Whether it is Bollywood dancing or hobnobbing with stars, Dr. Rachna Shroff fits it all in around her research on gastrointestinal cancer treatments.
For many people, “Let It Go,” the hit song from the Disney film “Frozen,” conjures images of Elsa twirling around or little girls rapt with joy. But for Rachna Shroff, MD, a professor of medicine in the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson and chief of the Division of Hematology and Oncology, the song evokes other memories.
If you look closely at videos of Idina Menzel performing “Let It Go” at the 2014 Academy Awards, you might just see Dr. Shroff in a glorious yellow dress seated directly behind Kristen Bell, who was the voice of Anna in “Frozen.”
“When she started singing, the camera kept flashing to Kristen Bell to get her reaction, so I was always on camera,” Dr. Shroff said. “During the performance, I kept getting these texts from my friends saying ‘You are on national television – stop crying!’ because I was crying while thinking of my daughter and how much Simran would have loved to be there watching Idina Menzel belting out the song.”
Dr. Shroff, who is a member of the UArizona Cancer Center, walked the red carpet and attended the governor’s ball with a visual effects artist whose notable projects included the “Star Wars” series, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Ghostbusters.” He also sat on the Academy Awards Board of Governors.
Scoring the invitation came down to knowing the right people, starting with a mutual friend of Dr. Shroff’s and the governor. Dr. Shroff’s husband, Puneet Shroff, MD, a clinical associate professor of medicine at the College of Medicine – Tucson, was also invited to attend. Their once-in-a-lifetime night included meeting Bell and being introduced to Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock.
“It was incredible!” Dr. Shroff said.
A growing interest in cancer research and patient care
It isn’t always bright lights and hobnobbing with famous people for Dr. Shroff, whose family moved to Tucson from New York City when she was an infant.
“My mother is a retired nephrologist and an incredibly well-respected physician in the Tucson community,” Dr. Shroff said. “She was a woman physician of color in the 1980s, and I saw her shatter many glass ceilings. Watching her care for patients with empathy while being a committed mother, wife and community leader was truly inspirational.”
“I remember thinking about the humanity of oncology, and how holding a patient’s hand through that journey and being part of that care team made me feel like I was truly positively impacting these patients’ lives.”
Rachna Shroff, MD
Her father was a scientist at the University of Arizona, where he worked in the lab of Victor Hruby, PhD, Regents Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the College of Science.
“My father worked in Dr. Hruby’s lab for decades. I truly think he is what drives my interest in translational research and my desire to collaborate across disciplines. I feel so lucky to have grown up surrounded by people who always pushed the envelope and who supported my drive.”
That drive took her all over the U.S. in pursuit of her education and career. She earned a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Brown University, where she did a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Medical Research Fellowship in a lab studying cancer. She received her medical training and degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where her first internal medicine clinical rotation was in the oncology unit.
“It was in that clinical rotation that I started interacting with oncology patients and saw the patient-facing side of oncology. One of the first patients I took care of was a pancreatic cancer patient. I remember thinking about the humanity of oncology, and how holding a patient’s hand through that journey and being part of that care team made me feel like I was truly positively impacting these patients’ lives.”
She completed a residency in internal medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, where she met a fellow intern who became her husband. At the same time, she served as chief resident at the St. Louis VA Medical Center, which is where she realized that oncology was the specialty she wanted to pursue.
A full-circle homecoming
Dr. Shroff recalls being “perfectly happy” living and working in Houston, where she moved to pursue a fellowship in medical oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and a master’s degree in patient-based biological research at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. In addition to everything else, she was an avid Bollywood dancer and choreographer, performing competitively with a troupe representing the Anjali Center, now Naach Houston.
“Dance has been my passion since I was a kid – any form, any time. I am so grateful that my parents gave me this art as it has been my lifeblood in so many ways,” she said.
However, a call from then-UArizona Cancer Center director Andrew Kraft, MD, and former deputy director Julie Bauman, MD, MPH, offered an opportunity to disrupt the comfortable niche Dr. Shroff had carved out for herself.
Dr. Kraft, now retired, and Dr. Bauman wanted Dr. Shroff to rebuild the UArizona Cancer Center’s gastrointestinal cancer program.
“I had built a research program on biliary cancers at MD Anderson with one of my colleagues,” Dr. Shroff said. “I think I started to recognize that was what I really enjoyed doing – taking pieces of a puzzle and putting it together, building teams and empowering those teams to run with it. So it was an intriguing idea.”
It was also the chance for a homecoming of sorts. During the summer between her freshman and sophomore years of high school, Dr. Shroff was selected to participate in the Sir William Osler Summer Fellowship Program. She was placed in the UArizona Cancer Center with Margaret Briehl, PhD, now a professor of pathology, chair of the Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program and associate director of cancer research training and education coordination in the UArizona Cancer Center.
“Dr. Briehl was such a wonderful mentor. She was studying apoptosis and cell death and how it relates to cancer, and because she was still early in her career, she was very hands on. She helped me learn really important basic laboratory techniques and helped me understand the science of what I was doing,” Dr. Shroff said.
“As a 14-year-old, Rachna Trivedi was the rare student who showed the potential to reach the pinnacle of whichever career she pursued,” Dr. Briehl recalled, using Dr. Shroff’s maiden name. “Her curiosity to explore the unknown, her drive to find answers, her positive energy, intelligence and social skills quickly made her successful in the research project she was given. At the end of the summer program, each high school student gave a presentation. The department chair at the time was Ronald S. Weinstein, MD. He said to me that when listening to Rachna’s presentation, he felt that he was listening to a graduate student’s talk.”
Dr. Shroff decided to accept the offer from Drs. Kraft and Bauman and joined the UArizona Cancer Center and the College of Medicine – Tucson in April 2018.
“It was really great when I came back to the UArizona Cancer Center and saw Dr. Briehl. She remembered me,” Dr. Shroff said. “And now, of course, Margaret and I work closely together as Cancer Center leaders. It was a really cool, full circle moment when I came home.”