Careers in Pathology: GI Pathology

By Lynn McCain | March 14 2022

Dr. Karen Choi, Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Pathology, is a true-blue Michigander.  Raised in southwest Michigan, Choi completed her undergraduate training at the UM-College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. This was followed by the University of Michigan Medical School and then on to residency training in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology, also at Michigan. Her training culminated in surgical pathology and gastrointestinal pathology fellowships in the Department of Pathology. In 2016, Choi joined the faculty.

Dr. Choi at the scope.“I first learned of the field of pathology during my medical school preclinical pathology courses and labs,” recalls Choi. “My interest in becoming a pathologist, however, was sparked during my pathology elective rotations, when I had an opportunity to see what the pathologists and staff in this department did. The people I met and the overall experience made me want to go into pathology.” Choi particularly remembers Dr. William Finn as one of the pathologists who inspired her career choice. “He was a great teacher. I remember sitting in a week of hematopathology signouts with him, learning so much from each case as he interpreted the histology and other laboratory tests to arrive at diagnoses, and observing his interactions with the trainees and laboratory staff. It was one of the experiences that helped me to realize that pathology was the right fit for me.” Choi was drawn to the diagnostic aspects of the work. “I thought that being able to look at tissue through a microscope and make a diagnosis was really fun.”

As she progressed through her training, Choi found her niche in gastrointestinal, hepatobiliary, and pancreatic pathology, a subspecialty of surgical pathology she colloquially refers to as “GI pathology.” GI pathologists have expertise in diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, liver, biliary tract, and pancreas. Tissues removed from these organs through biopsies or surgical procedures are microscopically examined for abnormalities. “Our department provides GI pathology services for all Michigan Medicine patients, as well as pathology consultations for patients served by other healthcare providers,” Choi explained. “We have a busy clinical service. I work with our trainees (fellows, residents, and medical students) mostly on the GI pathology services, but also on the frozen section service, and I teach GI pathology labs at the Medical School. In addition to my clinical responsibilities, I participate in clinical research and have been the pathology representative to the Rogel Cancer Center’s Cancer Work Group for the last several years, a committee that works with the Cancer Registry to maintain accreditation.” The work volume can be quite challenging, often with many interruptions during the day, “but it keeps things interesting.”

Dr. Karen Choi with mentor Dr. Henry Appelman.“I really enjoy being able to help others, so the work that we do, helping people through patient care, brings me a lot of satisfaction and joy,” reflects Choi. “Working in an academic setting here at UM is also something that brings a lot of satisfaction to my career. I am able to engage in education and learning at this teaching hospital, and it’s rewarding to continue expanding my knowledge and skillsets.” Choi also appreciates the amazing people she has had an opportunity to meet and work with along the way. “There are so many talented and amazing people working at this institution and within our department, and it’s truly been an honor to learn from and work alongside them.” One of the faculty she is indebted to is Dr. Thomas Sisson, a pulmonologist and Professor of Internal Medicine, who was instrumental in encouraging Choi to pursue medical school while she was an undergraduate student working in his basic science laboratory. And one of the most influential mentors in pathology has been Dr. Henry Appelman, who has taught many Michigan trainees GI pathology during his long and distinguished career. “His approach to diagnoses has been very instructive. And his continued enthusiasm and excitement for GI pathology is just amazing to see. It’s contagious.”

Choi advises anyone considering a career in pathology, “Gaining expertise takes a lot of time, patience and effort, so I’d encourage them to choose a field that really interests them and feels like a good fit. It will make it easier to spend the time needed to learn.” Fortunately, the field of pathology is so broad that people with many different skillsets and interests can find that fit. “I can’t think of just ‘one particular skillset’ that someone needs to be successful. There are many subspecialties and laboratories within anatomic and clinical pathology, and therefore many positions within this field to apply the skillsets you have,” encouraged Choi.

Among Choi’s many skillsets is baking. She likes to try new recipes and collect baking books, whether it be frozen desserts, pastries (including pies, her favorite is apple), or other baked treats. Recently, she discovered a new hobby – birding. Whether in the clinical laboratory or engaged in her hobbies, Choi is always learning and ready to share her skills with others. If you haven’t had a chance to get to know her, take the time – you will be glad you did.