My Life Scientist and Lecturer
by Aruna Pawashe
Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault/Abuse
I was born on Aug 29th, 1956 in a private hospital in Belgaum, a small town in the Southern part of India. My mother, a city girl, comes from a reasonably well-to-do family, while my father is from a poor farmer’s family in Hindalaga near Belgaum city. Even as a child, my father disliked working on the farm, and as he was the youngest of 4 siblings, my grandfather enrolled him in the village school until 3rd grade. After my grandfather passed away, when my father was 6, his older brother cared for him and looked after his portion of farmland. He continued to support my father’s educational expenses, after seeing his genuine interest in learning and his willingness to walk ~8 miles every day to the city school from the 4th grade onward. Later due to the financial burden on his brother, my father stopped his studies at 7th grade and took a job in a cloth shop. As a youth, he was also involved in a freedom-fighter movement and was jailed for some time. Later using some of his earnings from the cloth shop job, he bought a small piece of land and built a small bungalow. The only reason my mother married him was because he owned a bungalow in Vijayanagar, a suburban area of Hindalaga village, and promised my mother’s family that she would never work in the field. After I was born, my father quit his job, rented a shop, and opened his own small cloth selling business, so that he had more free time for social work to improve the condition of his village.
My first memory of my father, as far as I can remember, is when our first prime minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru passed away on May 27th, 1964. I had just entered 3rd grade at a Marathi elementary school in Vijayanagar. It was a one room co-ed school with a floor of flattened dirt mixed with manure. All 1st to 3rd grade students were seated on the floor in pairs with one row for boys and another for girls, with one teacher, Mr. Belgundikar, for all 3 grades combined. I clearly remember it was a Wednesday afternoon. It was not a Tuesday, a weekly business break day when the shop was closed, as my father had already left for the shop on his bicycle. The new term had just begun on Monday, after the summer break. Gangaram, who was my classmate, but often missed school, came running and panting, and told our teacher, the important news that our Prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, had passed away due to a heart attack, that school must be closed as a tribute to him, and that our national flag must be flown at half-staff. Our Belgundikar an extremely strict one, who cared for his students’ welfare and studies, did not believe him and continued to teach us. He did not trust Gangaram much, because he did not miss school to iron clothes to help with his drunken father’s earnings, but was often seen roaming or playing gilli dandu, as he hated school. However, our teacher later got a confirmation from Mr. Tarale, the Hindalga School Head Teacher, who visited our school personally after closing his school. We were dismissed after pulling our school flag to half-staff and standing to sing the National Anthem, a tribute to the Nation and our Prime Minister.
My classmate Vinalyak, one of our neighbors, and I came home running from the school saying Aai aai .. Shalela sutti, Shalela Butti… (joyously declaring to mother about the school holiday). Surprisingly, I found our front door wide open. I threw my bag on the floor joyous for the holiday. But, then, I was surprised to see my father, Papa, home. Normally, he came home only at 9.00pm after closing his cloth shop and it was not Tuesday. He was listening intently to the news on the radio, which was a gift to my mother from my grandfather as she loved listening to songs. My father was sitting on a tall stool next to the radio. He told me to be quiet and not to be happy about the holiday, as our Nation was in mourning, and that I must also listen to the news to hear on how our nation was going to handle the loss of Mr. Nehru. I vaguely remember papa trying to explain to me about Nehru’s work after independence and if the newly declared Prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, would match it. Later that evening, my father’s few friends, who were also our neighbors gathered to discuss politics. They were all teachers in schools in villages near Belgaum city. They came to our home to listen to the news on the radio, as ours was the only house with a radio in the neighborhood of 10-12 houses in the Vijayanagar suburban area. They all seemed worried and were glued to the news about on Nehru’s funeral process, while my mother kept herself busy preparing snacks and chai for everyone.
This day was my first notable impression about my father’s interest in politics and the Nation’s progress. He attempted to affect change by being a Hindalaga Sarpanch (similar to Mayor of a town) by rebuilding and improving existing schools, getting land and money for building Hindalaga high school, bringing electricity, water, gobar gas, and building roads to the village and suburban area. He was also instrumental in advocating and obtaining land from the Government and providing free housing to low income/ low caste people and teachers. He also set an example to parents in the village by encouraging not only his sons but also his daughters to pursue higher education and giving them the freedom to choose their own career paths. He truly believed, if all villages in India progressed, the Nation would automatically too. His thinking was far ahead of his time. When he passed away at the age of 96 on August 28th, 2019, he even donated his body to the government medical school hospital in Belgaum, so that medical students could get an education. If not for my father, I would not have seen America.
