Nora Kern, MD ’08
As a child, Nora Kern, MD ’08, was passionate about art. She loved to watch Bob Ross on his popular television program and bought all the necessary supplies so she could paint along with him from her family’s home in South Boston, Va. That love of art continues to this day and even plays a role in her career as a pediatric urologist at UVA.
Kern’s family moved to the small Virginia town when her father was hired as the first dedicated ER physician at the local hospital. “We were one of very few Asian families in the county, so it was a little isolating to me,” Kern recalls. “I tried to excel as much as I could. I was active in sports in high school, and then I ended up going to UVA for my undergraduate degree. It was really eye opening for me.”
As an undergrad, Kern double majored in biology and studio art, enjoying her studies and the diversity of UVA’s student body compared to her hometown. Believing that a career in medicine would be best suited for her, she applied and was admitted to UVA’s School of Medicine.
Kern says that while her father was certainly a role model as she considered a career as a physician, it was his diagnosis of kidney cancer at age 52 that motivated her to explore the field of urology. In fact, he was participating in clinical trials for new chemotherapy agents while she was in medical school. “Watching the things my dad went through from a personal experience was impactful for me,” she says. “I didn’t understand what a urologist did as a high school student, probably not even as a college student, other than what my dad was going through. But I did see what it was like to be on the receiving end of patient care. I saw what medicine did for people and how much illness affects families.”
While her dad’s cancer diagnosis inspired her interest in urology, Kern says that she began to see surgery as a way to connect her love of art with a career in medicine. “I wanted to pursue a field in surgery because I loved art. I loved working with my hands and creating things. I felt like it was a perfect blend of what would be satisfying for a career.”
During medical school, Kern was mentored by Craig Peters, MD, a former UVA faculty member in pediatric urology. Shadowing him “planted the seed” of working with the pediatric population. After graduating from the School of Medicine and spending part of her training at Boston Children’s Hospital, she decided that a pediatric specialty was right for her. “There’s just something very different about treating children. I love that you are treating not just the patients themselves but entire families,” she explains.
After residency, Kern completed a two-year fellowship in pediatric urology at Children’s National Health System in Washington, DC. Following fellowship, she returned to the UVA to take a faculty position in the Department of Urology. Today she is an associate professor in the department.
Kern says being able to provide long-term care for her patients is something she finds gratifying, citing her work with children who have spina bifida as an example. “Many of the patients I see are transient, but these patients are unique in that I meet them soon after birth and follow the health of their kidneys and bladder throughout their entire young life and into adulthood,” she says. “It’s a lifelong condition, but it’s my favorite patient population because I get to meet the families and form close relationships with them. It’s rewarding to watch the children grow up to become adults.”
In addition to her clinical work, Kern is also involved in medical education at UVA. She is currently the associate program director for the urology residency, serves as the faculty councilor for Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) medical honor society, and served on the School of Medicine’s admissions committee. She teaches second-year medical students during the renal and endocrine blocks of the curriculum using content that she created. Kern says she’s passionate about working with current students, especially because she went to UVA herself. “There’s just something about knowing that that’s where I had my education and being able to give back to those students. Year after year, I get more feedback on how I can improve, and I always strive to make it better,” she says. “I remember being a medical student and thinking there were some really, great lecturers that were super engaging. I wanted to be the person that students remembered from a lecturer standpoint.”
Helping today’s medical students is also the reason that Kern decided to get involved in the UVA Medical Alumni Association’s Board of Directors. Kern joined the board in 2016, and in 2023, she was elected as president.
While Kern says she has perhaps less career experience than many alumni who have previously filled the role, she is grateful for the opportunity. “I feel fortunate and very honored that they allowed me to be the president this year. I don’t want to let people down, so whatever I need to do to fulfill the role is what I try to do.” This summer, she took part in the 2023 White Coat Ceremony, endowed by the Class of 1965, welcoming incoming students. She also supported the class by making a financial contribution, along with support from the Class of 1968, that provided new stethoscopes to all of the new students.
Kern’s enthusiasm for giving back to students also extends to mentoring. She has been particularly active in opportunities to speak to female students at UVA, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. Kern hopes that by talking openly about the challenges women face, she can help them avoid being blindsided like she was. “I remember those discussions were offered when I was a student, but I foolishly never partook in any of them. In the earliest parts of my career, I had two really young children at home and a husband whose schedule was more restrictive than mine. I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed with the responsibilities that I had,” she says. “I have always wanted to be very open about that and tell students that it’s not easy. You have to figure out how to navigate through the system, have really good help and a backup plan at all times, and have really good organizational skills. But I also want to advocate for women to still pursue medicine and surgery, because it’s worth it.”
She hopes that fellow alumni will take similar opportunities to support current students. “I think it’s important to be involved in any way you can. Early in my career, I tried to do as many panels as I could and I still love doing them. It’s really fun to talk to students. They’re super engaged. With the era of Zoom, it’s so easy to connect with our students and be anywhere in the country. Students appreciate it so much.”
As busy as she is with her career, Kern still takes time to enjoy her love of art as a cake decorator. It’s a hobby that uses both her art and surgical skills. “I plan in my head for many months how it’s going to look and how I’m going to create it. It’s kind of like surgery. You’re a little nervous, wondering how it’s going to turn out. But it’s fun being able to create