R.J. Polunin's long journey to Stevens is about to launch a new journey into health care.
The senior, who will graduate in spring 2014 with a B.S. in Chemical Biology, has just been accepted to Rowan University Medical School, where he will study to become a general practitioner with an eye toward the special health and well-being concerns of military veterans. It's a subject close to home: Polunin himself served with distinction for four years as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps prior to joining Stevens.
"I have my sights set on primary care," he says, "and hope to focus on work with veterans, maybe work in a VA-type facility. I also have interests in neurology and pain management, which are of great importance to veterans' hospitals, so that is a good fit for this career as well."
Born in Siberia, Polunin moved to New Jersey at the age of 14 to join his mother, who was already living in Elmwood Park. He knew so little English that he actually learned the alphabet during the long flight to America.
Following high school he enlisted in the Marine Corps as an infantryman, swiftly rising to the rank of sergeant. After four years and two tours of duty in Iraq, during which he saw combat, translated Russian communications, and received letters of commendation and medals for achievement and conduct, Polunin began an academic career.
After a year at William Paterson University, he transferred to Stevens on the recommendation of a friend, where he has since performed research in tissue design and engineering. His work on tissue-engineered skin grafts with a focus on hair follicle generation with Ph.D. student Babak Mahjour helped Stevens acquire a patent for a new process, and will soon appear in a book on skin tissue engineering to be published in 2014.
But his interest in supporting fellow veterans never waned, and he found ways to do so while at Stevens. One interdisciplinary research project with fellow student Cory Semper '15 resulted in creation of a new program of support services for the New York VA Medical System. Polunin also took graduate-level coursework in health care education and leadership, working closely with professor Don Lombardi (also a Marine Corps veteran), faculty liaison in the Stevens Veterans Office and director of Stevens' graduate certificate program in Healthcare Leadership & Management. Along the way, Polunin performed internships with the Visiting Nurse Association of Central New Jersey and CentraState Medical Center in Freehold.
"R.J. is one of a kind," says Lombardi. "His integrity of purpose, quest for new learning and selfless leadership on campus reflect both the finest traditions of the United States Marine Corps and the Stevens Charter. He made his dream happen at Castle Point, and the beneficiaries will be New Jerseyans — particularly veterans whom he will take care of as a community physician."
While he resides an hour's commute from the Stevens campus, Polunin has made an effort to contribute to campus life, becoming a member of the Stevens Honor Board during his sophomore year and doing volunteer work both for President Nariman Farvardin's 2011 inauguration and post-Sandy relief efforts, as well as for Hoboken University Medical Center's emergency services unit.
Polunin has been a member of the Dean's list every semester enrolled, was selected to the Stevens chapter of the Alpha Epsilon Delta premedical-school honor society, and was selected Undergraduate Student Employee of the Year in 2012. Now, as he pursues a medical career, he's glad he transferred to Stevens.
"I had the most options here, and this was the best education for me," he concludes. "That meant I needed a fifth year to complete a four-year degree, but it was the right thing to do. Stevens gives its students great opportunities and takes good care of them both during their academic careers and afterward."