I studied 4th grade in the Hindalaga school and from 5th grade onwards attended the girls Marathi high school, Vanita Vidhyalaya, in Belgaum city. Life was not rosy anymore. My father was too busy as a Sarapanch attending to social and village matters, and his shop was suffering financial losses. My mother, being a city girl had her own interests and hobbies, listening to music or watching films, which were not cared for by my father due to a lack of interest, time, and money, leading her to an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) which forced her to be extra cleanly. Our whole family was affected by it. At the same time, we also faced financial hardship. I started tutoring and sewing clothes to make small earnings. Due to my mother’s OCD, and being the oldest daughter, I took charge of the kitchen at the early age of 12. My daily schedule was to get up at 6am, make tea, help my father to pull well water and fill all the containers, so it would be enough for the day, which was essential for my mother’s OCD cleanings and bath habits, prepare breakfast, and then pack lunch boxes for father and my siblings. My sister and brothers helped me with many other house chores, like cleaning the house, washing dishes and clothes, and preparing food. Although life was hard, my father’s unwavering desire to educate us was remarkable. He never allowed us to miss a single school day except, when we were really sick. He had a deep desire to educate his children, since he could not have that education! Going to the city school, which was 5 miles away, was a daily challenge. Government buses were very few and most of the time came full by the time they reached my suburban stop area, especially on Sat. when all villagers used to take their farm produce to the city for selling. It was a fight between villagers’ produce baskets and our bulky school backpacks loaded with heavy books. Any time I missed the bus, because it came full, I had to run 5 miles, and would still be punished at the school for being late. This aerobic development and strength from daily chores, however, would let me win a long-distance marathon, and gave me the strength to also win at shot put, javelin, and discus later in college.
Because of the difficulty of getting to school, whenever I had an exam, my father made me stay for a week or two at my grandmother’s home in Belgaum, from where my school was only 10 minutes walking distance. That is where I received cooking training, especially learning how to make rotis, from my grandmother, who was an exceedingly kind, patient, and hardworking woman. My grandfather was retired and a smoker. He was also beginning to lose his memory. He would often send me to purchase cigarettes from a close by shop, which I used to hate, because the shopkeeper’s assistant harassed me sexually. The assistant would wait until all the customers were done, even though some customers came later than me to give me the cigarette package. When everyone was gone, he would come holding the package in hand behind my back and push himself against my buttocks, until hot liquid seeped through his legs and fell on my skirt and sandals. It was so awkward. I could never tell this to my grandmother, as I was not sure how to. I would just come home, go to the bathroom, wash my skirt, feet, sandals, and weep quietly. Sexual harassment was not even discussed then. I was also afraid, if I refused this small chore of my grandfather, I would not have the privilege to live in the house and complete my exam period.
In the Vanita Vidhyalaya high school, a few teachers had their pet students, and I was not among them, especially because I was considered a village girl with a primitive brain. No matter how hard I studied or answered correctly, my scores were always lower than them. Although many times I scored the highest in a few subjects, I never received 1st rank in my class. My math teacher, who was impartial and had seen this injustice towards me by other teachers, empathized, and told me “You can’t hide sun rays, they will always make their way and shine.” Once, when I had solved an algebra problem, out of curiosity in a certain unique way, she predicted that I would become a scientist. She boosted my confidence and always encouraged me. Thus, I did not give up, and I kept up with my house responsibilities, chores, and studies. Many times, while making rotis and while cooking, I would keep a book aside for reading or memorizing spellings and poems, which my father admired. Finally, my efforts paid off, when I received 1st rank in the final 10th grade board exam out of the school. This is because our exam papers were corrected by other school examiners and not by my high school teachers.
My father always liked to encourage us when we did well in exams. I remember that day, when I passed my 10th grade high school exam with honors and got first rank to the city school in May 1972, he gave me a present, my first wristwatch. My father told his friends proudly that he would send his daughter to college. It was very unusual for a girl from a village to attend a college at that time. Most of my village friends were already married or getting married. My uncles and other relatives did not like my father’s decision to educate me, as they would have preferred that he spend his money and effort, educating his younger sons.
I was enrolled in the RLS Institute (STEM college) in Belgaum. Since I had studied in my first language, Marathi, the 1st year of college was hard, as everything was taught in English. Biology was especially the hardest subject, as I did not know what a cockroach or earthworm was during the entire lecture when the professor was explaining their circulatory and digestive systems. Every now and then I had to ask my friend to explain, as she had studied in an English missionary school. Other subjects were manageable. My father wanted me to go to medical school, but my biology grades which were required for medicine, had suffered due to language barrier. My PCM scores were great for engineering, and I really loved Math and Chemistry. However, my father was against me applying to engineering college. He believed engineering was a subject only for boys as they could work with machines and be on-site during construction. Thus, he refused to sign my engineering application, and at the same time, I did not get into the Government medical school, which had subsidized tuition. My father could not afford to send me to private medical school which demanded an exuberant tuition. Thus, I continued my undergraduate studies with chemistry as a major and botany and zoology as minor subjects, so that I had another option to apply for Government medical school after graduation.
