By Chinami Tajika
Northwest Asian Weekly
Lakshmi Gaur grew up in Jeypore, in Orissa, India, during the 1950s. Her personality developed during a childhood surrounded by family — aunts, uncles, a grandma, her father, and a sister.
As a little girl, she had the habit of saying, “I’ll be a doctor.”
Today, Gaur is not far from her original goal. She is a senior scientist at Puget Sound Blood Center and an affiliate associate professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Even though she is a researcher instead of a medical doctor, she said she loves her job.
“Doctors can’t research a lot. A doctor should see patients. I realized that being a researcher can focus on thinking how to save people more,” Gaur said.
Gaur writes a lot of reports in her office at the Puget Sound Blood Center. “My job is — first — explore donor-recipient phenotyping — second — identify rare blood types — and third — type multiply transfused recipients,” said Gaur, smiling. “But we are always missing the blood donation from Asians. Please tell people to donate their blood.”
Gaur earned her bachelor’s degree from Amrit Kapadia Najeevan Women’s College, her master’s degree from Andhra University, and a doctorate from Punjab University in physical anthropology and human genetics.
For Gaur, a woman from another country, it wasn’t easy to get a career in medicine in the United States. She wanted to study in the U.S. because she was unhappy with the doctorate program in India.
She described her childhood as pampered. “Everyone in my house was looking at me and my sister. Everything that I said was accepted naturally.”
However, studying abroad for my Ph.D. was too expensive for my family’s capacity, even though they wanted to support me.”
Studying abroad cost $13,000 at the time. Her father was an engineer and was considered upper middle class on paper. But because he had many people in the house to support, money was sometimes tight. Her family managed to give her $500 to bring to the U.S.
“My father told me that he could buy the air ticket for me to go to the U.S., but not any tuition.”
However, she didn’t give up. Even before she started a doctorate program, she had already decided what she would do after earning her degree — molecular genetics. She had always wanted to study molecular biology, and she felt she would do well in human genetics.
She applied for a Fulbright Fellowship, writing about transferases.
She got the scholarship and came to the United States alone in 1979 to participate in a pre-doctorate program. However, even with a spot to study in Charleston, S.C., she felt the U.S. did not necessarily welcome her as much as she had imagined.
“There were always pressures as a woman and as a foreigner,” Gaur said. She saw a lot of segregation between whites and Blacks in the United States, which was incomprehensible to her.
“Once, one white woman told me, ‘What interesting color you have.’ How should I have answered? Thank you? Why do they compliment me on my color? Why do you compliment me on my looks?”
Gaur can recount a lot of negative experiences she has had in the United States due to race relations.
However, she says she loves the United States.
She describes the U.S. as the friendliest country in the world. “I would choose the U.S. to live in. We can speak. We have a voice.”
Gaur married in 1980 and moved to Seattle to study in the University of Washington’s microbiology department where she finished her doctorate.
Her first post-doctorate fellowship was in Texas, with the Southwest Foundation. She worked at the Max Planck Institute in Tubingen, West Germany, and in North Carolina before coming back to Seattle to work at the Puget Sound Blood Center.
“I’m going to write several more reports in order to finish the ISBT (the International Society of Blood Transfusion) so that I can keep researching,” said Guar of her immediate goals. “Researching takes a lot of money.” The ISBT is a 70-year association of scientists from more than 100 countries.
“The most influential thing for me to aim at becoming a doctor was my mother’s death,” said Gaur. Her mother passed away of cerebral malaria when she was 6 months old. “My father always told me that no one should die from medical disease,” said Gaur. Her mother died 24 hours after she was diagnosed.
“I don’t remember when I started to say it, but I kept saying ‘I’ll be a doctor’ for as long as I can remember,” said Gaur. ♦
Lakshmi Gaur is being honored by the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation as a Pioneer in Healthcare on Oct. 1. Meet her at our banquet on Oct. 1. For more information, visit pioneers.nwasianweeklyfoundation.org.
Chinami Tajika can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.