When Mona Shahriari, high school senior from Branford, first set foot on the UConn campus nearly 14 years ago, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study.
She had interests in medicine and research, and was looking for a university that would give her options to explore her interests. By the time that first visit to Storrs was done, Shahriari had fallen in love with UConn.
She would spend all but one of the following years with the University – as an undergrad until 2007, a UConn medical student until 2011, a UConn dermatology resident from 2012 to 2015, and since then, a practicing dermatologist on the UConn Health faculty.
“The reason I wanted to be at an academic institution was I wanted to be at the forefront of research,” Shahriari says. “I wanted to be familiar with all the newest medicines. People come to me at a referral center because they want the treatment that the doctor in the private sector can’t give them. They want me to be comfortable with all the newest treatment modalities and to cure their skin disease.”
Shahriari says it was never the plan for UConn to be the place for her entire academic career and most of her postdoctoral training, then to stay and practice medicine, teach, and do research. Each time she had to make a decision about her next step, she considered multiple options. But, with the exception of one year out of state for a medical internship, the answer was always the same: UConn.
Recalling her undergraduate days, Shahriari says she was able to take advantage of a lot of opportunities that her peers didn’t.
“I got involved with research, published papers, took a lot of honors-level classes, and the faculty were absolutely amazing,” Shahriari says. “There were a lot of small classes, one-on-one with the faculty, and it was one of the best times in my life.”
Shortly after her freshman year Shahriari decided to pursue medicine. When it came time to choose a medical school, UConn was not her only consideration. But it had the appeal of familiarity, especially considering she had gotten to know UConn School of Medicine’s then-director of admissions, Keat Sanford.
“I worked closely with the medical school as an undergraduate. I participated in the migrant farm worker clinic, and Dr. Sanford would come and give talks,” Shahriari says. “UConn had a lot of what I was looking for in terms of my medical school career. They had a small class size, they started you in the clinical area from September of your first year, and people who graduated from UConn matched into the top residencies in the country. You could do what you wanted to do and have the tools to do it.”
She graduated as a UConn Honors Scholar with a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences, summa cum laude. Before starting at the UConn School of Medicine, Shahriari spent part of the summer in Iran, where her family is from, for an experience that would help define her as a physician.
“I did some work with some of the burn victims from the Iran-Iraq war. They had squamous cell carcinomas growing inside their burn scars,” Shahriari says. “I had a chance to see dermatologists and plastic surgeons first hand helping people who were in underserved areas of the country. That’s where I was first introduced to dermatology.”
Around the same time, a family friend was diagnosed with melanoma, and it opened Shahriari’s eyes to how education is lacking in underdeveloped countries when it comes to skin disease.
“People think of dermatologists as beauty doctors, and they don’t really see the medical dermatology behind it, so someone who’s darker skinned couldn’t understand why he got a melanoma,” Shahriari says. “During medical school I explored all the fields that I came across and dermatology kept standing out as the one I wanted. You kind of feel like you’re the primary care doctor of the skin, and the skin can be an outlet to disease in the rest of the body.”
By the end of her third year, dermatology had emerged as Shahriari’s specialty of choice. Her time as a student also brought her to some influential faculty members.
“I would say my first exposure to dermatology was with Dr. Marti Rothe,” Shahriari says. “She got my feet wet and showed me what dermatology was all about. And if it wasn’t for her I would not have even considered dermatology as a field.”
She met Rothe, an associate professor of dermatology, in her first year. It was through Rothe she got to know Dr. Jane Grant-Kels, then the chair of the UConn Health Department of Dermatology, who since has retired from that role but continues to practice.
“My first impression of Mona was that she was extremely likeable, a very upbeat person, and her optimism was contagious,” Grant-Kels says. “Over the years this optimism and enthusiasm has continued, which makes her a wonderful colleague and friend. She has matured as a physician into a wonderful dermatologist and I am proud to call her my partner now.”
Shahriari says Grant-Kels served as her mentor every step of the way.