During this time, my father wanted to make sure I excelled. His friend’s son had recently secured a job as a chemistry professor in another city college and my father requested him to tutor me. In fact, I was good in chemistry and did not really need tutoring. Every time I sat with him, he would make me feel dumb and hit me in the head for answering a question in a way that was not according to his standards. It was absurd. Later, when no one else was around, he started touching my breasts, and it was very awkward to sit one-on-one for lessons with him. I could not tell my father, nor my mother with her OCD problem. Even after he got married, he continued his abusive behavior and harassment to me. I had to tolerate this injustice because his parents were our family friends, and my father expected me to do well. Deep inside I hated him. Everyone in the village, including my father, respected him, being the only learned professor in the village. It was clear sexual harassment and an abuse of power, but at that time, I could tell no one and suffered silently, because I was the only STEM female student in the area and had to do well and set an example for other village girls.
I graduated in May 1977, with honors and with the 1st rank in chemistry. I was noted 2nd best girl in the yearly college magazine. By now, my father and I had lost interest in medicine and thus I applied for a master’s program at Karnataka University, Dharwad, which was a 2-hour bus ride from Belgaum and so I could visit home often over weekends. I got admission into biochemistry, a relatively new field at the time. I had to move out of Belgaum for two years and stay in another town in a hostel. It was going to be hard for my father financially and also for my siblings, who were dependent on me for daily help. My father was determined that I pursue my masters and I was overwhelmed. All house responsibility fell on my sister, 5 years younger than me, and I am indebted to her for her sacrifice to take charge of the family, which is the reason I sponsored her and my brother for green cards after I became a US citizen.
Staying in a girl’s hostel and sharing a room with my Physics major friend was a new experience. I did not have household responsibilities, but only studies. I made many girlfriends and also became very close to my classmates including boys, a co-ed group of 11 students only, as the Biochemistry department was only two years old and had limited faculty and lab space, so enrollment was limited. Again, maybe because of my cooking skills, I excelled in organic chemistry and all laboratory course exams during my first semester, except in physical chemistry, where I received only passing grades and thus was ranked 2nd in my class. It was a big surprise to me, because I had copied all my notes for my classmate, an Iranian girl, who was pregnant and had difficulty taking notes. Using my notes, she received first rank, while I just passed. After discussing with my friend and comparing our exams, I noticed that we both had the same answers, while she got 90%, and I only received 40%. When I raised this issue with the professor, he got extremely angry and threatened to fail me. For some reason, he had a grudge against me, which I never understood. Maybe because I did not speak his local language, Kannada, which all my classmates spoke except me. He would often provide explanations in Kannada instead of English in the class, which I could never understand. I didn’t have the courage to take the matter to the head of the department. It was an obvious abuse of power and discrimination based on language and I could do nothing. My classmate, who got 1st rank among the men in the class, understood the injustice and was extremely empathetic to me. Later, he would become my boyfriend and then my husband.
After I passed my masters, in July 1979, with a 2nd rank, I was admitted to a graduate school at M.S. University, Baroda to work on a project, concerning the regulation of arginine metabolism in chickpeas. My boyfriend already had an offer from the same University and thus I accepted my offer too. Since it was a paid program, my father did not have to worry about supporting me financially anymore. However, I must admit, my siblings were not too happy as they were missing my absence very much and looking back, I feel very sorry for all of them. Baroda was 24 hours away from Belgaum and involved a bus and a train journey and with the cost of tickets, I could visit home only once a year unlike almost every month, during my master’s program.
My thesis advisor was known to keep himself isolated from the rest of the biochemistry department and was very strict with students. His laboratory space was also independent from other departmental laboratories due to a conflict with the head of the department, probably over a women scientist working for him, who had her own office, adjacent to my advisor’s office. The department had rumors that they had an affair. I was warned by my senior colleague that no one should talk about it while in the laboratory. The real problem for my advisor was my boyfriend, who was working directly with the head of the department and visited me in the evenings so that we could go for tea together. For some unknown reason my advisor disliked my boyfriend and thus abused me. No matter whether we had work or not, we were expected to be in the laboratory from morning 9.00am to 5.30pm or until he had left the day for home. If I had to leave early for some other work, we needed to get his special permission, which was almost impossible to get, unless we were really sick. Sometimes my boyfriend pressured me for an early tea break, and I used to elope quietly without his permission. Whenever he noticed I was not in the lab, he would show me his anger the next day by calling me into his office to discuss results and I used to shiver. Even for small experimental errors he would scold loudly, so that my colleagues could hear him about how I was wasting expensive chemicals and reagents. He would threaten to stop my fellowship and I would come out of his office weeping. I had to tolerate this injustice, abuse, harassment, as my PhD degree was in his hands. Getting approval for two weeks leave to visit home during the holiday season was another ordeal. It did not matter if I continued my work later into the nights and/or over the weekend like everyone else in the department and showed results. There was just no flexibility with my advisor. Later, my boyfriend joined another institute, the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad after spending almost 2 years, as his thesis work wasn’t going well. By that time, we both had made a commitment to each other. I had only one more year of my fellowship left but had reasonable data. My advisor also had become a little sympathetic or maybe afraid that I may also leave his project halfway and thus stopped harassing me. I decided to stay and complete the assigned project. At the end of 3rd year, my fellowship was exhausted, and I could not support myself. My would-be husband, Shashi, started supporting me financially through his meager fellowship at his Institute. However, it was tough for him to support me fully. Hence without getting a degree and still few experiments needed to fulfill the thesis requirement, I left Baroda with my advisor’s consent that I would finish the last part of the thesis work on my own support elsewhere.
