From Outsider to Insider:
Mukta Panda, MD’s Journey to Belonging and Paying it Forward

By Larry Chu, MD

In this vulnerable interview, Dr. Mukta Panda traces her journey from feeling like an outsider as an international medical graduate in America to becoming an influential insider shaping more inclusive policies and practices. She offers poignant insights on overcoming self-doubt, finding belonging, confronting discrimination with empowerment, and nurturing the potential in others.

Feeling Like an Outsider

Born in India, Dr. Panda moved frequently across continents early in life before settling in America with her young family. As she pursued her medical training and career in America, imposter syndrome crept in. To cope, she wore a mask, tailoring herself to fit in at great personal cost. She reflects, “I lived under constant stress. I had an onstage life and an offstage life, and the true Mukta, the true authentic person could never show up because of fear that she may not be accepted.”

Embracing Her Identity

Her breakthrough came when she embraced her multi-faceted identity and cultural roots. She realized, “It’s so important to be mindful of your own ancestral culture and culture in which you are immersed.” This self-acceptance allowed her to bring more of herself into her work and forge deeper human connections.

Turning Lemons into Lemonade

As her confidence grew, Dr. Panda recognized her seat at the table provided an opportunity to shape change. Though initially angered to feel tokenized as a female IMG on key committees, she resolved, “When life deals you lemons, you make lemonade. And make it in every flavor.” She leveraged her influence to make policies and practices more inclusive.

Paying it Forward

Dr. Panda stresses empowering oneself and others. She explains, “Belonging can only happen if we co-create it together. It has to be, to get belonging, you have to give belonging.” This starts with believing in oneself, then offering that belief to others through empathy and lifting each other up. She role models this as a compassionate mentor and coach who draws out the potential in others by creating psychologically safe spaces for authenticity and vulnerability.

Words of Wisdom

The wisdom Dr. Panda imparts resonates deeply. For young physicians starting out, she advises, “Believe in yourself and find a few people who believe in you and help you believe in yourself.” By embracing our multifaceted identities and coming from a place of humble confidence, we can find belonging and pay it forward to make the world more inclusive. Dr. Panda inspires us to turn life’s lemons into opportunities to make a positive difference.

How to Create Actionable Change

Fostering Belonging:

  • Co-create belonging by giving and receiving it
  • Share stories and find common threads
  • Establish ground rules for building trust

Promoting Psychological Safety:

  • Humanize relationships through check-ins
  • Explicitly state expectations for respect
  • Role model vulnerability as a leader

Cultivating Diversity:

  • Keep mission, values and ethics central
  • Recruit diverse teams aligned to purpose
  • Leverage influence to shape inclusive policies

Developing Potential:

  • Coach by drawing out inner wisdom
  • Create space for authenticity to emerge
  • Empower others to believe in themselves

Overcoming Discrimination:

  • Build a support network
  • Gain skills and self-confidence
  • Reframe challenges as opportunities
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Larry Chu is a Professor of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Director of the Stanford Anesthesia Informatics and Media (AIM) Lab.

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