An Immigrant Grandmother on Running Her Own Lab and Beating the Odds

Rupangi Vasavada is used to being different. At University of Pennsylvania, she was the lone mom in her PhD class. Well into her career at Mount Sinai, a junior colleague “stopped in her tracks” at the word children and said, “I guess we can still be friends.” Rupangi recalled this anecdote with laughter. (She’s actually a grandmother.) She focuses on protein research in a diabetes lab at Sinai named for her, Vasavada Laboratory, a position her husband Nilandu agreed to move from Pittsburgh to Harlem some years ago for her to take. It was a fair trade; she moved to America decades ago from India on his timeline.

I learned of Rupangi through her daughter Nisha, a woman around my age who moved “home” after college — home meaning to her parents’ new place in a city that might otherwise represent independence. She spoke with the edge of any recent grad on curfew, but I couldn’t miss the awe in her voice when she spoke about her parents and how they broke the odds — her mother in particular.

I wanted Rupangi’s secrets. How had she done it? In America, women still tend to drop out of the workplace as they age, despite earning more and higher degrees on average than men. Half the country’s biology graduate students are female, according to a 2014 MIT study, but only 18 percent of full professors are. Rupangi and I spoke in her high-rise apartment over a meal cooked after a day spent at the lab. “Simple Indian vegetarian,” she promised by email. She was girlish and open, tucking her legs below her as she retraced her path.

What do you do?

I work on the race to enhance pancreatic insulin-producing cells [called beta cells]. We’re trying to find ways to make them grow, function and survive better. We do this using rodent and mouse models of diabetes, and also human tissue, to find if we can make human cells regenerate. The field in general is moving along and we’re doing good, but we’re still pretty far from that goal.

Do you think it’ll happen in your lifetime?

A lot has happened in my lifetime, so I wouldn’t be surprised. We are much nearer to the goal. People have been able to make partially functional beta cells that can be put inside the body for the pancreas. That’s a lot of progress. My lab is working on proteins.

What drew you to diabetes research?

My masters teacher was excellent. I was fascinated by the field, that it’s a puzzle. There are so many networks. That really got me. You touch this and something else reacts.

How did you come to run your own lab?

I did graduate work University of Pennsylvania and then moved to Connecticut where I was a postdoctoral fellow and worked in a lab. The person whose lab I was in got a position as chief of endocrinology and gave me a non-tenure track faculty position. Over the next couple of years, my realization came. I wanted to stay in the sciences, stay in academia. I wanted to continue.

I realized I could not be dependent. I had to start my own lab and start my own funding. That’s what academia is. Looking around Connecticut, I realized if I stayed in non-tenure, it wouldn’t get me to the place I wanted to in academia. I’d have to switch fields, completely start over again. That’s when I took the active step of moving into a tenure-track faculty position in Pittsburgh. After a few years I got tenure.

What is it about academic medicine that leads so many people to drop out?

I think because there’s no guarantees. Your job depends on whether you can get sufficient funding for yourself and the lab. Things are not cheap. Each antibody, each [chemical] agent, it’s like living in a five star hotel room, that’s the cost over time. Every year you need hundreds of thousands of dollars to sustain everything. People under you are depending on you. Your own life, career, is depending on it.

My thighs and my back ache because I sit all day to write the grant. I’m not saying it’s great. It’s back breaking.

Funding is not easy. It goes in waves. In the 20 plus years I’ve been in this trying to get funding, it’s generally extremely touch and go. Ten percent of these grants get funded, max. There are some private agencies that fund research, but in 2008, all of them crashed. That made it very difficult. When I came to Mount Sinai, there was a junior woman to me who moved. She actually left and joined industry. Getting grants is not easy.

It’s frustrating. I work a lot. My thighs and my back ache because I sit all day to write the grant. I’m not saying it’s great. It’s back breaking. But at the end of the day, I still like it. I still enjoy the research aspect. It’s exciting to me. It’s puzzle solving.

Why do women drop out so dramatically, in your opinion?

Now people are beginning to recognize — just like everywhere else — that women are discriminated against in various ways that are not very explicit. For example, you get men speakers because you hear more about them, even though there are more women around. Little things like that.

It is definitely changing. I see it in front of my eyes, in Mount Sinai. There are more women. They’re making an actual effort to hire them as heads of institutes, heads of departments. That makes me feel good, that things are changing. In the last 10, 15 years you didn’t see that. Attrition was very fast. Having PhD people doing research and sustaining it was very tough.

At the same time, I read an article this morning somebody sent me about women at the Salk Institute, a very famous institute in California. Two women have come forward and sued this institution for discrimination. They were never promoted. Not in the 1960s; right now, today.

Have you ever thought about leaving?

I mean, yeah. More recently now. I’ve done this a lot. I like doing what I do. But suppose I don’t get grants tomorrow. I’m open to joining industry, even teaching, things like that.

Do you feel like there’s pressure on women to stick around to help young women coming up?

A little bit. There’s pressure we put on ourselves. I also feel the other part, which is a very good thing, is that women are much more aware of what they want and how they should get where they should be. I think that’s good. I never gave it that much of a consideration.

They have vision.

That’s the last thing I had, in a sense. I did a biology major at a college in India. I was happy enough. But my husband gave me a GRE book the day we got married and said, “We’re going to America to do a PhD.” It was not my decision per se. It was not an active decision I made for myself to come to this country or do a PhD. It was not something I was opposed to, but not a decision I made actively.

