We recently connected with Karen Connolly, M.D., to discuss her work and the role of the Dermatology Foundation in her career path to becoming a surgical dermatologist.
Dermatology Foundation: You have a very busy, specialized practice, handling complex surgical cases and treating a lot of melanomas with the head and neck. You work alongside your dad who’s had this practice for a long time, even sharing some patients. Did you always plan to one day become a dermatologist and go into practice with your dad?
Dr. Connolly: Most people assume that, and a lot of my patients ask me this question. The answer is, absolutely not. I was always interested in medicine and the sciences, but before I decided to go to med school I was thinking about other things as well. I had a lot of different interests. And then at the very end of my third year of medical school, I had a bit of time off and I spent it with a local dermatologist and was really blown away with the practice.
DF: How did you first learn about the Foundation?
Dr. Connolly: I was first introduced to the Foundation when I was a resident. During my training, they would sponsor one resident per program to attend their annual clinical symposium, and I was fortunate enough to be able to go. I loved the meeting. I was very impressed by all the speakers. I was already a bit familiar with Dermatology Foundation because they do a lot of outreach for residents, which is so important when you’re trying to get your education going.
“When I did my fellowship training for Mohs surgery and surgical dermatology, my mentor was very involved in Dermatology Foundation. I learned more through various mentors throughout the years.”
And then as a resident, part of my job was to invite guest speakers to do educational lectures. So many of the speakers who were doing interesting research, who were real innovators in their area of expertise, were supported by the DF. It seemed like such a quality organization that I was interested to learn more.
DF: Did you know other dermatologists involved with the Foundation?
Dr. Connolly: As you know, in any medical field, mentorship is so important. When I did my fellowship training for Mohs surgery and surgical dermatology, my mentor was very involved in the Foundation. I learned more through various mentors throughout the years.
DF: Moving the specialty forward, accelerating progress, is an important part of the DF’s work. It sounds like that is important to you in your work as well.
Dr. Connolly: I’ve been very impressed with just how cutting-edge the research is. And that’s part of the reason that I’ve stayed involved and that I’ve continued giving over the years. They also do a lot for education. And that’s so important, too, both when you’re in training, but also out in practice.
This past year, they had to pivot and do virtual talks, but those were great, too, and as a parent of young kids, the virtual format worked quite well. I think they’re evolving and making the best of challenging times. That’s been my experience.
DF: You’ve been a supporter of DF for a long time, why is that?
Dr. Connolly: I was right out of fellowship, finally in a job, and was trying to decide where to allocate my charitable giving. One of my friends had mentioned that they were part of the young leader society for the Foundation.
I joined that group and was invited to a young dermatologist brainstorming session, connecting to other young dermatologists. As I got more involved, I was asked to be part of the board of trustees. It has only increased my respect for the Dermatology Foundation, seeing how well they’re doing things behind the scenes.
For me, after training, I had to educate myself about different organizations and figure out what I wanted to do. And it was almost an easy choice with the DF because I feel like the research that is being supported is quality research. To support residents, to support education — that’s so important.
“Being connected to the Dermatology Foundation helps me stay up to date.”
DF: It sounds like the integrity of the organization is important to you.
Dr. Connolly: My generation looks everything up online and I really do that. When it comes to who I want to support, where I want to put my hard-earned money, I look at an organization’s ratings and whether it’s fiscally responsible. I did that with the Foundation and felt like, okay, this is a good one. If you look at the DF and where their funding goes and how much they’re really supporting research and dermatology, it’s pretty remarkable.
There are people getting direct grants and being able to go do research that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The DF is a smaller non-profit but one that makes a significant impact in the field. That was one of the things that I really liked. And that makes me feel good about supporting the Foundation. I feel that they’re putting the funds in the right places. I think for 2020, it was, it was somewhere around $2 million that they gave to people doing research. And that’s where you want your money to go.
DF: We exist to support research that ultimately saves lives. You see that every day in your practice. Tell us more about your path to becoming a dermatologist.
Dr. Connolly: Dermatology was so interesting and that changed everything for me. I originally was going to go into general surgery. It wasn’t a given that I was going to do surgical dermatology, but it was always what I loved. My husband would joke with me that on the months where I was doing my most surgery rotation, I was in such a better mood. I’d be driving home at 9 p.m. and I didn’t care. I was having fun and found it interesting.
And so, I did my Mohs training. Then, I spent time with my dad in his practice and I like how he does things. It’s a very patient-centered practice. Our patients are the nicest people. I’ve never met patients as nice as ours. It’s a pleasure taking care of them.
DF: And you focus on skin cancer.
Dr. Connolly: We do, mostly surgery, so skin cancer, removals, reconstruction, and then we do skin cancer screenings.
DF: And how important is the research that the Foundation is doing to you in your private practice?
Dr. Connolly: That’s a great question. I was actually quite involved in research when I was a fellow. And we did a lot of clinical research on head to neck melanoma, skin cancer in the very elderly, quality of life in skin cancer patients. I spent additional time after my fellowship continuing a relationship with my fellowship program and doing clinical research. So that is something that was very important to me.
And currently with my private practice and having little kids, it’s just not something I have as much time to do, though we’re still publishing and we’re still working in a collaborative way.
Being connected to the Foundation helps me stay up to date. In the bigger picture, I feel like I’m contributing to dermatology research, even though I can’t physically be doing the research right now.
DF: At the Foundation, we believe in the potential of young investigators and the power of mentorship. You mentioned the importance of mentorship in your own path.
Dr. Connolly: That is true. I’ve been fortunate to be involved in several mentorship programs throughout the years, but also, a lot of my mentors are involved in the DF. When you see people that you look up to who are part of an organization, it makes you want to know more about it. And that was how it all started for me.
Karen Connolly, M.D., is a board-certified dermatologist and a fellowship-trained Mohs surgeon. She specializes in procedural dermatology including complex skin cancer management and reconstruction following Mohs surgery.
Dr. Connolly graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania and completed medical school at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she was elected a member of the prestigious Alpha Omega Alpha honor medical society. Following a dermatology residency at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, where she was selected as chief resident, she completed a fellowship in Procedural Dermatology and Mohs Micrographic Surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Hospital in New York. She is currently in private practice in West Orange, NJ, where she uses her extensive training to deliver personalized patient care using the most effective treatments. Dr. Connolly works alongside her father, who is also a dermatologist in the same practice.