A Conversation with Sumant Ranji| See previous interviews

Sumant Ranji
Associate Professor

Sumant Ranji

It is odd for me to interview a stellar interviewer. What in your mind is key to elicit information from a subject?

I am not sure that I am a stellar interviewer. I’ve actually learned how to do interviews well from other people in the division. I think I have a good sense of what are bad questions; for example, I never ask anyone “Tell me about yourself,” because I hate being asked that question myself. I look at interviews as opportunities to understand candidates’ thought processes rather than to elicit a specific answer to a specific question. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter what they say, it is more important how they arrive at the answer.

Present interview excluded, can you share the worst interview question you were ever asked?

In my very first medical school interview, the interviewer asked whom I planned to vote for: Clinton or Bush. I said, Clinton. I don’t recall his exact response but he was completely aghast that I would vote for a Democrat—he thought Clinton would be terrible for health care. At that point, the interview was pretty much over. It was my first encounter with a stereotypical conservative doctor and it taught me a couple of valuable lessons. The first was never ask a question like that ever, but also that it is so wrong to ask a question in order to judge someone. If someone is going to ask a question that has absolutely nothing to do with what you are being interviewed for, then that is not someplace that I would want to be.

The Chicago Bears lost 32–7 last night to the San Francisco 49ers. Are you sad?

Numb is probably a better description. If you have been a Chicago sports fan for as long as I have been, you get used to these sorts of things. About halfway through the first quarter, I texted my brother, who lives on the East Coast, that “The only good thing about this game is that the kids are happy that I am paying more attention to them than to the TV.”

You spent considerable time in Chicago during residency. Are you still a Chicago guy at heart or have you become a Californian?

I haven’t become Californian exactly. What I tell people is that I miss Chicago particularly in the summer because living in San Francisco you really don’t experience summer. On the other hand, at this time of year I appreciate that it is not 25 degrees outside. I just visited Chicago with my younger son and it was really cold. It took me a long time to explain why he had to put on his jacket, hat, and gloves as neither of my kids has ever experienced weather outside of 50–70 degrees. I will always be a Chicago person at heart but I can’t ever see us leaving the Bay Area.

You always appear cool, calm, and collected. When are you not?

I am pretty much always that way but I used to get really worked up over sports events. I had to consciously decide to cut back on watching basketball or football games because I could feel my acid reflux flaring up. Oh, and driving in traffic.

You and another well-known hospitalist have sometimes joked about the similarities between you two. Can you share an anecdote that illustrates occasional confusion?

Madhavi and I get confused all the time, and people often ask me Global Health questions. Seriously, there are so many levels to the Niraj thing, other than the physical similarities, that it is kind of weird. We are both from neighboring suburbs of Chicago, we are exactly the same age, and we went to neighboring medical schools, which are literally across the street from each other. We met here at UCSF. We used to be mistaken for each other all the time and when we assumed leadership positions within the division, numerous people asked both of us how we could do both jobs simultaneously. My wife sometimes asks why I don’t have Lasik eye surgery and I reply that then I would look exactly like Niraj!

In reading your CV, your interests are across the board. What appeals to, and challenges you, about your role(s) in the division?

I have always struggled with the idea of having one dominant professional interest. The goal to become an expert in one thing is difficult because that is just not who I am. I have always enjoyed being able to work on different things in different areas even if they do not seem to be immediately related to one another, it is more intellectually stimulating to work on different things. I do not do research per se but I know how to do systematic reviews which are a type of research. Being able to do that and think about things in research framework help me in other things I do, like teaching. I try to keep a mindset of why residents would care or how I might teach about a subject. I like coming to work on Monday and looking at the week ahead of me with a goal of doing different things.

Are you a reader? What was the last book that made an impression on you?

My preferences have changed over time. I used to consume fiction but lately my tastes have veered to biographies and non-fiction. I just finished two books: Steve Jobs’ biography and a book about the 1970s music scene, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. I am halfway through Breaks of the Game, a seminal book by David Halberstam, who was a famous journalist, author and historian.

As a father, have you yet struggled to answer an unanticipated question from a young mind?

Both of my kids have started to ask lots of “why” questions and most just don’t have any answer. My younger son just asked me during bath time, “Are you a doctor now?” I wasn’t sure exactly how to answer since, at that precise moment, I was just being a dad.

How and where will you celebrate the upcoming holidays? Is there a favorite food that you anticipate?

My older son apparently told his teachers at school that he was going to have turkey and mushroom sauce and cranberries for Thanksgiving dinner, which is interesting because, well, we don’t eat turkey. For holidays we usually go to my in-laws’ home in East Bay and have a traditional south Indian vegetarian meal, which I look forward to anytime.

Can you tell me about your parents?

My dad came in 1964 to Berkeley to study engineering and, after my parents married, came back in 1967 during the Summer of Love—protests, tear gas, and all kinds of culture shock. I asked him once what it was like to come to the States and he, a very practical person, said that it was just like the American movies he’d seen. I thought that he must be either the hardest person to impress or our culture is much simpler to understand than we think it is—probably a little bit of both.

Thank you, Sumant, and happy holidays.

- by Oralia Schatzman

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