“It was like I had a second mother,” Shahriari says. “She would give me the guidance that she would give her daughter. She was always there for me, whether it was personal or work related.”
“Dr. Strober and Dr. Makkar played a really big role mentoring me,” Shahriari says. “One thing I learned about them was, when I was trying to decide where to go after my residency, rather than selfishly try to recruit for their own program, they were very objective. They gave me the pluses and minuses of the program, tried to see what I was looking for in my career, and that’s a quality that makes a good mentor a great mentor. And I still to this day look to them for guidance.”
By no means was it a given that she would choose UConn for her dermatology residency. Shahriari again explored her options. But none offered the environment of nurturing, support, and growth that UConn did.
“The way the attendings interacted with the residents, the way the attendings interacted with each other, the relationship the chairman and the program director had with the residents, was just something I did not see anywhere else,” Shahriari says.
On Match Day 2011, the day when soon-to-be-graduating medical students across the country find out where they’re going for their residency training, Shahriari got her wish. She would train in dermatology at UConn Health after spending a year at the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, where should would complete a preliminary internship in internal medicine.
“It is very typical to do one year of internship in internal medicine prior to dermatology,” Shahriari says. “I chose Baystate because of its ‘learner-manager-teacher’ model for the internship, which allowed for a very nonthreatening learning environment that is unique among the programs in the country.
“I could not be happier with my decision. My three years of residency were phenomenal.”
And as that third year—during which she was the chief resident—wound down, it was decision time again. Where will this trained dermatologist practice?
“I had been in the UConn system for 12 years, and every time I made the decision to stay I had good reasons for it, but am I running the risk of being too inbred by not seeing anywhere else,” Shahriari says. “So I decided to interview out of the box. I looked at other programs in the Northeast and even on the West Coast.”
But they weren’t like UConn.
“All the features that attracted me to the residency—the camaraderie among the attendings, the fact that there really isn’t a hierarchy amongst attendings, the person like me who’s a junior faculty member and the person who’s been here for 20-30 years, we all have equal say, equal respect, and everyone tries to make things easier for you so you can do your job of taking care of patients—weren’t the same across the country as they are here,” Shahriari says.
The timing was right too. Three of her major areas of interest—pediatric dermatology, pigmented lesions, and clinical trials—were areas UConn Dermatology was looking to expand.
And once again, she stayed—appointed assistant professor of dermatology, becoming part of the faculty that had mentored her all these years before. She joins Makkar and Dr. Mary Chang on a very short list of Connecticut physicians who practice pediatric dermatology. Shahriari sees patients at UConn Health’s dermatology offices in Farmington, 21 South Road, and in Canton, 117 Albany Turnpike.
“I had hoped that this would be what the future held and was delighted and relieved when she stayed,” Grant-Kels says. “Mona is bright, willing to continue to learn, and a fabulous teacher. She will be a huge asset to our department and dermatology residency. She will also be a wonderful role model for medical students, as she has good values regarding life and how to practice medicine. I am thrilled to call Mona my past mentee and my present friend, partner and colleague. She is a welcome addition to our faculty.”
Shahriari also was appointed associate director of clinical trials. She says clinical trials in melanoma have really taken off in recent years, and cures for the deadliest form of skin cancer may not be that far away.
“I certainly want to bring in trials for melanoma so that, given the number of patients we have, we can make this one of the centers where people can not only get the treatment they need but also have potential research options and clinical trials that they can take part in, and help the next generation of people who have melanoma,” Shahriari says.
Neda Shahriari, a member of the UConn School of Medicine Class of 2017, says it came as no surprise that her big sister decided to stay at UConn through medical school, residency, and now in practice.
“She has always explored her other options but what drew her back every time was the strong clinical training offered here,” Neda Shahriari says. “And it was for this very reason that I also chose UConn for medical school.”
Says the elder Shahriari, “I do feel very strongly about UConn as an institution. That’s where I would like to have my kids go some day.”