20 Questions: Kornelia Polyak, MD, PhD, Medical Oncologist

Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner

Kornelia Polyak, MD, PhD, is a professor of medicine in the department of medical oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School, as well as a biomedical researcher focused on translational studies with potential clinical impact regarding human breast cancer. Dr. Polyak has been a member of the Harvard Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) graduate program since 1999, and as a BBS faculty member, she has participated in teaching several graduate courses and giving talks at departmental retreats and minisymposia. She has also participated in new student recruiting events by interviewing prospective students, attending dinners/receptions, and welcoming new students. Dr. Polyak received her MD summa cum laude from Albert Szent-Gyorgyi Medical University in Szeged, Hungary (1991), and her PhD in cell biology and genetics from Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences (1995). She was a research associate in cancer genetics at Johns Hopkins Oncology Center, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (1995-1998).
Dr. Ployak has been a consultant for several companies, including Aveo Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Genego Inc., Xceed Molecular, Metamark Genetics, Inc., and Sanofi-Aventis, and she currently consults for Novartis Oncology, Theracrine, Millenium, and OSS HealthCare Inc. In 2011, Dr. Polyak was awarded the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and in 2012 she was awarded the AACR Outstanding Investigator Award for Breast Cancer Research funded by Susan G. Komen for the Cure. She is an ad-hoc reviewer for numerous publications, including American Journal of Pathology, Blood, Cancer Research, International Journal of Cancer, Journal of Cell Biology, Journal of Clinical Oncology, Oncology, Journal of Cell Science, New England Journal of Medicine, British Journal of Cancer, European Journal of Biochemistry, International Journal of Cancer Research Treatment, Lancet, Modern Pathology, Breast Cancer Research, Genome Research, Genome Biology, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Current Genomics, Science, Nature Methods, Nature Cell Biology, Nature Protocols, Nature Medicine, Cell Metabolism, and Breast Cancer Research.
When did you first decide to become a physician? Why?
Medicine was a profession that attracted me since very early in my childhood, and I seriously committed to it in high school.
How/why did you choose the medical school you attended?
I chose the medical school I attended, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi Medical University in Szeged, Hungary, based on reputation, location, and based on my visit there. (Note: Dr. Polyak was born in Jaszbereny, Hungary.)
What surprised you the most about your medical studies?
What surprised me the most about my medical studies was just how empirical medicine still is (versus rational).
Why did you decide to specialize in medical oncology?
I decided to specialize in medical oncology because I felt frustrated when seeing cancer patients, especially young ones and kids, and not being able to help them enough. I’m trying to improve this situation.
If you had it to do all over again, would you still specialize in medical oncology?
Probably yes.
Has being a medical oncologist met your expectations? Why?
Yes being a medical oncologist has met my expectations. I’m doing full time cancer research and I like it, so yes, it’s what I expected.
What do you like most about being a medical oncologist researcher? Explain.
I like the feeling of working on something important and challenging that hopefully will help people, which is what I am able to do as a medical oncologist researcher.
What do you like least about being a medical oncologist researcher? Explain.
What I least like about medical oncological research is not specific to medical oncology, but it’s the fact that we spend way too much time with administrative issues (grant writing etc.) that takes away time from thinking.
Why did you pursue a career in cancer research?
Treating patients is only efficient if we have good medicines that work. For oncology, we still have limited success (depending on the cancer). I wanted to improve this, and also I felt that my strength is more in research and discovery.
Describe a typical day at work–walk me through a day in your shoes.
I get up at 7 a.m., take my daughter to preschool, go to my office, work on papers or grants, meet people in my lab to discuss projects, sometimes have larger group meetings with colleagues, go home, have dinner, play with my daughter, and work more on grants and papers (both writing and reviewing) after her bedtime until about midnight or 1 a.m., when I go to bed and wake up a few hours later and repeat the process.
How many hours a week do you work?
Now that I have a small child, I work somewhat less than I used to. On average, combining work at my office and at home, I work about 12 hours a day on week days and three to four hours on weekend days, so about 65 to 70 hours per week.
Do you feel that you are adequately compensated?
In general, yes.
If you took out educational loans, is/was paying them back a financial strain?
Thankfully, I did not have such loans.
Are you currently where you anticipated you would be in your medical career?
I was hoping to achieve what I did (a medical degree), but I could not have predicted that this is what I would become (a medical oncological researcher).
What information/advice do you wish you had known when you were beginning your medical studies?
I think I was pretty well informed from the beginning of my medical studies, so nothing comes to mind.
From your perspective, what is the biggest problem in health care today?
The biggest problem with health care today is the cost of high-quality care and availability of such care.
Where do you see your specialty in five years?
In five years, I hope we will have many more effective cancer treatment options.
What types of outreach/volunteer work do you do, if any?
Unfortunately, I do not time for outreach and volunteer work at this point in my life.
Do you have family? Do you have enough time to spend with them? How do you balance work and life outside of work?
Yes, I have a daughter, and I wish I could spend more time with her. My outside-of-work life is limited to spending time with her and exercise. (I work out at the gym and run).
What is your final piece of advice for students interested in pursuing a career in medical oncology?
My final piece of advice is to do something that you enjoy doing and that makes you happy to go to work every day.