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Teacher of the Year Award for Uma Thanarajasingam, M.D., Ph.D — award puts ‘more wind under her wings’

Uma Thanarajasingam, M.D., Ph.D. (IMM ’08, MDPD ’08, CMR ’12, I ’12, RHEU ’15), is in her third year on staff in the Mayo Clinic Division of Rheumatology in the Department of Medicine. But, having done all of her medical education and training at Mayo Clinic, she’s been on the Rochester campus for 19 years. Dr. Thanarajasingam is the first woman to receive the award in the Division of Rheumatology.

She says the Teacher of the Year award has put more wind under her wings. “The great thing about awards is not to gather them but, rather, allow you to reflect on and be mindful about what you’re doing and how you can be even better,” she says, humbly. “I look at my full calendar and see the learners assigned to me, and it can be daunting. I was in a state of disbelief about receiving this award, but it puts extra gas in my tank to find more ways to teach and get people excited about rheumatology.”

“Getting to know them (trainees) enriches my day. It’s wonderful to connect with people who become my colleagues, and my community of peers is increased.”

What’s your teaching style?

My style is collaborative. I like to keep things low key, which reflects the way I like to learn. I create a comfortable, low-stress learning environment and try to have conversations with learners. I try to learn what they know and don’t know, hear what they have to say and use that as a point to teach from. I try to inject pearls about each patient we see.

How do you know when you’ve done a good job teaching?

It’s hard to know sometimes. It’s rewarding to see a learner approach a patient and display a skill I recommended to them. I gauge my effectiveness by the reaction on learners’ faces — a raised eyebrow that shows they “get it” or an indication of excitement. I want trainees to enjoy their time and have joy in their practice.

What’s most rewarding about teaching?

My interest in teaching was solidified during my chief resident year. During my first year on staff, Floranne Ernste, M.D. (I ’06, RHEU ’09), Education chair and fellowship program director in our division, took me under her wing and has been a wonderful role model. I have the opportunity to be the director of the Internal Medicine Residency rotation through rheumatology. Many of our trainees don’t have a lot of exposure to rheumatology, so it’s exciting to teach them about it.

I enjoy the interactions with learners, whether it’s one-on-one or a small group. I make a point to ask trainees where they’re from and what they’re interested in. Getting to know them enriches my day. It’s wonderful to connect with people who become my colleagues, and my community of peers is increased.

What’s most challenging about teaching?

Finding the time to teach learners across levels is always a challenge with a full calendar of patients. I participate in Enhanced Learning in Medicine (ELM), a faculty development program, to continue to improve my skills in teaching on the go.

Did you ever struggle as a learner or trainee?

I did the M.D./Ph.D. program. I went to medical school for two years, graduate school for four years and then back to medical school. During my third year of medical school at Mayo Clinic, I felt like an imposter. I hadn’t been in the clinic for four years and wasn’t confident of my skills.

My clinical teachers, Drs. Chuck Rohren (THD ’78) and Linda Ward (I ’76) — both in the Division of Community Internal Medicine — helped me acclimate and guide me back to be on par with my peers who went straight through medical school.

I’ve struggled, too, to balance work with having a family and trying to get a fellowship. The people around me were supportive and enthusiastic, which helped me get through it.

How do you address students who are struggling?

When I was a chief resident, I was on a competency committee, where we learned to keep a close eye on people who are struggling academically, attitudinally or personally. We learn to provide specific feedback in a compassionate way. The goal is to help them become the best physicians they can be. You would never know it, but some of the best people struggled at one point in their learning.

Who are your teaching role models?

I’ve been at Mayo Clinic for a long time and have had many role models and mentors in education. Among those who come to mind are Floranne Ernste, M.D. (I ’06, RHEU ’09, Division of Rheumatology), Thomas Mason, M.D. (RHEU ’93, chair, Division of Pediatric Rheumatology), John Bundrick, M.D. (I ’89, Division of Hospital Internal Medicine), Chuck Rohren, M.D. (THD ’78, Division of Community Internal Medicine), and Karen Mauck, M.D. (ADGM ’01, CLRSH ’03, Division of General Internal Medicine).

Do you learn from your learners?

Yes, all the time and in surprising ways. They may have read an article I haven’t seen, or they may be attuned to aspects of the patient’s history that I have glossed over. I learn a little bit more about my patients when I’m with a learner because I’m more mindful during patient interactions.

Trainees commented on your upbeat attitude. Are you always in good mood?

No, but I try to be mindful of my demeanor with learners. I remember when my consultant was angry when I was training. I don’t remember what I learned that day, but I remember the attitude.

In general, I’m a pretty positive person. If I have a bad day and a learner is with me, I strive to make sure they have a fruitful learning experience.

What does the Teacher of the Year award mean to you?

It means a lot. It’s reaffirming. Many aspects of medicine can take away from your passion. It’s inspiring and rejuvenating to hear you’ve made a positive impact on a group of people. I want to continue to do well and be as good as I can be.

My husband, David Wetter, M.D. (Department of Dermatology) has received a Teacher of the Year award three times, and my brother-in-law, Benjamin Sandefur, M.D. (Department of Emergency Medicine), received it once so far. In 2014 they both received the award, so we took our oldest daughter, Nisha, to the Gonda Building and took her photo under the big Teacher of the Year posters. This year, it was my turn. My parents took our three children to have their photo taken underneath Mommy’s poster. Even my 4-year-old was impressed.


Trainee comments

  • “Dr. Thanarajasingam is committed to educating trainees. She’s enthusiastic, engaging and approachable.”
  • “In addition to her outstanding clinical skills, Dr. Thanarajasingam is kind and caring. Trainees never feel rushed when working with her.”
  • “Working with Dr. Thanarajasingam is uplifting. Her upbeat personality lights up the day.”

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