Role Model

by NORA DUNNE | photography by NATHAN MANDELL

 

Roopal Kundu guides students through the admissions process and beyond.

 

Between June and November of last year, 7,516 prospective students applied to join Feinberg’s MD Class of 2021, a group that would contain just 161 matriculating students by the following summer.

Choosing the best and brightest from such a large pool of applicants is a responsibility that Roopal V. Kundu, ’01 MD, ’02 GME, associate dean for Admissions, takes very seriously.

“We are looking for students who will not only be exceptional clinicians, but also leaders in medicine: individuals who want to give back to the community around them in a bigger space than the patient-physician relationship,” she explains. “This could be in academia, science, policy, advocacy, international health — as future ambassadors of Feinberg, we want our students to develop their individual passions.”

Kundu, a Feinberg graduate herself, practices what she preaches: In addition to leading the Office of Admissions, she is a dermatologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, a principal investigator on multiple research projects and an associate professor in Feinberg’s Departments of Medical Education and Dermatology. Before taking over admissions in September 2016, she was also director of the dermatology residency program at McGaw Medical Center of Northwestern University.

As a clinician and investigator, Kundu focuses on skin of color. In 2005, fresh out of her residency, she founded the Northwestern Center for Ethnic Skin, where she treats skin and hair disorders in African-American, Hispanic and Asian patients.

“One of the main diseases I see is vitiligo, where you lose pigment in your skin,” Kundu says. “A light-skinned patient can get it as commonly as a dark-skinned patient, but there’s more contrast and psychosocial implications for people with darker skin.”

We want applicants who visit to understand that Feinberg is a special place where they’ll be mentored and supported and make personal connections.

She’s currently testing a potential new treatment for vitiligo and looking for new treatment targets for keloids, raised scars that affect dark-skinned people most frequently. At the same time, she serves as the faculty mentor on a handful of student- and resident-initiated research projects.

“Getting to know our talented students and residents, and striving to be a good role model and mentor to them, is one of the parts of my job that I love most,” says Kundu, also the Jacob R. Suker, MD, Professor of Medical Education.

She and her team look for a similar sense of altruism in applicants. Kundu puts it simply: “We’re looking for nice people, who are inquiry driven and hard working and enjoy working collaboratively in a team environment to accomplish a bigger purpose than they could on their own.”

 

Kundu mingles with new first-year medical students at a welcome barbeque this summer.

Kundu with other leadership from Feinberg’s MD Admissions and Education team. From left to right, Patricia Garcia, MD, MPH, ’91 GME, Marianne Green, MD, Diane Wayne, ’91 MD, Kundu, and Sandra Sanguino, ’93 MD, MPH, ’96, ’99 GME.

A Culture of Support

Kundu recognizes that the kind of applicants Feinberg wants to attract likely have their pick of top-tier medical schools. While part of her job is determining which students will thrive at Feinberg, it’s also to show students that the school is the right choice for them. Her office does this by inviting applicants to one-on-one interviews with faculty and current students, and by running events like Second Look, where accepted students come back to campus in the spring before making their final decision.

“Outside of the obvious factors like location and ranking, students choose Feinberg based on fit and feel, the intangibles that are difficult to quantify,” she says. “We want applicants who visit to understand that Feinberg is a special place where they’ll be mentored and supported and make personal connections.”

It’s certainly proved to be the case for Kundu. She recalls how her own mentor, Amy Paller, MD, ’81 MSc, ’83 GME, gave her initial exposure to research and the field of dermatology when she was a medical student, setting her on the path she’s on today.

“When I started medical school, I wanted to be a pediatrician,” Kundu recalls. “So I met with clinicians involved in different pediatric specialties, including Dr. Paller in pediatric dermatology. She was contagiously excited about her work, full of ideas and inspirational.”

Kundu went on to conduct a research project with Paller between her first and second year of medical school, leading to her first published manuscript reviewing hypertrichosis in children. Years later, just as Kundu was finishing her residency at the University of Illinois Hospital, Paller became chair of Dermatology and recruited her protégé back to Northwestern.

“I was interested in ethnic skin, this brand-new niche in dermatology,” Kundu says. “She supported me when I was just beginning and made it possible for me to start the Center for Ethnic Skin.”

Each spring, Kundu’s team hosts Second Look, an event that showcases the school’s curriculum and campus to students who have been accepted to Feinberg.

Kundu with one of her own mentors, Amy Paller, MD, chair of Dermatology.

Kundu left to serve on the faculty at New York University from 2007 to 2010, but kept her foot in the door at Northwestern by continuing to run the Center from afar. Then she returned to Northwestern to direct the dermatology residency program.

“Suddenly my office was next to Dr. Paller’s office,” she says. “I met her when I was in my early 20s, a deer in the headlights, and then I’m her colleague and making decisions with her. There’s some serendipity to life.”

It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch, then, that a prospective student who sits across from Kundu’s desk for an interview in the Office of Admissions this fall could choose Feinberg, complete medical school and, with a lot of hard work, eventually land a leadership role here and share a wall with Kundu herself.

“Among the great joys of being a mentor is watching a student blossom into a leader and role model for the next generation,” Paller says. “Indeed, from our first discussion of her early scholarly publication 20 years ago as a Northwestern medical student through career counseling as a faculty member, residency director and now associate dean for Admissions, I have had the pleasure of observing Dr. Kundu evolve into an outstanding mentor to students, residents and other faculty. She truly embodies all the qualities we treasure at the Feinberg School of Medicine.”

A Feinberg Family

Kundu, who went to Northwestern as an undergraduate student before medical school at Feinberg, says she “bleeds purple” — and so does her family. Her husband, Shilajit Kundu, MD, ’07 GME, is an associate professor of Urology at Northwestern, and her two younger sisters (pictured right), Neelam Vashi Secemsky, ’08 MD, ’09 GME, and Ronak Vashi Patel, ’13 MD, also attended Feinberg for medical school. Though her parents, Ajit and Kaumudini Vashi, are not physicians, “They believe in the value of education as a platform to reach opportunity and then give back,” Kundu says.

She has a full life outside of work, too. At home, Kundu spends time with her three children, ages 6 to 11, and dog Funder. This summer, for instance, the family grew vegetables together in their garden. She also takes tennis and golf lessons, belongs to a book club and is vice president of the parent teacher council at her children’s school.

“I’ve always lived by the motto ‘Work hard and play hard, and always enjoy the ride,’” Kundu says.