Coast to Coast – More School and a New Life

By Lyndsey Morgan

School has become a way of life for Aruna Venkatesan. First, she graduated from Duke in 2004 with degrees in biomedical engineering and biological anthropology and anatomy, and a minor in chemistry.

After leaving Duke, Venkatesan completed four years of medical school at the University of California at San Francisco. She is currently in her internship year of internal medicine at Kaiser San Francisco, a subsidiary of health care provider Kaiser Permanente founded by industrialist Henry Kaiser and physician Sidney Garfield.

“For some specialties such as dermatology, which I am doing, you graduate from med school and do a one-year internal medicine program called an internship before you do three years of your specialty dermatology residency training.”

“I am absolutely loving my internship year at Kaiser,” Venkatesan said cheerfully, “The system is set up so well that I get to focus on the medical care of my patients.”

The organization of the care teams is also integral to Venkatesan’s experience at the hospital. “There are social workers, physical therapists, and discharge planners who are integrated in our team so that the patients get health care that fits into their lives,” she says, confident in her team of coworkers. “My co-residents are all really nice as are the attending physicians who run our teams.

“Even though I was a little intimidated to start my internship year initially, I’m really enjoying it,” she continued. She spends a great deal of time at the hospital caring for her patients. “It can be nerve-wracking that you have more responsibility over your actions than as a medical student; there are few people looking over your shoulder to make sure you order the right tests and right treatments.”

 “On the other hand, that is why it is so wonderful,” Venkatesan admitted. “Your patients look up to you as their provider, and the connections you develop as a resident really move you and keep you going every day.”

After completing this preliminary year of interning in the summer of 2010, Venkatesan will move on to her 3-year dermatology residency at Stanford. “I got interested in dermatology very late in medical school,” Venkatesan said. “I actually thought I was going to do obstetrics and gynecology and was doing a short two week basic derm rotation just to get some general knowledge in the area and was surprised to absolutely love it.”

When she finishes her dermatology residency, Vankatesan plans to practice as a clinical dermatologist. “I love how you can visually examine a patient and come up with a different diagnosis, and I like how skin diseases involve a lot of psychological issues with patients as well. I hope to practice general dermatology with an interest in women’s dermatology, such as gynecologic skin disorders.”

One additional subject that Venkatesan has become interested in since starting her residency is hospital administration. “I could see myself in the future having an administrative role at the place where I practice medicine, perhaps in an area such as quality improvement in my department,” she mused.

In May of 2009, Venkatesan married a classmate from med school, Sanjiv Nand Singh. “He is wonderful,” she beamed. “He is a doctor as well and it is nice because we can both identify with the pressures unique to our field.”

However, it’s not all about medicine at home. “We have pretty different academic backgrounds,” Venkatesan laughs, “I was an enginerd, as I like to call it, and he studied poli-sci in college.”

The two are enjoying their time together and getting settled into their newly shared life. In what little spare time they have (Aruna works 6-day weeks in her program) they enjoy exploring the various restaurants and boutiques that San Francisco has to offer.

“The city is really quite small and has so many little neighborhoods that you could live there for a hundred years and still find new secret places,” she said.

Still, Venkatesan thinks fondly of her college days at Duke. Although medical school made the transition from college into adult life easier for Aruna, she misses the college days. “My whole 4-year experience was phenomenal,” she reminisced. “Most of all I remember developing a sense of family at Duke; staying up late and talking to other freshman in the hallways and enjoying time with my friends.”  

One challenge for her in med school was the sheer volume of memorization required for her classes. This was something that she had little experience with. “That’s just not something I did when I was at Pratt,” she explained. “But, being an engineer did give me a better approach to problem solving. I was thankful for that throughout my medical school years.” 

One of the best parts about Duke, according to Venkatesan, is the student-professor dynamic. “I feel like at Duke, there is such a positive relationship between students and professors.”

Venkatesan attributes some of her success in med school to this characteristic of Duke. She is comfortable approaching people who were doing interesting things and taking advantage of the many opportunities put before her.

Venkatesan’s advice to current students is to enjoy Duke and the other people in the community.

“Take advantage of what the university has provided for you,” she said. “Get excited and involved in the happenings at the school, and expose yourself to as much as possible, taking advantage of the rich cultural environment there.” 

When Venkatesan was at Duke, she was a member of Kiran, a volunteer organization dedicated to helping female Southeast Asian immigrants and their families who are affected by family violence in the North Carolina area. Despite the constraints of a heavy academic load and volunteer commitments, she found time to pursue her other passions, including membership in Duke's African Dance Repertory Group. Venkatesan, whose parents were born in India, had practiced Indian dance since she was a child, but during her freshman year a friend suggested she give African Dance a try.

She also spent a summer studying Shakespeareat Oxford University in England, and was senior editor for DukEngineer, the annual student publication of the Pratt School of Engineering.

For prospective students, Venkatesan adds the following reassurance: “Duke is a fabulous place to be; it’s a once in a lifetime experience.”