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A Passion for Medicine

By Lea Hart

Growing up, Lavanya Nagaraj had a front-row seat to the world of medicine.

Her dad was a doctor. She often visited the hospital with him and met some of his patients.

“He was always passionate about being a doctor; I think he was meant to be a doctor,” she said. “That was very inspiring for me.”

It was a passion he passed down to his daughter. Nagaraj recalls in high school, never questioning what she wanted to do with her life.

“I felt like I was meant to be a doctor too,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Nagaraj took that passion and ran with it. She attended Raleigh’s Enloe High School, which afforded her the opportunity to take part in a research internship at North Carolina State University between her junior and senior year. She worked with Dr. Brian Sheldon in a Food Science lab.

“I just had the most amazing experience in the lab, it’s where I really started to understand how research is done,” she said.

It was also Sheldon who encouraged Nagaraj to apply to NC State, and to apply for a Caldwell Scholarship – today known as the Caldwell Fellows Program. More than just a four-year merit scholarship, Caldwell Scholars were encouraged to be leaders who serve their communities.

She was accepted into the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and did receive a Caldwell Scholarship. There, Nagaraj pursued a bachelor of science in biochemistry and a minor in psychology.

She went on to receive her doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine and joined Blue Ridge Dermatology following her four-year dermatology residency, also at UNC-Chapel Hill. She was named a partner in the practice 14 years ago and today practices in their Raleigh and Cary, North Carolina, offices.

It was while at UNC that Nagaraj said she developed an interest in dermatology. The skin, she explains, can often be a window into systemic issues.

“Skin diseases can be a visual sign of internal diseases or systemic diseases,” she said. “It can provide visual clues that lead to a diagnosis that can tie someone’s overall health problems together.”

Dermatology also allows her to develop meaningful relationships with patients, sometimes across generations.

“I’ve seen people from the time they were babies until they graduated high school,” she said. “And I’ve seen multiple generations – sometimes I see grandparents, parents and their children.

“It has been very rewarding.”

It’s clear there’s so many things she loves about her work. Nagaraj said she most enjoys surgery, but also relishes in helping people prevent and treat issues like skin cancer, manage chronic skin diseases and skin issues in teens that may be affecting their self-esteem, and helping people figure out how to best take care of their skin.

“I love it all,” she said. “That’s the best part of it – the variety.”

In addition to providing the highest quality of medical care and collaborating with the other providers in her practice in treating patients, Nagaraj said being a partner in the practice is about creating a vision for a health-care business and executing with others, while taking care of their employee team.

“It makes it feel like a team and a family because we’re all invested in the success of the practice,” she said.

Nagaraj can tie her success today back to some of those early experiences within CALS and at NC State. She honed her leadership skills as a resident advisor in Sullivan Hall, where she said she also made some great friends.

The Caldwell Scholarship provided leadership and service opportunities as well. She remembers participating in a leadership retreat as a freshman and how unique an experience like that was in her first year. The Caldwell also afforded her the opportunity to study abroad in Vienna, Austria.

“It was a chance to explore things I would not have studied if I’d stayed on campus,” she said. “I met people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Nagaraj found a mentor in Linda Hanley-Bowdoin when she received the Howard Hughes Research Scholarship and went to work in Hanley-Bowdoin’s plant pathology lab. That’s where she learned an important life skill that she carried forward into her career. Nagaraj admits she was not always as thorough as she should have been when she began working in the lab. Hanley-Bowdoin took her aside one day.

“She talked to me about that – precision and accuracy are very important – and I really took that to heart,” Nagaraj said. “Even now, I think about her when I’m calculating prescription doses – I double and triple check.”

Her minor in psychology is something else Nagaraj brings to work with her to this day.

“I thoroughly enjoyed that,” she said. “I learned a lot about the mind and relationships with people, which has then impacted my job as a physician – it’s about building relationships with people and learning how to relate to them.”

Though she knew her husband, Sharat (’99), for a long time before NC State, it’s also where the two began spending more time together and fell in love. Nagaraj credits NC State as the place where they began their life together.

Today, the couple has three teens – two boys and a girl. She stays busy with her family, but also finds time to give back, serving on the boards of the Visual Arts Exchange and Frames of Mind, a nonprofit which helps bring educational programming to young children. She’s been a volunteer physician at Camp Seafarer for four years, which she says is among her favorite experiences.

Her commitment to her profession and to the community are why the CALS Alumni and Friends Society presented her with an Outstanding Alumni Award recently. The award recognizes excellence and the achievements of former students in their careers and communities

Nagaraj and her husband are still passionate about their Pack as well. They have football and basketball season tickets and are very involved with the Wolfpack Club. Their oldest son is a senior in high school this year, so they hope to perhaps make the Wolfpack a family tradition.

That work-life balance is just one more reason Nagaraj knows she chose the right career path.

“I feel so fortunate to do what I do, and I couldn’t ask for a better job,” she said. “I get to do what I love as a physician and still maintain the ability to do other things that interest me and have time with my family in our community.”

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.