Q&A with Dr. Daniel Sugai: Study hard, network and trust yourself

As a high school student, Dr. Daniel Sugai (Mānoa, BA ’08, MD ’12) had an interest in science and knew that one day he wanted to go into medicine. But in addition to his interest in science he also had a passion for art, which led him to major in biology with a minor in art during his undergraduate years at UH. Now a board-certified medical, surgical and cosmetic dermatologist based in Seattle, he finds great fulfilment in his work and looks back fondly on his time at UH.

We asked Dr. Sugai a few questions about his college years, what he loves about his work and what advice he'd offer to students considering a similar career path.

Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and what are you doing now?

Aloha! I am Dr. Daniel Sugai and I am a board-certified medical, surgical and cosmetic dermatologist practicing in Seattle, WA. I received my dermatology training at Harvard Medical School, and my MD degree from the University of Hawai‘i John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). I received my BA in biology with a minor in art at UH Mānoa. I am originally from the North Shore of O‘ahu.

What’s one of your fondest memories of your time at UH?

I have so many fond memories. I resided in the dormitories on campus from my freshman year (the circle dorms) all the way to my second year of medical school! I made amazing friends there (some became my best friends and are like family today), and miss the days of dining at the cafeteria, walking to 7-Eleven and Sushi King for late-night eats, and tailgating at UH football games.

What inspired you to get into medicine? Did you always plan on taking this career path?

I was inspired to go into medicine since high school (University Laboratory School). I have always enjoyed my science classes but I was also interested in blending my passion for art with science. Thus, I majored in biology and minored in art during my undergrad studies at UH Mānoa. I initially had an affinity to plastic surgery and the artistic eye that was required but I ultimately chose dermatology as my specialty as this required me to combine an artistic eye with a detective mind (diagnosing skin diseases based on visual inspection).

How has your UH education helped you in your career?

I credit my excellent education and training at UH so much for my success. In undergrad, I had an outstanding organic chemistry professor, Dr. Janice Smith, as well as tight-knit organizations (Pre-Medical Association) and honor societies (Golden Key) which allowed me to participate in extra-curricular activities (volunteering, shadowing physicians on Kaua‘i, going to Washington D.C. for premedical conference). I am also grateful for receiving the Presidential Scholarship which not only covered my schooling but also gave me a travel fund to travel to India where I had an eye-opening experience. This trip was so meaningful to me that I used my stories from this trip in my medical school and residency applications. UH JABSOM was an amazing medical school that gave me world-class training. When I did my residency at Harvard, I never felt like I was deficient in any aspect of medicine because of my well-rounded education at JABSOM.

What do you love most about your work?

I love the continuity in clinic. I make long-term relationships with my patients and when I see them in follow-up, it really feels like I am caring for ‘ohana. I share laughs, tears and successes with them. The success that we share are clearance of cystic acne, management of eczema or psoriasis leading to an increased quality of life and surgical cure of a skin cancer. I also love the variety of cases- my day consists of performing full skin checks, treating a toddler with eczema, helping a teen with acne and diagnosing a complex rash in an elderly patient. Then I could go to the next room and inject cosmetic lip filler, and then go to my surgical suite to excise a skin cancer tumor from someone’s neck. The variety is vast and keeps my job interesting.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your work?

Seeing my patients happy- whether it’s happiness around their new lips or being able to wear shorts again for the first time in years after I clear the psoriasis on their legs with medications.

What advice would you give students who are considering taking a similar career path as yours?

There will be doubters who tell you that you are not good enough. They will say that you will compete against those who went to a good private school or a more “prestigious” mainland college. Do not listen to that noise and trust that your hard work will pay off. You have to invest your time wisely. Take the time to study hard, volunteer, network and find good mentors who can guide you. There is no specific formula or certain mold that you have to conform to in order to find success in the ultra-competitive field of medicine.

University of Hawai‘i Alumni