MD student mentees at the home of Poonam Khurana, MD
Editor’s note: Photos for this story and in-home gatherings took place prior to the spike in COVID cases due to the Omicron variant. Please check the IU COVID-19 Events and Conferences website for current guidance from Indiana University on group meetings.
A hearty welcome and a home-cooked meal can go a long way to encourage a new medical student.
When Nicole Frey first met her Indiana University School of Medicine physician mentor, Christine Huang, MD, it wasn’t in an office—or anywhere on campus. It was at Huang’s home, where Frey was pleasantly greeted by the savory smell of smoked ribs and chicken, prepared by Huang’s husband. Meanwhile, the couple’s toddler was curious and excited about the small group of medical students arriving at his family’s home.
“We talked with Dr. Huang in her living room while her husband cooked, and then we continued our conversations over lunch,” Frey recalled. “They even had brownies and cookies for dessert and sent us all home with leftovers.”
At IU School of Medicine, every first-year student is assigned to a physician mentor who volunteers to provide one-on-one and group mentoring through all four years of the medical school journey. Physician mentors serve as positive role models and support medical students as they navigate through course work and clerkships.
“I’m hoping they can communicate with me if they need someone to use as a sounding board or someone to direct them to resources,” said Poonam Khurana, MD, FAAP, an associate professor of clinical pediatrics and practicing neonatologist who is mentoring four first-year medical students.
Growing up in Punjab, India, Khurana’s father was a professor of surgery, and he often invited his colleagues, trainees and even patients to their home. It was only natural for Khurana to extend a similar invitation to her new group of mentees. She also invited two internal medicine/pediatrics residents who could talk to the students about the next phase of their medical training.
“We all had dinner and discussed various topics, ranging from medical school advice to sharing stories about traveling,” said first-year medical student Livia Georgescu. “I really appreciate Dr. Khurana's invitation and that she opened her home to us. It was a great way to get to know each other better and start building the mentor-mentee relationship.”
Some of Khurana’s mentees are second-generation immigrants and one is an international student. Khurana, a leader in the Asian Pacific American Faculty and Staff Council, remembers when she first came to the United States for residency at Lincoln Hospital in New York City.
“I started residency with no friends at all, and the only family I had in the United States was in Phoenix,” Khurana said. “I craved social interaction.”
She was grateful when one of the physicians she trained under invited her over for a home-cooked meal. Now Khurana tries to return the favor, connecting small groups of medical students and residents and sometimes inviting friends and neighbors to join, too.
“I just love to put people together. I invite people from different groups and see what comes out of those associations,” Khurana said, adding the objective isn’t always discussing medical careers and curriculum. “They should have some fun!”
For Huang, mentorship was something her residency director modeled during her time as an emergency medicine resident at the University of Arizona. When she came to IU School of Medicine in 2017, she immediately signed up as a physician mentor. Now she’s starting fresh with her second cohort of medical students.
“You have such tight-knit community in medicine,” Huang said. “When you’re in medical school or residency, you’re part of this little family. I’ve had very strong support networks throughout my training, and I wanted to be part of providing that support to new medical students.”
Her husband, Matt Duff, a former educator, is also a natural mentor.
“He was just as excited as I was to invite the students over,” Huang said.
For Frey—coming to IU School of Medicine from a small, liberal arts college where faculty knew students well—the invitation to a barbecue at her physician mentor’s home was exciting. Not only did it give her a glimpse into Huang’s specialty of emergency medicine, but it also allowed the group of four mentees—all female—to see the everyday life of an early career physician.
“She had a lot of great career advice that I think is especially relevant to a group of female medical students,” Frey said. “It was admirable to see her balancing the work of being a mom with medical practice.”
30 years of mentoring new physicians
Paul Wallach, MD, and his wife, Rae, have been opening their lives and home to medical students throughout the last three decades. While it could be intimidating for a first-year medical student to receive that kind of invitation from the executive associate dean for educational affairs and institutional improvement, most see the benefits and are immediately put at ease by the Wallachs’ warm welcome.
