It is not often one gets to a woman who is a first! Dr. Anbu Kili Chetty is not only the first woman from her community to become a doctor, but is married to a very successful statistician and is the mother of Dr. Raj Chetty who was awarded the MaCarthur Genius award. With six grandchildren, three of who are pursuing undergrad and graduate studies at MIT, Harvard and Northwestern, Dr. Chetty continues to practice medicine and do active research at the Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Chetty shares the secret of her life with Lokvani.
After completing medical School in India, she got married and came to the US and started doing internship, residency and fellowship in Pediatrics and Pediatric Pulmonology in Wisconsin and New York. She then moved back to India and worked ias Professor of Pediatrics at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Since her return back to US, she works at Tufts University Medical Center as Pediatric Pulmonologist. She has done extensive research on lung diseases in children and has several publications to her credit.
I met Dr. Chetty at the temple's Karthik Nrityanjali where she came up to congratulate my students on their performance. Her simple and down to earth nature and her love for the children touched my heart deeply. A true inspiration for every woman!
You are the first doctor in your community. What motivated you to become a doctor?
I always did very well at school. I was admitted to Alagappa College in Karaikudi where I was studying economics and statistics. Those subjects did not interest me as much as Biology and I really wanted to study medicine. My father was very much interested in promoting education in girls. When he realized I have lot of interest in medicine he helped in all possible ways that were available in those days. Even though it was not common for girls to get this much of an education, my father knew I liked school and wanted to encourage me as much as possible, so that I could pursue any field that I wanted to study.
Did you encounter any resistance as you chose to study medicine?
Yes. Yes. Many relatives said it is high time to get married and settle in life instead of going for higher education and discouraged me. But my father stood firm against all of them. My husband always talks about how this is one of the reasons that he wanted to marry me – because it was not common for girls my age to be pursuing higher education. So even though everyone said I should stop doing school and get married, it turned out that school is what helped my father to find a suitable son-in-law for his daughter!
What was it like to be one of the few women attending medical school?
It was wonderful. It was my first time meeting women from diverse backgrounds – religious and linguistic. The boys used to tease us sometimes. Mostly we were treated like princesses and taken good care of.
Could you tell us a little about your work in medicine?
I work in pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital at Tufts medical Center. Specifically, I work on pulmonary issues. A large number of infants are passively exposed to tobacco smoke in their home environment.
This is a known risk factor for development of asthma symptoms which may persist into adult life. Understanding the mechanism by which passive tobacco smoke exposure alters lung structure and function during infancy will allow development of new therapies to prevent and/or
treat this problem. These problems are more when children are born premature and treated with high levels of oxygen. We do basic research to study both these problems in premature babies who have a tendency to develop asthma later on life.
What made you decide to specialize in this field?
My mother used to have Asthama and that helped me develop an interest in this. As for becoming a doctor, I love helping people in all possible ways from childhood. You can say this is an inherent nature in some people. I would say I got it from both my mother and father. If my grandchildren get sick I am often the first person my daughters call. I felt that as a doctor I could make a big difference.
What advice do you have for children who may suffer from Asthama?
Stay away from dust and other allergens. One special note I would like to make for Indian children is that if the drug given to suppress the allergy is making you sleepy and tired, adjust the dose. Take less of the medication. Indian children are smaller and hence the medication may need fine tuning.
What challenges if any have you faced in your career path?
Medical school in India is very challenging both economically and physically. Fortunately for me economic issues were minimal. I was always a little poor in physical health. That was challenging but never interfered in my studies and I stood first always in classes and got a gold medal for distinction in Medicine in the final year. My father was extremely happy as any one can imagine. I always had the support of my family, so I was able to overcome the challenges. My mother had tremendous amount of patience that taught me to overcome several problems in life.
You moved back and forth between India and the US. What motivated you to do that and how difficult was it to make the move?
Our two daughters were born while we were in the US. We felt at that time that it would be important to raise them in India. The move to India was easy since I got a position at AIMS and my husband at Indian Statistical Institute. Our son Raj was born in India. By the time my children were older I felt education in the US was better and hence decided to move here.
I am a risk taker and have lot of mental strength compared to my physical strength and as I always say do not hesitate “JUST DO IT”; if you keep postponing your decision on many small things in life, you may never have one. Of course on major things in your life you have to think carefully before you make a final decision.
We came here without any job offers. It was a risky move. However things worked out and I am really pleased with the education that I was able to give my children. My daughters are pursuing their research at the Emory University School of Medicine. Raj is at Harvard and has been very successful. My one granddaughter is at MIT. Another is doing her PhD at Harvard. My grandson is doing his undergraduate at Northwestern.
By the way my risk taking takes on many forms. My name is Anbu Kili. However since people in the US found Anne easier to pronounce I decided to use that name at work. My son’s name is Natraj. That was also complex and hence I decided to change to Raj. I always like to solve the simple issues so that we can focus on major things.
What lasting impact do you expect your work to have on the world?
I hope my research can shed greater light on Asthama. I have enjoyed being a researcher and I am proud that my children and grandchildren also took a great interest in research. I hope they will contribute in ways that will make the world a better place to live in.