The active decision came when I moved to Pittsburgh. That was the first active decision I made for myself. My husband had started his own company and was working from home.

I realized, this is the time to do it. I did have offers [in Connecticut], to be in charge of labs, but I would have had to change projects. You have to start doing everything again. I realized all those years of work would be gone. Moving ahead would be like restarting. It was too much.

Does your husband still push you?

It’s the contrary. A couple of times in the last few years, he’s said, “It’s over.” And I’ve said, “No, now I’m not quitting.” I have no end goal, but I’m not giving it up. It’s kind of bad. I don’t plan things too much. I don’t think of things too much ahead of time. That’s just my nature. I go through this cycle every two or three years. I’m applying for 10 or 11 grants, and I get one or two. I say, Okay, I’ve survived this cycle. It could very well happen where I don’t survive and then what will I think of next? I don’t feel worked up about that anymore, at this stage of my life. I’m not too picky.

That reminds me of a phrase you mentioned earlier: the art of compromise.

That is very ingrained into me. I’ve thought about it and realize that’s what I learned doing my PhD. When I look back, what did my PhD teach me? The PhD taught me the art of critical thinking, the art of patience, the art of persistence, and the art of compromise. Those are the things I feel were the most critical take home messages.

I couldn’t have everything. I couldn’t be a perfectionist.

Because I became a mother and was a graduate student at the same time, I was ready to give up graduate school after three or four months of the baby. I was doing long hours in my fourth and fifth years. Biology experiments are long; they’re seven days a week. Here I was, having a baby, trying to do this. I felt pulled in all directions. I really felt I was doing a miserable job at everything, not being a good student, not being a good mom. Eighty to ninety percent of the time, somebody else was with the kids. I continued, wisely or not. I could only do it because I was compromising every way.

I couldn’t have everything. I couldn’t be a perfectionist. I had to give up parts of things, maybe miss out on some of the kids’ [activities], or not do every graduate school thing. No matter what, you give up something. You have to realize that’s part of the game. Those are the choices you make.

How did your realization come?

It’s really a learning curve. I’m sure it took me years of going through it at least a few times to adjust and accept and move on. I don’t remember any lightbulb moment. I do remember after three or four months, I had a moment where I said, “I’m gonna give up grad school. I can’t do it.” But my husband egged me on and told me I had to finish. I had a lot of support. Without support from him and my parents, from everybody, I wouldn’t be here. My mom came, my in-laws came, with Rahul, with Nisha, with both. My husband was always there to support me, starting with the GRE book he gave me the day we got married. He takes great pride in what I do. He’s a character of his own.

Did your mom work?

Not in that sense. If you look at the life of my mom and me, they are very different. I don’t think she went to college. She finished school and was working part of the time as a matron of the boarding school where my dad was principal. She worked here and there, but her hands were always full with us five kids.

She’s very kind to everybody. She’s one of those people. I’m not the only person who says this; you can see it in her face: she’s a very kind soul, generous in terms of always looking for the good in others and smiling, very positive, never complains about herself. Even in this day and age when many parts of her body may not be working, when I ask how are you doing, she smiles and says, “I’m doing fine.”

Are there women in your life you relate to in terms of the breakdown of work to family?

When I socialize with family or friends, what people do [for work] comes up, but it’s more about you know, kids, or whatever connects us. What we know together. Usually when we’re socializing, my work rarely comes up.

That sounds like it could be lonely.

Sometimes I feel I’m not part of a certain life, per se. I feel I’m missing out on life. Believe me, I do feel like that. I try to balance. I do remember when the kids left home, I felt the balance fall through. I didn’t have another life besides work. I remember it. I had a time when I got so frustrated. My husband is not the kind who wants to travel or do things. I needed to find things to do. I started going to Zumba classes, belly dancing classes. I love dancing, so I started doing that. I like to do sport. I like to do active stuff. I’d tell people at work, “Let’s start doing something.”

I haven’t done enough in New York. I feel I need to do more for myself.

One day I got so frustrated with my life. I wrote this email to people at work: Let’s start a baseball team. We started playing ball once a week for four years. Baseball in the winter and summer. Some were good, half weren’t. We just formed a team and played. I felt quite proud of it.

I haven’t done enough in New York. I feel I need to do more for myself. I’m trying to get a balance, trying to find a balance, but I think just being in New York takes care of a lot of those things. Just being in New York, people come to visit you. That’s actually nice. The city does the work.

Was it hard being one of the few women at work with children? Did you feel aged out of the game?

Having kids didn’t make me feel older. Actually it just made me feel younger. Your perspective changes. You see things the way they do. Your energy drags you down, but overall I didn’t feel older. Everybody else around me was not even married. It should have made me feel much older but actually, it made me feel younger.

We tend to talk about aging with fear rather than straightforwardness, especially women. What lies ahead?

The woman comes into her own, in terms of femininity, confidence, life, everything, in the 40s. I feel that. And I’ve talked to other women who also felt the same. Maybe it’s that you’ve gone through different life experiences. You have that confidence. There must be some hormonal thing. Then menopause hits and it does become different. It’s not something I wanted, but it came.Your ups and downs, the excitement, they temper. In a way you become much more even-keeled. Sometimes it’s nice.

Mallika Rao is a writer in Brooklyn. Follow her! Twitter: @mallika_rao, Instagram: @childmalli.

Photo by Savanna Ruedy; you can follow her on Instagram @savannarr

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