From Mumbai to Michigan

By Lynn McCain | October 19 2021

When considering the Department of Pathology at the University of Michigan, there are many faculty who have fascinating stories.  Dr. Lakshmi “Priya” Kunju is one of these.  Kunju is a Professor of Genitourinary Pathology and the Director of Surgical Pathology, Genitourinary Pathology, and the Histology Laboratory. She is also the Medical Director of Image Analysis.  “I grew up in Mumbai, India. Mumbai is like New York and Los Angeles, a very large city,” stated Kunju. I was raised in a family with highly educated women. My mother is a retired ob/gyn physician. My mom has four sisters, all of whom are physicians. My father has a PhD in physics. I was always strongly encouraged to study hard and never felt limited in any way. I was confident that I could blossom professionally in any field that I chose. I had strong women as role models.”

When considering a career in India, Kunju indicated that she wanted a career that was conducive to financial and social independence and still meaningful in terms of contributing to society. Medicine was such a career. It was a career where she could practice independently, if desired, and it was highly meaningful. Plus, having a mother and three aunts who were physicians didn’t hurt! “My family thought my choice of pathology was unusual. I was ‘leaving clinical medicine’ yet, the thought of missing direct patient contact in clinical care did not seem that crucial. It was the science of medicine that I found highly appealing. Besides, surgical pathology is clinical medicine. It is one of most clinically oriented disciplines when it comes to patient care – it is where many crucial  diagnoses are made that have the potential to significantly impact patient management. Once the decision was made, Kunju still had to get into medical school. “In India, it is a highly competitive field for getting into medical school. At that time, you got one shot in India. This was the most stressful time of my life. I wanted to get into medical school, but since taking a “gap year” was not a choice at that time, I also had to have a back-up plan. Once you get in, you still have to work hard, but the doors would open up and you would have opportunities.” Comparatively speaking, Kunju finds that the barrier in the United States is not in entry, but the future opportunities for women. In India, millions compete for a very limited number of seats, but women have opportunities. “My mom retired as Chief of her department. Here, there are still not many women chairs. Women can get into almost any professions of their choice, but it is hard to get to the top in the USA. In India, the barrier is entry, but once there, capable women are promoted to positions of power. I grew up with a woman prime minister. I am still hoping for a female president in the USA before I die. It is strange that it is such a huge deal here.”

After medical school, Kunju completed her residency training in pathology in India, became board certified, then “love got me here,” recalls Kunju. “My fiancé finished his masters at Wayne State University and wanted me to try for a residency here which was an exciting opportunity to expand my horizons. I came here and studied for my USMLE, then, in 1998, started my residency. I came to the University of Michigan to do my fellowship in 2002 and the rest is history. I’ve been in the field of genitourinary pathology for more than 20 years.”

Over the past 20 years, Kunju has noted changes. “When I had two kids during my training, there were no lactation rooms. It was very difficult. Now, lactation rooms are more mainstream and awareness of needs are greater. There are more part-time opportunities, flexible work-life options for young women faculty with children. People understand that you have to give opportunities for female faculty to have work-life balance.”

Kunju points to two women who were particularly influential in her life once she began to practice. Dr. Sudha Kini was a cytopathologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. “She was of short stature , but her strength of character was truly admirable and she was a force to be reckoned with. Here, it is Dr. Kathy Cho – a truly awesome combination of both grit and grace. Grit to do what it takes to be at the top, but to do it so gracefully. These women achieved the holy grail – professional success and a decent work/life balance with raising kids and having family time. You can feel their strength, which comes from doing what they love to do – when opportunities come, they take them. I learned I need to keep myself open to that.”

“I have worked hard to be where I am and I am happy”, reports Kunju. “I am open to opportunities - I am always curious to learn. If the right opportunities come, I will take them and see where it leads. I love my job in academic pathology where I can pursue a blend of clinical service, research, education, and administration. I am very happy with my life- both professionally and personally.” Over the years, seeing the impacts Dr. Kini and Dr. Cho made on her life, Kunju realizes mentoring and sharing her ideas are the most important things she can do. “Having a strong community of women around me, of various levels, including junior faculty and fellows, is important. I listen and try to offer my insights authentically and try my best to help. If foreign medical graduates are here, I help them. I informally mentor many high school students, college students, and medical students. It is very important. It is unrealistic to think you will have only one mentor in your life. You need to have many people from whom you learn. Pick someone you like and admire and find the attributes that you can learn and emulate. There is no perfect person who will answer all of your questions or solve all of your problems.” As a woman of color, Kunju realizes the importance of finding strength with others. “People underestimate your competence and make quick judgements. As women of color, we need to stand up for ourselves and be a resource. That is why mentoring is so very important. If you are competent, you deserve to be heard. No one should make you feel otherwise.”