My father was upset that I had decided to get married without a degree. I convinced him that I was going to finish my work in Hyderabad and get the degree. I got married to Shashi, still a graduate student, on Jan 18th, 1983, moved to Hyderabad, and we made our home together. I found a job as a research assistant (biochemist) to work on an “Anemia in Pregnancy Project” at the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN). I made a deal with my supervisor, a kind female scientist, Dr. Leela Raman, that I would do the few remaining thesis experiments after office hours and over weekends at the Institute. She gave me special permission to carry out these experiments. I kept communicating with my advisor from Baroda through letters on experimental results and progress. I had finally completed the remaining experiments on identifying a small molecule involved in the regulation of the enzyme, arginase, during germination in chickpeas using the NMR facility at the Institute. My advisor decided that it was sufficient proof for a publication and also my thesis. But, meanwhile, I became pregnant, and my first son, Chytra, was born May 1984. I traveled to Baroda (a 16-hour train trip) with my 3-month-old son and mother-in-law to submit, first draft of my thesis proposal. My proposal was accepted by the University and we returned back to Hyderabad. With the support of my mother-in-law, I continued to do my job and also thesis writing at Hyderabad. I left for Baroda a 2nd time to submit my thesis in January 1985, this time without Chytra, who was being cared for by Shashi and my mother-in-law. I came back triumphantly after a successful defense seminar and my thesis approval by the committee, although I had missed the presence of my family members, both Chytra and Shashi very much. My first thesis paper was submitted to the international journal, Physiol. Plantarum, was also accepted for publication and it was good news. By then, I also had a few more publications from my NIN project, the major being development of a sensitive ELISA method for identification of anemia in pregnant women and adolescent girls from finger-prick blood samples under field studies.
Chytra was a very active and naughty kid and my life revolved around him and work. By now Shashi was occupied with his thesis work and was also busy applying for postdoctoral positions abroad. He defended his thesis in the middle of 1988 and got a postdoctoral position offer in Dr. Frank Ruddle’s laboratory, MCDB dept. at Yale University to work on homeotic genes. We both were excited for the opportunity to visit and live in America. The plan was that we would both settle down with our son first in New Haven, and then I would look for a postdoctoral position at Yale as well, so that we all would be in one place together as a family.
We arrived at the end of Sept. 1988 and Shashi joined Yale officially on Oct 1st. We didn’t have enough warm clothes and coming from the hot Hyderabad climate, we felt very cold. We stayed for a month with our friends, who kindly donated their warm clothes. After a month, we moved to our own 2-bedroom apartment on 140 Cottage Street, New Haven. We started adjusting to a new way of living. Everything was different compared to India, new people, house doors always closed, and hardly any people outdoors. Chytra started missing his friends and playing outdoors. Since it was getting cold, walking outdoors for a longer period was also not possible with improper clothes and shoes. Bringing groceries, especially milk from the Orange food market was an ordeal. I made conversions from dollars to rupees in my mind and found how cheap it would have been to purchase the same items, like milk, vegetables, etc. in India. I took Chytra, who was 4 years old, to Hooker public school, hoping he would be admitted into 1st grade, as he was already going to a school in India while he was 3 years old and had learned how to read and write. The principal refused to admit him, saying he was not 5 years of age. It was a big disappointment. I sent my resume to a few labs at Yale, who were looking for a position to work on proteins and/or enzymes. Dr. William Konigsberg from the MBB Dept. and Dr. Michael Ezekowitz from the Cardiology Dept. had a collaborative project, “the role of tissue factor in the formation of thrombus during restenosis following angioplasty in a rabbit model system”, and offered me a postdoctoral position to generate inhibitory antibody for rabbit tissue factor. The agreement was that I would be paid through the Cardiology department but would be physically working in Dr. Konigsberg’s laboratory at Sterling Hall of Medicine in the MBB department, Yale Medical School. I was interested in learning molecular biology and had enough biochemistry knowledge to purify tissue factors from the rabbit brain for production of monoclonal antibodies. I accepted the offer to work in Bill’s laboratory and report the weekly progress to Dr. Ezekowitz by attending his lab meetings every week at the VA hospital.