“My first impressions were that both Dr. Wallach and Mrs. Wallach were very clearly passionate about mentorship and connecting with IU School of Medicine students,” said Sam Gutierrez, who first met his physician mentor over an al fresco dinner at Bru Burger Bar near the IUPUI campus. “Mrs. Wallach even surprised us all with a little gift bag that had some of our favorite snacks and candies inside!”
Over the years, Rae, a registered nurse, has brought meals to sick students, listened to their worries and been the one a student calls when they just need a “mom” nearby.
“I let them know I’m here for them if they need it,” she said. “I just really appreciate having these relationships that sometimes last many, many years after they’ve graduated. It gives me a lot of pleasure when I go to graduation and meet their parents and get to see them walk across the stage—that’s very meaningful to me.”
Paul Wallach doesn’t see his role as a physician mentor as an obligation; it genuinely brings him joy.
“This journey of medical education is just an amazing one,” he said. “We bring people into medical school—they are young, brilliant, excited people—and over the course of four years, they become doctors. That journey is something, for those of us in academic medicine, that’s such a joy to watch and be able to participate in. This mentor program at IU School of Medicine gives you a front row seat in that process for the four students in your group.”
Discussions with his mentees can range from academic concerns and research opportunities to deeper personal issues or philosophical topics. Wallach is often there to remind them why they started this journey—to help people—and to encourage them to persevere.
“It feels like becoming extended family to people who are living life,” he said, “and being part of those experiences makes the role of being a mentor extremely rich.”
After a while, mentees almost forget they’re talking to one of the deans.
“I do my best to remove titles, and I view these folks as junior colleagues—I just have a head start on them by a few decades,” Wallach said.
First-year medical student Noah Davis said he was excited to be assigned to Wallach as his mentor “because there was no questioning his dedication to medical students.”
As a first-generation future physician, Davis does not have any family members who could help him navigate medical school.
“Every step of this journey is something brand new for me and my family, so having guidance and getting a glimpse of what to expect from people I trust is very important to me,” Davis said.
In Wallach, he believes he has found “someone I can bounce ideas off of, as well as form a good relationship with a physician who has a wealth of experience.”
Physician mentors say the relationship is mutually enriching, as they learn from their mentees, too.
“These young people make me feel young all over again. They are excited to learn new things,” Khurana said, adding, “I always look to medical students for the latest apps to download.”
Wallach said interacting with medical students reminds him of his own journey into academic medicine and reinvigorates his drive for continual learning.
“From the students’ perspective, all these experiences they’re having are novel. By hearing about their patient care experiences and how they approach the learning of medicine, it adds such a refreshing perspective and a great deal of excitement,” he said.
On the flip side, one of Wallach’s new mentees, Josephine Pyles, said she is inspired by Wallach’s innovative attitude, passion for student success, and his experience-informed perspectives on the evolution and future of medicine.
“He has already been a valuable addition to my first-year experience, and I know he will continue to bring a unique perspective and sincere support as I evolve over the next four years,” she said. “Medical school is full of opportunities to rediscover your values, interests and plans for the future. Having a mentor who can offer wisdom and guidance throughout that process is extremely valuable.”
Interested in becoming a physician mentor?
IU School of Medicine is seeking physician mentors for students in Indianapolis and throughout the state. All interested physicians are invited to fill out the physician mentor interest form. For additional questions about the program, please contact Physician Mentor Program Coordinator Kelly Matthews.
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
Laura is a senior writer with the Office of Strategic Communications. A native Hoosier, she has 25 years of experience in communications, having worked with newspapers and other media organizations in Indiana and Florida, along with small businesses, community groups and non-profit organizations. Before joining IU School of Medicine in January 2020, she was editor-in-chief of a lifestyle magazine serving the community of Estero, Florida.