Commencement 2024: Meet Mala Sharma

Date: Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Hometown: Marion, Iowa 

Undergrad: Biology, Iowa State University 

Matched: General surgery, University of Iowa

Portrait of Mala Sharma

What drew you to a career in medicine?

I really loved my high school human anatomy class. And then in my senior year of college, someone close to me got sick, and I saw how it could affect someone’s whole life. If they're feeling sick, they can't spend time with their loved ones; they can't engage in their hobbies; they're not doing well in school or at their job. That's what made me interested in medicine. I realized it was a good connection between my interest in anatomy and physiology and wanting to help people get to a better quality of life. 

Tell me about some of your mentors in medical school.

Dr. Kelsey Koch is now a cardiothoracic fellow at Yale, but she has been one of my favorite mentors. She was my senior resident a couple of times, and I’ve seen her be a strong leader, fierce patient advocate, and selfless team member. She’s someone a lot of my peers and I look up to for those reasons. She loves medical education and makes an effort to really involve students. To be able to see things in surgery and even get to do a little bit, as appropriate for a student, was what initially sparked my interest in surgery.  

Dr. Guyton [Kristina Guyton, MD], who's a colorectal surgeon, took me under her wing in my first year of med school. She was on a Women in Medicine panel that I went to when I was interested in gastroenterology. I asked her if I could watch some scopes with her, and she's been an excellent mentor to me ever since then. She's been a role model for me in the way that she treats her patients. As a colorectal surgeon, she treats conditions that people are often uncomfortable or hesitant to talk about, but she is an extremely kind and caring person who patients have no problem opening up to. The very first patient I saw with Dr. Guyton, who was pregnant at the time, brought her a handmade baby blanket. I thought, “Wow, that's how much her patients love her!” 

Some other influential mentors are Drs. Krista Johnson, Manish Suneja, Amy Pearlman, Kevin Huang, Ashleigh Bull... I could go on and on.

Outside of coursework, what was important to you in your time here?

I am a part of the Teaching Distinction Track. I tutored three courses almost every year. I've always had a passion for education. Being able to explain things to all different kinds of people in different settings, whether it's tutoring my peers or counselling patients in the clinical setting, is such a valuable skill to have. And I think it helps our patients, as well. As we become experts in our field and are able to communicate that information in an easy-to-understand manner, we can help our patients feel more comfortable making their health care decisions. 

I was also a part of Mobile Clinic as a clinic coordinator. I used to volunteer at a free clinic in Cedar Rapids, so when I came here, I knew that was one of the things I wanted to continue. At these free clinics, we provide accessible health care services for our community members. We perform monitoring labs and offer a variety of providers and health and nutritional education. I particularly enjoy volunteering at the Mobile Clinic because much of the stuff that we do there is preventative care, which I think could be more valued in our health care system.

Why did you choose surgery as a specialty?

I came into medical school thinking I was going to do internal medicine and then gastroenterology. We do a really good job of getting exposure to a lot of different specialties early on here at Iowa. I got lucky and had my GI rotation right before my colorectal rotation.  

I remember there was this one specific patient I was taking care of on the GI service for whom the medications that we have for their condition right now just weren’t working for them. By the time I got to the colorectal rotation, the team had exhausted the medical options we could offer for that patient, so the next step for them was surgery. I ended up being in their surgery and taking care of them afterwards, and the patient started feeling better almost overnight. I saw the anatomy that was diseased, and to physically cut it out, and the next day see them feeling so much better, was just so motivating.  

Right now, I'm most interested in acute care, but I came into medical school thinking I was going to do a whole different specialty, so I'm going into residency with an open mind. The more surgical rotations I do, the more I enjoy that subspecialty and the less straightforward the answer of what I’ll want to do next seems to be at this point.

What’s your fondest memory of medical school?

Match Day! Behind the scenes, you see how much hard work your friends have been putting in, and then to watch them match at their dream programs was just so much fun! 

Outside of school, a group of us went to some of the women's basketball games and watched their exceptional NCAA run this year, and that was super fun. We’ve also had a couple of weddings this past year, which was also so much fun to celebrate. People always say, “Fourth year, best year.” I agree. 

What are you most excited for in residency?

I’m excited to play a bigger role in patient care. I'm excited to learn about more disease processes and procedures. I wanted to stay here for residency because I loved learning from my mentors and working with this resident group, so to get to be a part of this team is something I’m also really looking forward to.

What advice would you give to a first-year medical student?

Even before medical school starts, think of two or three things that are important to you for your wellness. Whether it is exercising, watching your favorite TV show, Facetiming your long-distance friends, etc. Whatever it is, schedule it into your week when school starts. Med school can easily take over your life, but making sure to sprinkle in time for things that are important to you is an easy way to help avoid burnout.