But there was a problem. I was on a J-2 visa and officially wasn’t allowed to work, until I got my own J-1 visa. Dr. Ezekowitz offered to sponsor it, provided I started the work immediately. Since Chytra wasn’t eligible for public school, we had to put him in the Edith B. Jackson daycare at the medical school, which was very expensive, and we didn’t have enough money. We took a loan from our friend and paid for the day care until after I got paid from June of that year. In February 1989, I started working as a volunteer postdoctoral fellow in the MBB Department. Using my biochemistry skills as a graduate student from India, I purified rabbit tissue factor in one week’s time and Dr. Konigsberg was impressed. I was aware, if I had to purify it with outdated equipment and reagents, I could have spent more than a month or two in India. Working in an American laboratory was so much fun with automatic pipettes, disposable tips, and quick access to reagents work was so easy and superfast. In India, I used to spend a minimum of 1-2 hours of my time in the evenings washing and drying my limited supply of glassware. I started injecting mice with purified tissue factor for generating monoclonal antibodies to rabbit tissue factor within two months of joining the lab as a postdoc and Dr. Ezekowitz was happy that his project was already showing progress.
Pleased with my performance, Dr. Konigsberg gave me a 2nd interesting project, cloning of the rabbit tissue factor gene and assigned Dr. Renata Horton, his postdoc working on human tissue factor, to provide me guidance. I was happy that I was also getting a chance to learn molecular biology in Bill’s lab. By the end of December 1990, I had cloned the gene for rabbit tissue factor and also produced monoclonal antibodies, a remarkable feat in less than two years. I was due with my second son, Mayur, who was born on Jan 7th, 1991 at Yale hospital. I was working in the lab even the day before he was born. Mayur was 3 weeks premature. My parents came from India to look after Mayur and I rejoined the lab in Feb and submitted my 1st paper on “Molecular cloning of rabbit tissue factor” in the Thrombosis and Hemostasis journal. When Mayur was 6 months old, I sent him with my parents to India, so that I could devote my full time to my research work. I started characterization of several monoclonal antibodies (mAb) for their inhibitory action in a functional tissue factor assay and found one potent inhibitory mAb, which recognized only functional protein and not the denatured one. It gave remarkable results in an in vivo rabbit atheroscelerotic model in preventing thrombus formation following angioplasty and we patented the antibody, which we later sold to Genentech Inc. and made money too. I published my 2nd first author paper from Yale in Circulation Research. By now I had also started collaboration with Dr. Alan Garen, a Professor in the MBB department on producing single chain antibodies and with Dr. Ezekowitz on production of monoclonal antibodies to glycoprotein IIb/IIa, which resulted in collaborative publications. During my postdoctoral training, I also got a chance to interact with several BA, BS, and MD students and train them in research techniques and guide them with their research thesis projects to successful completion, a requirement for their degrees.
Both Alan and Bill were impressed with my laboratory skills and handling many projects with ease, solving problems, producing results and training students. They offered me a lecturer’s position in MBB dept to handle two laboratory courses: MBB 251L, a pre-med requirement and MBB 360, an advanced requirement for MBB majors. Although I was great with laboratory & hands-on experimental skills, I was not very good at presenting data or at giving lectures. When I raised concerns, both Alan and Bill promised to help me out and provide opportunities to learn to develop these needed skills. Thus, I accepted the lecturer’s position in the department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale. I joined officially on July 1st, 1993 and Bill promised to support my summer salary so that I could continue to work on my tissue factor project during off hours and summers. My first fall semester of 1993 and spring semester of 1994 teaching was not easy. There were a lot of new methods to learn with different experiments for both courses, while ensuring they all worked before students arrived. Also, our laboratory courses were designed in a mini-research project format, so that students got a feel for doing a real scientific experiment rather than just learning unrelated methods. Hence, I had to do all the experiments with teaching assistants 1-2 weeks in advance to train them and save reagents at each step, so that if a student’s experiment failed, we could provide the necessary material so that students could continue the project. All my hard work paid off and I did well during the first year of my teaching career with support from Shashi at home. Our green card had just arrived, which Dr Ruddle had sponsored for Shashi. Now we all needed a much-awaited break, our first trip to India after 6 years in America. I finally visited India during the summer of 1994 with both kids and mother, who had come back with Mayur a year earlier and had stayed with us to help out.
It was a joyous trip, a vacation to my home country. My siblings and all relatives were very happy and excited to see me and my children with many American gifts and chocolates. Chytra spoke the local language, Hindi, before we left for the USA, but by now he had lost it completely. Mayur’s speech was delayed and he was yet to speak any language at age 3; we were worried. Fortunately, this trip made it easy for Mayur to recognize that each and everything we see around has a name, maybe because he had an internal conflict with language, as he had spent his first 8 months in India without parents. He finally uttered his first words, “Moon” and “Cow”, and I will never forget my joy and relief.
After a 2 and a half month stay, we returned to the USA without my mother. This time we rented a house in North Haven, so that Chytra could go to a better middle school. At that time, the best school was Worthington Hooker in New Haven, which was only until 4th grade and was good mostly because the children were of Yale faculty and students. In those days, the Indian community did not believe in New Haven middle and high schools, although now New Haven schools have improved a lot. We also had enrolled Mayur in a daycare in North Haven, where Mary Tokarski from “Tokarski music school” gave voluntary music lessons. Her music was another turning point for Mayur’s speech development. Dr. Benette Shaywitz was Mayur’s psychiatrist at Yale. He and his wife, Dr. Sally Shaywitz, had recommended the program for dyslexia and language-based learning disabilities for children in Woodbridge public schools. He recommended that we rent or purchase a house in Woodbridge. Renting was just impossible in Woodbridge and thus Shashi and I gathered our savings and purchased our first house on 26 Cedar Rock Road, Woodbridge in Aug 1995.
