John Paoli: "I didn't have any specific visions when I was a doctoral student. Those came in later years."
Photo: Jakob Lundberg

John Paoli, unexpected professor: “No need to be best in class”


In his youth, John Paoli describes himself as a mediocre student and a very naive resident doctor. “We were 120 students in my class. I don’t think any of them would have guessed I’d pursue an academic career.”

John Paoli is the head of the Department of Dermatology and Venereology at the Institute of Clinical Sciences.

“If you tally up all types of skin cancer, it’s by far the most common form of cancer and also the one with the fastest-growing incidence. We’re facing an epidemic of skin cancer, and we need to find smart ways to manage this increase,” says John Paoli.

That’s his drive: to research new methods to help more skin cancer patients in a better way, reducing suffering, increasing survival rates, all while utilizing healthcare resources optimally.

John Paoli is the head of the Department of Dermatology and Venereology at the Institute of Clinical Sciences.
Photo: Jakob Lundberg

One doesn’t need to be best in class at the start. You have your whole life ahead of you.

This involves leveraging AI, creating practical digital solutions, educating both patients and healthcare staff, and ultimately shifting the paradigm in treating melanoma. The goal is more early detections of melanoma when they are thin and curable as well as halving the number of surgeries for these tumors.

“My major project currently in the pipeline focuses on smarter surgical treatment of thin melanomas. It will be the biggest and best thing I’ll have done.”

“No one would have bet on me”

That John Paoli would grow up to become a professor, researching to help society manage the Western world’s largest cancer epidemic, was something neither he nor any of his 120 medical school classmates could have imagined.

“If my classmates were asked, ‘Name ten people in the class you think will go far academically in their careers,’ no one would have bet on me. But I think I’m the only one who’s a professor now. One doesn’t need to be best in class at the start. You have your whole life ahead of you.”

Why was it so unexpected that you would become a professor?
“I was truly mediocre. And very naive as a student and resident doctor. You know how guys are. We mature a bit late.”

Became a researcher by chance

What made you become a researcher, despite all that?
“It sort of happened by chance when I was a resident physician. I was simply asked if I’d like to do research. And then I got a packaged project from Ann-Marie Wennberg, who would later become the hospital director. She became my main supervisor during my doctoral studies. It was only then that I realized how exciting research is.”

Then John Paoli’s career progressed rapidly. While working full-time clinically, he completed his doctoral project in four and a half years. He defended his thesis in 2009, became an associate professor in 2012, and a full professor in 2021.

Photo: Jakob Lundberg

I won’t badmouth Mickey Mouse, but…

When you were a doctoral student, what did you envision achieving?
“I had no direct visions. Those came in later years. That sort of reflects me as a person a bit,” he says, pointing to a large red painting on the wall of his airy office.

It depicts Mickey Mouse.

“I won’t badmouth Mickey Mouse, but I’ve been immature and naive. I just didn’t get it. I just took one project at a time. But then goals, visions, and larger concepts have emerged over time. Mainly over the last six or seven years.”

“A bit of a perfectionist”

But clearly, you’ve been successful in researching without having a long-term vision. Taking each project as it comes, that wasn’t naive, was it?
“No, perhaps it wasn’t. It might have been a mature way to work. One step at a time. But there was no plan then. When I heard about people who had worked at the same place for 20-30 years, it sounded very strange. And now here I am myself.”

What qualities do you have that make you a good researcher?
“I’m curious. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, which can have advantages and disadvantages. And I'm determined. I didn’t know I was, but it developed over time. Then I’m good at coordinating people and projects. Making things work,” says John Paoli, adding:

“I’m flexible. And open. Maybe that’s what makes a good researcher. Being open to mistakes, and admitting when you haven’t done things right.”

John Paoli is driven to research new methods to cure more patients in what he calls “an epidemic of skin cancer.” Here, he employs ex vivo confocal microscopy enabling pathological diagnosis within ten minutes instead of four to six weeks.
Photo: Jakob Lundberg

“Helping others admit”

Have you admitted your mistakes?
“Uh... I help others try to admit when they’ve made mistakes,” he says, smiling.

How kind of you!
“Haha... and I’m also absolutely willing to look back and admit that what I was doing then wasn’t so great.”

Her thesis was so much better than mine

Can you give an example?
“A few months ago, I gave a speech for Eva Backman at her thesis defense party. I was her main supervisor and very proud and happy about her research. Then I talked about realizing that her thesis was so much better than mine. And that’s admitting that you’re not so damn good,” says John Paoli, continuing:

“I’ve gotten better over time. Doctoral education is about learning how to do research, and I did. Then I had to develop it further. I don’t know if I’m a good researcher, but I’m clearly better now. I think it’s good to have that insight, that you never stop learning and it's OK to make mistakes along the way.”

Text: Jakob Lundberg