The Surgeon Who Loved Soap Operas

Dennis Chi
Dr. Dennis S. Chi ’86 is a faculty member at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He is the incumbent of the Ronald O. Perelman Chair of Gynecologic Surgery, deputy chief of the Gynecology Service and the head of Ovarian Cancer Surgery. His research has led to more than 250 peer-reviewed publications and four textbooks, including the authoritative Principles and Practice of Gynecologic Oncology. Chi and his wife, Hae-Young, have been married for 28 years and have three children: Jessica ’15, who is getting an M.B.A. at the Business School; Stephanie, 24, who graduated from Cornell and works for a tech start-up company in New Jersey; and Andrew, 20, who is a premedical student at Vanderbilt.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I still had the mentality of a high school senior. I (incorrectly) figured I could spend most of my time having fun with friends, then study at the last minute and still be able to get by with decent grades. After doing well on my calculus III midterm, I decided I could veg out, not go to class and watch the three hit ABC soap operas: All My Children, One Life to Live and General Hospital, every day. Sure enough, I bombed the final, so my GPA suffered and I had a miserable winter break. It’s that first semester that taught me my motto, “Work hard, play hard,” in that order.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived in a four-person suite on Carman 9. My roommate and I got along well, and our two suitemates later became my fraternity brothers. As a freshman, I thought Carman was the most happening place on campus. As soon as you got off the elevator, you would always see friends chatting, hanging out and basically procrastinating from studying. I will always have fond memories of Carman, as I met most of my closest friends there — friends whom I still keep in touch with (albeit via Zoom), now more than 30 years after graduation.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

During my freshman year I took Art Humanities. One of our assignments was to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art to observe the artwork that we had been studying in class. I wasn’t yet familiar with the city, and of course there were no Google Maps back then. My suitemate Joe was from Brooklyn, so I relied upon his knowledge of New York. He suggested we take the 1 train south, get off in the west 80s and walk east to the museum on Fifth Avenue. What we did not realize was that between where we got off the train and Fifth Avenue was Central Park. Furthermore, we did not anticipate that crossing the park in certain areas would be quite difficult due to the steep hills, trees and lack of a clear path. So after what seemed like more than an hour of hiking up and down, we gave up and took a cab back to campus. This experience is memorable because we did this decades before the movie Dumb and Dumber came out.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Other than my townhouse in East Campus, which served as our Tau Delta Phi fraternity house, my favorite spot was the middle of Low Steps. Once I was accepted into medical school during my senior year, I spent the rest of the year with friends “senior sliding” at “Low Beach”: studying but not stressing. What’s not to like about that?

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I would love to retake Art Humanities and Music Humanities. I was so preoccupied with my pre-med courses that I didn’t immerse myself fully in the wonderful opportunity to learn about classical music and art. I regret not appreciating how much this knowledge of the classics would enrich my future life experiences. For example, when I go to a museum and see a work by Monet, I remember he was a French impressionist artist who painted the classic work Water Lilies, but I don’t have much else to offer. I will certainly never be confused with a New York Times art critic.