We were fortunate to have Sewon Kang, M.D., speak with us recently from Johns Hopkins and share his thoughts on the importance of the Dermatology Foundation in his own career and for the future of the specialty.
Dermatology Foundation: You have had a remarkable career so far, advancing research, mentoring others, and making a difference in the lives of patients. Tell us more about your career journey.
Dr. Kang: If you look back at how my academic work has gone, getting that initial support from the Foundation was really critical. That led me to carve out the path that I took and allowed me to get funding from the NIH as well as other foundations. And I met other people like myself who wanted to give academics a go.
I felt like I owed DF my time and my financial support in return. So, I got involved initially with the Leaders Society in the state of Michigan, and that led to me serving as the state chair and then more connected with people in the DF. Eventually, I joined the Annenberg Society and have been a supporting member. About five, six years ago they asked me to be on the board, so I’m a member of the executive committee.
DF: You are quite busy with your many other roles. What are some of the reasons you stay so connected to the work of the Dermatology Foundation?
Dr. Kang: The thing I like about DF is that they do things at a very high caliber, and you see that in the kind of grants/people we support. I served for four years on the medical scientific committee, got to review high-quality proposals coming from young bright minds. I really came to appreciate that helping to support these talented investigators is the best way to support the future of dermatology.
“Supporting DF is kind of an obligation because we all benefit from bright dermatologists and skin researchers interested in skin biology and clinical dermatology who stay in that research space.”
What really separates us, the dermatologists, from all other specialists is that we know so much more about the skin. The future of our specialty, is completely dependent on new scientific knowledge about the skin. And we need people who want to follow that career in generating new knowledge. So, I think supporting DF is kind of an obligation because we all benefit from bright dermatologists and skin researchers interested in skin biology and clinical dermatology who stay in that research space.
DF: It’s exciting to see the discoveries coming from the work of young investigators, including how skin is sometimes an early indicator of other health problems, or a way to unravel treatments for other diseases. What do you see that gets you excited for the future of the specialty?
Dr. Kang: Historically we used to be an almost purely descriptive specialty, you know. The patient would come in with a rash, you look at their skin and would say, you have “X, Y, Z”, often odd sounding words from Greek or Latin. It can sound impressive to the patient who’s hearing it for the first time. (laugh) but you really haven’t helped the patient because we knew very little about the disease pathophysiology. Thanks to advances in skin knowledge, we have new targeted approaches to help our patients with all sorts of skin ailments. We need to help the new generation of researchers who will continue to advance dermatology
I think historically other specialists also kind of poo-pooed our specialty. “Dermatologists, you know, they put bizarre names to diseases and then just prescribe topical steroids and move on.” But if I look back to what we have learned and uncovered about skin disease and biology since my residency training, the advances have been amazing.
“We all benefit from bright dermatologists and skin researchers interested in skin biology who stay in that research space.”
And yes, we have learned about multiple links between skin and other organs too. I think we have pretty awesome advantage over other specialties in the translational research space because our tissue of interest is right there to remove and study. The data we generate is directly relevant to clinical medicine. It’s a really exciting time because we are involved in some projects where actually studying the skin provides interesting knowledge and insight to folks studying other internal organs. So yeah, it will continue to be an exciting scientific journey for young folks coming into our specialty.
DF: What would you say to a young person coming into the specialty today about the the Foundation and what role it could play in their career?
Dr. Kang: We’ve been very fortunate in recent years that extremely bright medical students want to pursue dermatology. We have an amazing talent pool, so now dermatology residency remains one of the most competitive of all the specialties out there.
Once they come in, it’s our job to not only train them well in clinical dermatology but also to get them to see the exciting and rewording side of pursuing academic dermatology. There’s nothing wrong with private practice, but it’s critical for the specialty to have bright, innovative minds trying to address the many questions that are still out there in dermatology and try to find better treatments for our patients.
DF: You mention that DF really serves an essential role in bringing young people to academics. How important is that early support from the Dermatology Foundation to getting started in academics and how is the dermatology specialty is unique in this aspect?
Dr. Kang: Well, number one it’s a small group. I think you see that in numbers. I think dermatologists make up 1-2% of the total physicians in this country. You see that at every level. I mean, here at Johns Hopkins, we are the smallest clinical department. As a small player, obtaining meaningful funding is very competitive. With DF support, our awardees become much more prepared to compete for the NIH and other major funding agencies.
“If you are a practicing dermatologist, you want to be supporting the Foundation. It really is the best way to support your own career.”
I have a junior faculty member who got Dermatology Foundation support for a couple of years and then he was able to apply for and receive NIH funding. The DF support was unquestionably critical for him at a very vulnerable time. It literally secured for him a path to a rigorous academic research career. I think reality like this is why a lot of people are so passionate about DF and trying to support it year after year.
DF: It seems like there’s a strong tradition of passing on the support, you know, a commitment that shows the strength of the ties.
Dr. Kang: Totally. I feel like if you are a practicing dermatologist, you want to be supporting the Foundation. It really is the best way to support your own career.
DF: What message do you wish others knew about the DF?
Dr. Kang: My sense is that most people who choose dermatology as their clinical specialty know very little about the significant challenges people face in becoming rigorous skin investigators and successfully competing for NIH funding. The DF support provides almost an incubator-like environment that prepares our awardees to be lot more competitive with NIH and other major funding agencies. Our own DF data completely confirms this. That early support is critical. We have plenty of examples of people for whom DF support made a tremendous difference. It’s important for dermatologists to understand this. Those young investigators are the future of our specialty and we should be supporting them most enthusiastically.
Dr. Sewon Kang is the Noxell Professor and Chairman of the Department of Dermatology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Dermatologist-in-Chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital. He is also founder and co-director of the Cutaneous Translational Research Program (CTReP) at Hopkins.
A recipient of the DF’s Career Development Award, he has received other research awards and grants from the American Dermatological Association, the National Psoriasis Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health (Roadmap T32, K24, and R01). His research focus has been in the areas of skin pharmacology and photomedicine. He is the Past President of the Photomedicine Society, and the American Acne and Rosacea Society. Dr. Kang is or has been on the Board of Directors of multiple organizations including the Society for Investigative Dermatology, the Association of Professors of Dermatology, the DF, and the Skin of Color Society. An author on over 240 publications and book chapters, Dr. Kang is also the Editor-in-Chief of the 9th edition of the Fitzpatrick’s Dermatology textbook. He is an inventor/co-inventor of 17 patents and has given over 300 presentations globally.
A graduate with honors from Williams College and the University of Michigan, Dr. Kang completed a dermatology residency and fellowship at the Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital. He sees patients exclusively at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his areas of clinical expertise include photomedicine, skin cancer (melanoma), skin aging, and dermatology for ethnic skin.