. On Jan. 1, Selwyn M. Vickers, M.D., FACS, was officially named CEO of UAB Health System and CEO of the UAB/Ascension St. Vincent's Alliance, while continuing to serve as Senior Vice President for Medicine and Dean.

With Vickers’ change comes structural leadership changes to support the new Dean/CEO model. In a few recent interviews, Vickers has noted that serving as both CEO and Dean will only be possible due to the top, trusted leaders across the UAB Health System, Dean’s Office, and the Alliance.

Vickers said this leadership team is indispensable in creating a smooth and steady transition and setting a clear path for growth.

The communications team sat down virtually with each top leader across the organization to learn more about their background, current role, and vision for the future.

Anupam Agarwal, M.D., has served UAB Heersink School of Medicine in several capacities since joining the faculty in 2003. From scientist and Acute Kidney Injury researcher to professor and division director of Nephrology, Agarwal has touched multiple centers and departments in his two decades here. Since 2014, he has served as executive vice dean.

Now, with a recently expanded role to accommodate the new CEO/Dean leadership model, Agarwal said he is just as excited as when he began his career at UAB. “I am passionate about being part of the Heersink School of Medicine’s growth process,” he said. “Seeing this growth and providing strategic input—we’re in a really good place right now.”

Growing up and education in India

Driven to succeed early in life, Agarwal grew up in South India and knew he wanted to practice medicine from a young age. His father, a trained pathologist, had a major impact on Agarwal's journey by leading from example.

He attended medical school, completed residency in internal medicine, and finished a three-year fellowship in Nephrology in India—where he was taught by the Father of Indian Nephrology, Dr. Kirpal Singh Chugh. During his training, his thesis was published in the journal Kidney International as the first original research paper from India, a publication where he now sits on the editorial board.

Agarwal familyAnupam Agarwal, M.D., and Lisa Curtis, Ph.D., with their childrenMaking an international move

Not long after this accomplishment, he received a letter by mail from the University of Minnesota seeking to recruit him. "I interviewed with them by phone," he laughed, remembering the interview process, reminiscing on the early 90s technology and comparing to today’s world of Zoom and other virtual platforms.

"I had been wanting to pursue laboratory-based research in academic medicine, and that was not available in India at the time."

After Minnesota, he went to Gainesville, Florida, to do his postdoc work at the University of Florida. There, he received a K08 grant from the NIH on the first submission.

Agarwal gleamed when he mentioned meeting the love of his life, Lisa Curtis, Ph.D., who—at that time—was a graduate student in Nephrology. “We used to go to the Gainesville Ale House with all the researchers in nephrology on Friday nights.” Agarwal said he believes in fate because of his culture, so going to Gainesville and meeting Lisa was no coincidence.

The two were married in 2002 and came to UAB shortly after, both securing work in the Division of Nephrology.

artwork 03 2UAB, a surprising campus

Agarwal said his first visit to UAB blew him away because it was not what he had expected. Though he was being recruited to serve on faculty, he was hesitant because of Alabama’s history of racism and injustice. “As an interracial couple, we were nervous to move to Alabama.”

Convinced by David Warnock, M.D. (former division director of UAB Nephrology) to visit, Agarwal said he was surprised by a progressive and growth mindset on campus at UAB, which was evident immediately. Curtis and Agarwal felt not only accepted but welcome.

“There was also an obvious collaborative spirit across departments and schools," he said. "There was collaboration between basic research and clinical environments." Agarwal added that working together builds a collaborative network where scientific discoveries can happen faster than if disciplines were studied in isolation.

This attitude, coupled with the leadership's vision, impressed him. “I knew then this is where I wanted to be, and it has kept me here—until even now.”

Impacting every corner of our AMC

Since then, Agarwal has made a lasting impact at every corner of the school, influencing faculty, trainees, staff, students, and patients alike.

Among other roles, he serves as the program director of the NIH/NIDDK funded O’Brien Center for Acute Kidney Injury Research, has trained 22 pre- and 22 postdoctoral fellows in his lab (several of whom have been successful in obtaining extramural grants and becoming independent faculty), was named the Thomas E. Andreoli Professor of Nephrology in September 2006, and was appointed to the Marie S. Ingalls Endowed Chair in Nephrology Leadership in April 2011.

He served as division director for Nephrology at UAB from January 2008 to September 2021. Agarwal has also worked as vice chair for Research for the Department of Medicine, interim chair for the Department of Medicine, and interim senior vice president and dean of the Heersink School of Medicine.

Now, as the Hilda B. Anderson Endowed Chair in Nephrology and executive vice dean for the Heersink School of Medicine, Agarwal said he is more devoted than ever to ensure we fulfill our missions.

Agarwal kidsLeading Heersink academic efforts

When asked how his role as executive vice dean will cater to the current changes, he said focusing on the operations and administration of research, clinical care, and medical education, while providing support to Vickers are his key priorities.

To do that, Agarwal assumed leadership for Faculty Affairs and Faculty Development in October 2021, including promotion and tenure, recognition, mentorship and leadership development for faculty, as well as recruitment and retention of key leaders in the Heersink School of Medicine. Too, he will meet with department chairs and institute directors, and lead the Dean's Leadership Team operational meetings.

Agarwal remarked that he wants to see momentum from last year's successes, such as the Heersink family's $95 million gift to the school. "It will transform our medical school," he declared. "We want Biomedical Innovation and Global Health to succeed. How we use and steward the gift will show the Heersink family how their benevolence contributes to our mission."

Putting family first

Agarwal’s zeal and passion for his work spills over into his personal life. Celebrating their twentieth anniversary this year, he and Curtis, who is an associate professor in the Division of Nephrology, have two adopted children. “They are 13 and 14 years old—a girl and a boy—both adopted from Uzbekistan. We adopted them when they were 11 months and 22 months old,” he said. “Adopting our children was the best thing we have ever done in our lives.”

When asked what he does outside work for fun and to stay balanced in his wellness, Agarwal said he enjoys supporting his son in the Boy Scouts. Together, they enjoy camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities. He also supports his daughter in the Girl Scouts, and attended the father-daughter dance in the pre-pandemic years.

He enjoys SEC football and is a big UAB football fan.

artwork 02 2His favorite hobby, however, is golf. "I used to ridicule people playing golf. But, one colleague in the laboratory at the University of Minnesota told me that if I left for Florida, I had to play. I agreed to a game with him and ended up playing well because of my background in cricket." Agarwal said the technician gave him a pair of used golf clubs as a parting gift when he went to his postdoctoral fellowship. "I was hooked from there."

A bright future

When he thinks about the road ahead, he looks forward to growth, such as recruiting over 100 investigators, programmatic initiatives, and the development of new centers (like the Deep South Center for Chronic Disparities).

“Being part of UAB is tremendous,” he exclaimed. “What we do each day is make sure the patient is at the centerpiece of all our actions—no matter if this pertains to medical education, research, or clinical service—all those efforts should be about advancing patient care and well-being.” All legs of the stool are equally important, and the patient is at the center.”