Since 1995, my life became very hectic with commuting to work, caring for two young kids with their schools and after-school activities, and helping Shashi with his research and faculty job applications. My promised summer salary from the MBB department was terminated and thus I joined Dr. Frank Ruddle’s laboratory in the MCDB department as a Research Fellow in the summer. I continued my summer research in his lab on the study of transcriptional regulation of a mouse homeobox gene, Hoxc8. I identified a new cis-acting element of the early enhancer by DNA-mobility shift assays. I set up cell transfection assays for characterizing transactivation of the early enhancer by potential transcription factors such as Cdx proteins.
Dr. Ruddle helped me to get a secondary lecturer’s appointment in the MCDB department as the MBB 251L course was also cross listed as MCDB 301L. Through my summer collaborative research in Dr. Ruddle’s laboratory, I produced a few collaborative research publications in reputable journals. When I requested the inclusion of these publications in the MBB departmental annual booklet to the Chairman of the Department, my request was not honored. In fact, I was not faculty nor a postdoc nor a student, but a lone neglected lecturer, hidden in an office converted from a chemical closet in the Osborn Memorial Laboratory (OML) basement adjacent to two MBB undergraduate laboratories. As a result, I was very much isolated from the MBB department, and except for Bill, Alan, the DGS, the DUS, and the Chairman, I did not have contacts with any other MBB faculty. On the other hand, I was more associated with the MCDB faculty members being in OML basement and working in Klein Biology Tower (KBT) with Dr. Ruddle. The MCDB faculty was more friendly, helpful, and understanding of me.
During the summer of 2000, an opportunity came to work for a startup company, Ikonisys as a senior scientist; they offered me twice the salary I was making as a lecturer and company shares. I was very tempted and thus made a deal with the CEO to work for the summer and if everything went well to finalize the offer. My job was to set up a new company laboratory at Yale science park and standardize a proof of principle experiment, “a rare cell detection method” by the end of July. I did both successfully and the CEO was ready to make the offer, if I resigned from my teaching.
However, around the same time my personal responsibility with my two children greatly increased as Shashi had taken a faculty position at Penn State University, State College, PA and moved there in July of 1999. I decided not to move, as we didn’t want to change the schools for our two sons, especially Mayur, as we had bought a house in the Woodbridge school district, which could potentially help with educational needs for his language-based learning disability problem. Shashi could now visit home only once every month and thus I was the lone parent. I realized with a new job, it was going to be too hard for me to spend enough time for both children’s after-school programs and helping with their academic performance, especially for Mayur. So, the best thing for me was to keep up my teaching job, with which I was comfortable. The teaching job also provided me with breaks when my children had school breaks. Hence, I put forward my family first over my career. I rejected the Ikonisys offer and I accepted the fact that my lecturer’s position was going to be a stagnant job with no salary raise or promotion.
I continued my summer research in Dr. Ruddle’s laboratory, which supplemented my lecturer’s salary until his retirement in 2005. My primary task was cloning and modifying larger genomic constructs by yeast recombinogenic method (using a well developed yeast/bacterial shuttle vector, pClasper, in the laboratory). Also, I successfully used a bacterial recombinogenic method for replacing short stretches of enhancer elements from larger genomic constructs for testing their role in transgenic mice. I was instrumental in establishing RNAi methodology in Ruddle’s laboratory. I also helped generate toolsets for Asilas Genomic Systems, Inc., a startup company originated from Dr. Ruddle’s laboratory, towards developing transgenic mouse models that are useful in studying human pathologies.
With all the responsibility of raising both children on me alone, it became hard to sustain the long-distance marriage, which already had problems. In June 2006, we officially got divorced. Years 2004-2005 were too hard for me; I went through a brief period of depression. However, I came out of it quickly through my yoga, meditation practices, and counseling from my best friends. I felt relieved of some long hold on a bond and came out with new energy.
Since yoga had helped me to relieve my depression and stress, I thought I could lead group sessions and help others to get out of their stress by leading group yoga sessions. I took official permission from our then Chairman, Dr. Scott Strobel, to conduct yoga classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 7-8am in BASS 405 seminar hall and started teaching and leading free yoga classes from Jan 2006 until 2015, when my knee arthritis set in. Attendees included Yale graduate students, postdocs, faculty, staff, and also their non-Yale spouses too. I also taught evening group yoga sessions at other locations including the TAC building, Harkness Auditorium, Hope-3 Atrium and Yale colleges at the request of students, postdocs, and faculty. I was invited for a presentation and demonstration of yoga to 3rd year Yale medical students at a “Stress Management Workshop” 2008-2010. Thus, I started to devote my free time to the wellbeing of Yalies and the New Haven public by conducting free yoga classes on Yale campuses at several locations. The Being Well at Yale department did not exist at that time.
