Global Health Narratives Interview Series: Meet Dr. Kumarasen Cooper.

Kumarasen Cooper, MD, PhD completed his medical training from his home country in South Africa and his PhD at Oxford. He now works as a surgical pathologist at the University of Pennsylvania and is responsible for leading the initiative to engage the pathology department in the Botswana-UPenn partnership through the Perelman School of Medicine Center for Global Health. He has over 260 publications and has lectured in 5 continents. Despite this busy schedule, Dr. Cooper devotes two separate months of the year to work in Botswana’s only academic pathology department, where he pours his energy into helping the department advance.

I met Dr. Cooper through email when I heard about the work he was doing in Africa. He generously agreed to come visit my department to give an excellent Grand Rounds lecture on his experiences working in Global Pathology, and he led a much-appreciated resident slide session of unusual and difficult cases from his work in Botswana. Humility and grace envelop Dr. Cooper despite his brilliant accomplishments. He also proved to be incredibly generous with a refusal of his speaker honorarium, in exchange for an agreement that we would collect pathology textbooks to send to the under-supplied residency program in Botswana. I’m excited to share the inspiring work that he does through the Botswana-UPenn partnership with all of you today, as I think this program could be used as a model for all institutes to involve their pathology departments in global health opportunities.

Q: What began your interest in global health?

A: I was born, raised, and completed my medical training in South Africa. I spent 15 years working as a Pathologist and served as the Chair of Pathology in Johannesburg until I was recruited to the US to work as Vice-Chair at the University of Vermont. I knew when I left Africa that I would always come back, and that I could use what I learned abroad to give back in some way. I wasn’t sure in what form that would take at the time, but I knew there was work that still needed to be done. This was also influenced by my visits to the pathology departments in many different countries over the years…I was able to gain a sense of the ‘haves and have-nots’, and so developed a strong feeling that I needed to give back.

Q: How did you hear about the Botswana-University of Pennsylvania (BUP) partnership and was pathology an active part in that already?

A: When I first discovered the partnership, I thought that this may be an avenue for me to participate in global pathology. At the time, the pathology department was not involved in any of the ongoing BUP projects, though other clinical departments at UPenn were. After my initial assessment of the Botswana pathology department and its resources in April of 2016, I was able to identify ways that I could help. Together with the Director of BUP, I approached the Chairman of my department with the proposal, and we started the pathology partnership program in October of that year. Since then, I travel to Botswana twice a year for one month at a time, and each time I take 1-2 residents from UPenn along with me.

Q: Can you describe the pathology department in Botswana?

A: To serve a population of just over 2 million people, Botswana has only one academic pathology department, a College of the University of Botswana (UB) School of Medicine, which consists of six pathologists who are all from other countries. There are currently no Botswana pathologists working in the department. There are about six technicians working in the laboratory, all of whom were trained internationally. The laboratory receives around 7,000 surgical specimens yearly, plus cytology, and autopsy. They work with an extremely limited panel of immunostains that are not routinely used but are spared for the rare case that cannot be diagnosed with morphology alone.

The residency program is still very new. There are six residents in the program at the present time, and the program is designed so that they will spend the first two years in Botswana and then they will continue their final years of training in South Africa. I look forward with anticipation to the first Botswana trained pathologists in the country.

Q: What is your role when visiting Botswana?

A: We try to help with everything we can. I sign out cases with the residents during the time I am there, and I teach the residents using these cases every day. The UPenn residents that I bring with me are eager to teach as well, so they deliver didactics regularly also. We all participate in tumor boards and the FNA clinic. We each take on projects that we can partner with them to tackle…things like improving turnaround time, quality improvement, and SOP preparations.  We also work on developing academic programs, grossing templates and manuals (A UPenn pathology PA spent two weeks working in Botswana on this project), synoptic reports, cancer guidelines…anything they need I try to help them with.

Q: How are the UPenn pathology residents given credit in their home program to join you?

A: As of this year, the BUP pathology program is now offered as one of the official electives that residents are allowed to choose from. They are able to use elective time and their travel expenses are paid for by a resident travel grant.

Q: In your role as supervisor of the UPenn residents, what do you see the residents gaining from the experience?

A: The residents that have come with me to Botswana are very compassionate and are eager to contribute in any way they can. Experiencing pathology in Botswana, where people are trying to achieve so much with so little resources, it makes the UPenn residents even more grateful for all of the resources they have available to them. They also have the opportunity to not only learn from the unusual cases that present in Botswana, but also the opportunity to contribute their own unique set of skills – some have focused on teaching autopsy technique, others give enthusiastic  and detailed lectures, and one gave a talk about successful study techniques. [For more information about the resident experience, one can read more about it in the UPenn blog here: https://pathology.med.upenn.edu/department/blogs/residency-matters/penns-pathology-residency-program-reaches-botswana]

Q: How do you see the BUP pathology partnership affecting the trainees in Botswana? What changes have you seen since you started working with them?

A: The residents in Botswana really appreciate the partnership that we have formed.  I have seen the residents develop so much since working with them. At first, they were reserved and now they actually request lectures on topics they feel they could improve on. They are still very humble and respectful, but I have encouraged them to be advocates for themselves. They have really embraced their program and I’m very proud of them. We have a deep appreciation for each other and are proud of what we have achieved together.

We’ve also started hosting Botswana residents at UPenn for a one month rotation so they have the opportunity to supplement their training even further. We fly them to the US, house them, and include them in our residency training program for the month. They have the opportunity to sit in on sign-outs, shadow grossing and autopsy, attend conferences, and be exposed to the advanced testing that we routinely perform in the US.

Q: How do you see the pathology partnership growing in years to come?A: I’m currently helping them find placements in South Africa or possibly partnering with private laboratories to help expose the residents to a greater diversity and volume of cases. As the program continues to grow, we look forward to seeing the fruits of the partnership for many years to come.


-Dana Razzano, MD is a Chief Resident in her third year in anatomic and clinical pathology at New York Medical College at Westchester Medical Center and will be starting her fellowship in Cytopathology at Yale University in 2020. She was a top 5 honoree in ASCP’s Forty Under 40 2018 and was named to The Pathologist’s Power List of 2018. Follow Dr. Razzano on twitter @Dr_DR_Cells.

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