You are a grandmother and yet you continue to do research. What keeps you going?
I am interested in learning. There is no age limit for learning new things. That interest keeps you young and active. That interest in learning keeps me actively doing research in my area of research interest at Tufts.
Medicine is a popular career with Indian Americans. What advice would you give to youngsters who may want to follow your career path?
Work hard. Always work towards helping people in need, not only for our people, but also for people around us. Think very often that God who provided us various opportunities and we must always think of giving back to society.
You are married to a successful economist and raised three very successful children, one of who has won the McArthur Genius Award and become the youngest tenured professor at Harvard. How did you manage to make it all work?
I spend as much time at home after the work. I was a Professor of pediatrics in a prestigious institution called All India Institute of Medical Sciences in India. I had enough help at home so that I could spend the time with children instead of spending time in house work. Whenever I had to do house work all children including my son will come forward to help in every way; that is true even today.
I love my work and my family. The greatest joy for me is to see my family and my friends happy. Thus I never felt housework was work - it was my joy.
What was it like to know that your son has won the McCarthur award?
Oh it was an unbelievably happy and proud moment. He and I were having lunch in China town when the call came to him. He in fact ignored the call but since it was persistent he picked it up. When he shared the news with me, we both started crying. After being very grateful to Lord Muruga, I expressed my desire that he use his skills to do good in the world.
What parenting advice do you have for parents of boys?
Please give freedom in their thinking and be a role model so that they will follow your ways always.
What parenting advice do you have for parents of girls?
I would give the same advice to the girls also. My father made no distinction between the way he raised his girls and boys – each was encouraged to work hard and be compassionate. So I would give the exact same advice for girls as I would for boys.
What advice do you have for women trying to achieve a work-life balance?
I think Dr. Atul Gawande methodology of having a checklist for life is very useful. You must introspect ad decide how you want to live your life. You can make a decision such as I will come home by 5:00 pm. Once you make that decision stick to it. Good planning goes a long way.
How do you enjoy being a grandparent?
I enjoy spending time with grandchildren. They are lot of fun, and have carefree life and make others happy when they are around. The younger generation has a different way of thinking always. It is enjoyable to me and I agree with most of it, as long it is not against my core values for family and friends. Two of my granddaughters are in Boston, so I get to see them very often, and the others are in Atlanta and Chicago. Each one has a distinct personality and work hard towards a particular goal . That makes me very proud of them. Our family gets together fairly often so I get to see them all and spend time with them.
Could you tell us about your charitable interests?
I have lot of charitable interest. I help in small ways always without focusing on religious activities, not that I am not religious but I believe God is within us. For example I recently collected funds to support building a Christian Missionary Hospital in Ambur Chennai. It serves poor community locally where the population is mainly Muslims.
Who are the people who you admire?
My father is definitely an important mentor. He was a freedom fighter and a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi. He was very forward thinking and taught this value to me and my siblings. I admire Dr. Alagappa Chettiar who built women’s college in a small village in Chennai many years ago.
What kind of support have you valued most from your husband?
My husband has helped me to raise our three children and we have been together through so many moves to different countries and jobs and phases of life. He supported my wish to continue being a professional throughout and continues to support me today.
What is you personal philosophy of living life?
We are blessed in many ways, we should help others by paying back what we received.
What was your happiest moment in life?
There have been many happy moments, it’s hard to choose. Becoming a doctor, having my three children and watching them grow up and be happy and successful, and then seeing them have children, and getting to now spend time with my grandchildren.
When there were low points in your life what advice did you value the most to pull through?
Pursuing education when it was not common for girls was difficult, but my family supported me, so I was able to succeed. Financially it also wasn’t easy when we were just starting out in the US, but our parents worked hard to provide for us, so we worked hard to provide for our children.
Do you have a fitness routine that you would like to share?
I do exercises on the treadmill, like to go walking with my husband and my children and grandchildren, and even go canoeing on the Charles River when the weather is nice.
Do you have a spiritual routine that you would like to share?
I sing prayer songs, and in general try and am thankful for the opportunities God has given me and the ways in which he has blessed us all.
Do you have a beauty routine that you would like to share?
My eldest granddaughter bought me Roselip oil, which I like to use on my face. I enjoy going shopping with my daughters and granddaughters.
Do you have favorite book?
I read quite a bit. The book I love most is Poisonwood Bible, a novel by Barbara Kingsolver
Do you have a favorite composer?
I love Bharathiyar. I like Indian semi-classical music as well. Bharathiyar songs bring my early memories since my father and mother had the opportunity to work with Bharathiyar’s family and get to know them closely.
Do you like to cook? What is your favorite dish to make?
I enjoy cooking. My granddaughter’s favorite dish that I make is spicy fried fish.
Can you share a fun fact about you ?
I was trying to take dance classes in Boston! I also tried making wine at home from pineapple juice! My granddaughter and her friend thought it is so funny. My husband and I maintain an energetic lifestyle, and we both like trying new activities.
Words of Wisdom
I would like to quote Kingsolver. “I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room.” ? Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible