By Tiffany Whitfield

Old Dominion University, Biology alumnus, Dr. Surena Matin is a leading urology oncologist in Houston, Texas. A loved one's battle with cancer and the Iranian Hostage Crisis forever changed his life.

"I was born in Tehran, Iran," said Dr. Matin. "My father was a diplomat with the former government of Iran; throughout this time my mother was being treated for breast cancer, which is what originally brought us to the USA, prior to the hostage crisis," said Dr. Matin. She received life-saving treatment at the University of California San Francisco. "My mother is alive and well today thanks to the work they did," said Dr. Matin. This was in the days of the radical mastectomy, massive radiation doses and many months of toxic chemotherapy. "As disfiguring and toxic as these treatments were, it's the best the medical world had at the time," said Dr. Matin.

"So, with the hostage crisis and the end of diplomatic relations that occurred, our family was deported from the USA back to Iran," said Dr. Matin. "We moved to Italy when I was 2 years old, then to Chicago when I was six or seven." Eventually they were granted entry back to the United States, and they settled in Virginia Beach when he was 12 years old. "Italian was my first language and by the time I finished high school I had been to over 15 schools in seven cities and three countries," said Dr. Matin.

After graduating from Frank W. Cox high school in Virginia Beach, Dr. Matin received a full scholarship to attend Old Dominion University. "ODU had just started an Honors College, and I was in the second year of that program," said Dr. Matin. "Some really terrific teachers were part of this program and even though I had the chance to go to a bigger name school, the opportunities at ODU were tremendous, and I could not pass it up."

At ODU he chose to study biological sciences. "I was always interested, between my humanist father who was always curious about the natural world and my older brother Sina (ODU alum) who studied Biology, those influences instilled a sense of interest and wonder about what made living things work," said Dr. Matin.

His wonder for sciences began to peak as he dove into research. "Dr. Andrew Gordon mentored me in research, evaluating the denitrification potential in the Elizabeth River; I got to take out a small boat out on the river, dig up stinky mud from the riverbed and run the gases it generated through a chromatograph," said Dr. Matin. "Once we were done, he asked me to try to write it up and that was quite tough for me, but he was kind enough to do the lion's share of writing." This was Dr. Matin's first academic publication.

Along his undergraduate journey, Dr. Matin credits several mentors that each helped in their own way. "Nancy Wade was a force of nature, and she was influential in both my and my brother's professional trajectory," said Dr. Matin. "I was saddened to hear of her passing in January 2021 but was grateful that we connected at a personal level several years after graduation."

"Karen Polonko taught sociology and was a passionate feminist; things that I was too immature and ignorant of to appreciate at the time; but her lessons and voice stuck with me," said Dr. Matin.

"Judy Doumas was this magical being with whom I took English, creative writing, and a dreams analysis class," said Dr. Matin. He minored in English thanks to her guidance.

"Alan Savitzky was demanding and precise, and his passion inspired curiosity in comparative anatomy and herpetology," said Dr. Matin. "We would take field trips in the surrounding swamps. He made us hand write our essays, no typing was allowed, and he would thus criticize our handwriting as well as the essay itself."

"Andrew Gordon was really the first to teach me the scientific process, from digging up mud, to technical preparation in the lab, collecting data, and analysis," said Dr. Matin. "After that first publication, I have since made over 300 contributions to my field in peer-reviewed medical journals, book chapters, and the like, and I have mentored dozens of medical students, residents and fellows along the way."

After graduating summa cum laude from ODU, Dr. Matin went on to Cornell University Medical College and from there to an internship and residency in Urology at the Cleveland Clinic. "As with many things in my life, luck and timing proved important," said Dr. Matin. "I was starting my last year of fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic, getting additional training in urologic minimally invasive surgery which at the time was still quite new, and I heard about a possible position opening at MD Anderson Cancer Center." After he interviewed, Dr. Matin realized it was a great fit. "They wanted someone to start a minimally invasive urologic cancer program, and I had the credentials for it," said Dr. Matin. "That was 20 years ago, Houston is now our home."

Dr. Matin serves as the Monteleone Family Foundation Distinguished Professor with tenure in the Department of Urology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Additionally, he serves as Medical Director of the MINTOS (Minimally Invasive New Technology in Oncologic Surgery) multidisciplinary collaborative program in the Division of Surgery, which administers the robotic surgery program and has provided free-of-charge, multidisciplinary surgical education to MD Anderson surgery trainees at no cost to the institution.

Looking back, Dr. Matin credits ODU as the "single most important steppingstone." "If it wasn't for ODU, the scholarship, the Honors College, my mentors, the capacity provided for growth, I would not have gotten an interview at Cornell University," said Dr. Matin.

"That first foundation is absolutely critical, and it is the reason why we are supporting today's bright students with an endowed scholarship," said Dr. Matin. "I am ever so grateful to ODU and so happy to be able to pay it forward."

Dr. Matin believes that "at ODU, you have the potential to do as well or better than going to an Ivy League school. I suspect it still provides that personal touch, but in the context of a world class institution with outstanding programs on a beautiful campus."