Dr. Shyamala G. Harris Scientist, Teacher, Civil Rights Activist and Mother A world-renowned scientist, a mentor, an activist, a mother. Despite her 5-ft stature, hers was a commanding presence characterized by a sharp wit, keen sense of humor and endless depth of knowledge. She embodied an independent, confident and curious spirit that led her to travel alone to the U.S. as a teen; forge a career as a brilliant breast cancer researcher; join the Civil Rights Movement; introduce a generation of students of color to careers in science; and, through it all, raise two remarkable young women, by herself. That same, triumphant spirit was present when Dr. Shyamala G. Harris, after a courageous battle with cancer, passed away on Feb 11, 2009. She was 70. Born in south India, Shyamala's childhood was rich with music, culture, art and travel. As a young girl, she won a national gold medal for singing classical Indian music. The daughter of Rajam and P.V. Gopalan, Shyamala's father served as a diplomat in the Indian government. Through his travels, Shyamala developed a deep appreciation for cultural diversity and egalitarianism. Precocious and determined, she started school as a toddler and received her undergraduate degree at Delhi Univ. when she was just 19. She left home to study abroad at UC Berkeley earning her Ph.D. in nutrition and endocrinology at age 25. Known by her colleagues as innovative, insightful, generous and loyal, Shyamala spent her early career conducting research at Berkeley's Dept of Zoology and Cancer Research Lab. She returned to the U.C. campus for the last decade of her work at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. Her talent as a breast cancer researcher took her to universities around the world, from the Univ of Illinois and Univ of Wisconsin, to France, Italy, and a 16-year tenure at the Lady Davis Inst for Med Research at the Jewish General Hosp and the Dept of Med at McGill Univ. in Montreal. She made substantial contributions to the field of hormones and breast cancer, publishing her research in countless journals and receiving numerous honors. A frequent Nat'l Inst of Health peer reviewer and Federal Advisory Committee site visit team member, Shyamala's distinction led to her service on the President's Special Comm'n on Breast Cancer. One of her greatest contributions was her seminal work in isolating and characterizing the progesterone receptor gene in a mouse-a momentous finding that transformed our understanding of the hormone-responsiveness of breast tissue. Her discovery sparked a plethora of advancements regarding the role of progesterone and its cellular receptor in breast biology and cancer. Perhaps Shyamala's most enduring legacy in science stemmed from her efforts as a teacher. Dozens of students populated her lab through the years. Often of color and the first in their families to pursue careers in science, these students eagerly sought Shyamala's mentorship, which often stretched beyond the lab to encompass lessons in life. Whether helping a student negotiate the UC bureaucracy, find an affordable apartment, or enjoy a home cooked meal, Shyamala was there. She took tremendous pride in their love of learning and later successes, as many grew to take on leadership positions in medicine and science. And then there were the quiet acts of kindness she performed without fanfare or notoriety, such as counseling and comforting African-American women battling breast cancer. Her passion for science was augmented by a fervent commitment to social justice. While a student at Berkeley in the '60s, she became fully engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, leading to a lifelong fight against injustice, racial discrimination and intolerance. She instilled these values in her daughters, who in turn have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of justice and equality - one as the first female elected District Attorney of SF and the other as vice president of Peace and Social Justice at the Ford Foundation in NY. But for all she accomplished in her life and career, the roles Shyamala cherished most were of "Mommy" and "Grandma." She relished every moment she spent with her daughters and her self-described "greatest gift," her granddaughter. The void Shyamala leaves is deep. Missed and loved by those she left behind, her spirit lives on in her daughters, Kamala and Maya; son-in-law, Tony; granddaughter, Meena; mother, Rajam; brother, Balachandran; sisters, Sarala and Mahalakshmi; niece, Sharada; and many extended family members and friends. A Memorial Service will be held at 3 p.m. on Mar 28 at the Bellevue Club, 525 Bellevue Ave., Oakland. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Breast Cancer Action, 55 New Montgomery St., Ste 323, SF, CA 94105.
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Published in San Francisco Chronicle on Mar. 22, 2009.