Many students commented in course evaluations and through personal emails that I was not only training them on how to succeed academically to become a doctor or a researcher, but also on how to live a well-balanced life. Most recently, I included an optional 10 minutes of zoom meditation session before the start of our laboratory courses and 8 minutes of zoom yoga/breathing exercise during our coffee break. Students who were stressed, due to pandemic were glad for the option and took advantage of it.
During the summer of 2007, I formed a team known as “Healthy Group Activities” (HGA). I recruited 7 team members with similar interests. HGA’s goal was to promote healthy activities such as yoga, tai chi, and group dances in every department at Yale on a regular basis convenient to students, faculty, and employees, and to spread knowledge of wellness, by training and creating goodwill among volunteers. During the fall of 2007, HGA participated in the Y50K business competition under the non-for-profit social entrepreneurship category at Yale University. HGA was selected in the first round of the competition. Although HGA didn’t make it to the final round, its effort was well appreciated and applauded by Yalies. HGA received a contract from a local business, Marrakech Inc. a non-profit organization in New Haven. HGA hired two yoga and tai chi instructors and did an excellent job in serving its disadvantaged youths.
After Dr. Ruddle retired in 2005, I requested the MBB Chairman to be given additional departmental responsibility on advising undergraduate students and also a few MBB faculty independently for a summer position, but to no avail. It was again Dr. Ronald Breaker from the MCDB department that accepted me to work for summers in his laboratory as an associate research scientist to explore various methods leading to the identification of novel riboswitches that regulated gene expression in bacteria. I collaborated with graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and research faculty until summer 2007, when I fractured my ankle and had to take a break from the laboratory. For this reason, I always felt the MCDB departmental faculty and staff more humane than the MBB department. Although I had only a secondary appointment in the MCDB department, it gave me an opportunity to fulfill my scientific curiosity and helped me in my MBB course teachings. The only student I was allowed to advise was a MCDB major student towards his senior essay topic on “Optimization of Protein Folding” in the Spring of 2012, at the request of the MCDB DUS. And he was truly grateful for my effort, which he acknowledged through his private email. I was also nominated for the “Alice Bohmfalk Teaching Award” in basic sciences, the same year. However, I was never allowed to advise or counsel a single MBB undergraduate student by the MBB department even after my repeated requests to the then-Chairman. If I had been given this responsibility with appropriate guidance, it would have allowed me to interact with the faculty and have a meaningful role as a lecturer in the MBB department, which is a requirement for any faculty to thrive and succeed.
During the spring of 2007 MBB Chairman, Dr. Scott Strobel, hired another lecturer to teach his rainforest course during the spring and summers, which I helped accommodate in our limited laboratory space in OML. I made all possible adjustments and reorganized the equipment. I also provided help to the faculty, a newly hired lecturer, TA’s, and students, whenever they needed it, as I was mostly available in my office in our basement laboratory. During the same period, I was diagnosed with Vit. D deficiency resulting in an ankle fracture, which could have been due to me spending a lot of time in the basement in my windowless closet office, which often had ceiling and wall leaks. The newly hired lecturer had a nice office in BASS with windows and thus I requested one for me too. My offer for a new office was rejected with a promise to provide a UV lamp and a suggestion from the Chairman to spend more time outside.
I requested a multi-year appointment and a promotion to senior lecturer’s position in the MBB department many times, and I was approved for a 2-year appointment only once. My request for promotion was rejected, despite having consistent evaluations from students and teaching two laboratory courses over two semesters. The reason cited was that the MBB departmental policy did not allow promotion for my position. I felt the discrimination very much, also because my colleagues, who were much more junior than me, were promoted to the senior lecturer’s position in MCDB, EEB and other departments. My immediate supervisors and co-instructors, Bill and Alan, who were my recommenders, were not of much help, as the departmental executive committee did not have a good opinion of them. According to both, they had tried their best to support me by putting forward my case to the new departmental Chairman every time, but the result was the same rejection. It may be that I was never made in charge of any courses officially, although I handled both courses fully. I only remained a co-instructor until recently. This is because when I requested the then Department Chair, Dr. Patrick Sung in Feb 2013, for a West Campus sequencing facility tour with our MBB 251L students, he rejected my request, saying I was not a course Director and I didn’t get the opportunity to organize the event, which would have only benefited our students and also allowed me to grow and succeed in the department. I was very much disappointed and realized my position had no future. I was just to remain in the shadow of tenured faculty Bill and Alan.
For the first time after ~ 14 years of teaching, my name was finally included in the MBB faculty list along with the newly hired Caucasian lecturer, which was an obvious inclusion to prevent discrimination. During 2014, it was decided to move all biology laboratories from OML to a newly renovated space in Sterling Chemistry Laboratory (SCL), and finally the MBB DUS granted me a nice office. It was a relief, after spending 20 years in the chemical closet of OML basement, when our MBB laboratory officially moved into a SCL space in August 2016.
Since January 2015, as a Vipassana trustee member for the Connecticut region and an old student practicing meditation to bring awareness to a stress relieving technique, I organized, and hosted several free public lectures on Vipassana Meditation by Dr. Paul Fleischman, a Yale alumnus, on Yale campuses and at the New Haven public library. Audiences included Yale students, faculty, staff, and New Haven community members. Apart from public lectures, I have been organizing and hosting one-day teen meditation courses on Yale campuses and regular free group meditation sessions on Sundays at my home. This public service gives me a sense of purpose in my life and helps me be empathetic, and understand the needs of others, which sometimes has gotten me into trouble too.
One such an incident was our emergency teaching period during the pandemic, immediately after the spring break of March 2020. Yale announced that the spring semester would be remote and that students would not return to campus. So, the entire Yale faculty started working hard during the spring break on their plans to teach remotely and learn how to teach over Zoom from the Poorvu center. For me teaching a laboratory class remotely wasn’t easy. However, after doing some research online, I found two free online software, which I could use for our remaining three lab sessions for MBB 251L and thus worked out my plan and remote teaching schedule over zoom with the teaching assistant and co-instructor Dr. Andrew Miranker, with whom I was also teaching the advanced MBB 460L course. As planned our first remote session for MBB 251L went well on Tuesday. On Thursday, just before our MBB 460L class I got an email on my Yale email account from our DUS, Dr. Karla Neugebauer, asking if I lived close to any shops and if can help her with remote teaching as she was too tied up with the class and provided her cell number for contact. Without thinking anything, I texted her and offered my help and I received a text message back immediately saying she needed Google play cards and if I could purchase them in time, she would provide me with a refund later. Since Dr. Miranker was going to lead the MBB 460L class, I emailed him saying Karla needed my urgent help, and I would be late for the zoom session. He emailed me back saying it was OK. I drove immediately to Stop and Shop and purchased $500 worth of gift cards, scratched codes, took pictures and texted back to the same number. And then I got another text message saying students were enjoying and asking if I could send a few more cards, so thus I purchased $2000 worth of gift cards, until my credit card balance was done, and came back home to join the session around 2.30pm. I informed Dr. Andrew Miranker and my class about my adventure and help to Karla, and no one suspected that there was a problem. While in the class, I got a text message to send me my bank information so that she could refund me, although I had informed Karla that I was teaching and in the middle of the class. At this point, I got an alarm and realized it was fraud, and I was fooled. I later found out that someone had hacked Karla’s email, and the Yale email system had failed to delete it in time. Thus, the lesson I learned was that to be helpful and empathetic is good, but one has to think carefully and be mindful before providing help to others.
By 2008, I had given up my summer salary and research. I used my summer breaks to spend time with my aging parents. I also sponsored my two siblings for green cards, so that their children can also get the same education and privileges my children received. Thus, since 2009, I visited India almost every summer for ~2 months, took parents for short vacations, and/or to visit relatives in surrounding towns like Mumbai, Pune, Dharwad, Bangalore, etc. I also accompanied them to visit the USA for my niece’s wedding in 2015, which was my father’s last USA trip. He passed away, August 28th, 2019, one week after my arrival to the USA from India. I didn’t go immediately for his funeral, as I didn’t want to miss teaching the fall semester at Yale. I knew in my heart that my father, who donated his aged body to the medical school hospital so that students get an education, wouldn’t have forgiven me if I missed teaching a semester. I went to India during the Christmas break in December 2019 and organized his memorial. I made a promise to carry on his legacy by rebuilding a school he had built in 1968, so that girls can get an education. If he had not, I would not have seen America and written this essay.
Thus, currently I am raising funds through the GoFundMe organization for rebuilding part of the infrastructure and providing learning equipment to the school. https://www.gofundme.com/f/local-school-development-in-hindalga-india
The heavy rains of 2019 and the pandemic in 2020 were a major setback to the school, which serves as a primary learning center in the region. My sister is currently in India, caring for my mother, and also helping with my endeavor. I will be visiting India during the summer this year and also the spring 2022 semester (leave of absence) for overseeing the completion of the project.
The movie, “Picture a Scientist” is about what women scientists face in the male dominated world of science, which is especially true, if you are coming from a minority background. It resonates well with the struggle I am going through in my life as a woman scientist. The only satisfaction I have are my contacts with students, who appreciate my effort in teaching, which itself is a great reward. I also have the satisfaction of helping my family. My children did very well, Chytra, an engineering manager at Intel, leading a group, and Mayur, a developmental technology engineer at Apple. My three nieces, who came through their parent’s green cards, which I got the privilege to sponsor, are also doing very well with high-paying jobs in companies. My co-instructor Dr. Konigsberg promises me to support my promotion in the department under special circumstances, and MBB CoCD Chairman Dr. Joan Steitz tells me to be patient a little longer. I am an optimistic person, and I am positive to see the light at the end of the tunnel soon.