Vice President recalls growing up around science and learning from her mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, who was “profoundly passionate” about the gift to improve the human condition
By Geeta Goindi
Bethesda, Maryland, January 27, 2021 – It was a visit fraught with nostalgia for Vice President Kamala Devi Harris as she fondly remembered her India-born mother, the late Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, who frequented the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Harris together with her husband Douglas Emhoff received their second dose of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine, co-developed by NIH, Tuesday afternoon.
Describing her visit to the renowned medical research center as “coming full circle”, the vice president said it was a “luxury” to be there on just the fifth day of the new administration. “NIH was such a huge part of my youth as this place that my mother went all the time and was very excited to work”, she told reporters.
Dr. Gopalan, a breast cancer researcher, served as a peer reviewer in the biochemical endocrinology study section at NIH. Harris has called her “the reason for everything”.
The daughter of immigrants, her mother hailed from Madras (present-day Chennai) while her father, Donald Harris, is from Jamaica. Her parents split when she was a kid and both she and her younger sister, Maya Lakshmi Harris, were raised by her Tamilian mother who came to America as a student at the age of nineteen.
“It was really my mother who took charge of our upbringing. She was the one most responsible for shaping us into the women we would become. And she was extraordinary”, Harris writes in her memoir, ‘The Truths We Hold: An American Journey’, one of two books released in 2019.
In her second work, ‘Superheroes Are Everywhere’, she writes, “My mom was a superhero because she made me feel special. She believed in me and that helped me believe I could do anything”.
At the NIH event, Harris said, “My mother had two goals in her life: to raise her two daughters and end breast cancer”.
Growing up in California, the siblings knew that their mother “was going to this place called Bethesda” and they would accompany her after school and on weekends. The Tuesday trip was clearly an emotional moment for both sisters.
“Kamala Harris on tv getting her second vaccine dose at NIH, talking about Mommy and her cancer research work with NIH back in the day”, tweeted Maya Lakshmi adding a teary-eyed emoticon.
Harris revealed a little known fact: her first job was cleaning pipettes in her mother’s lap. She would clean the tubes used in the laboratory at NIH for measuring and transferring quantities of liquids from one container to another.
“And I grew up then around science in a way that was taught to me by someone who was so profoundly passionate about a gift, which is the gift that scientists give to us, in that their whole reason for being is to see what can be unburdened by what has been”, she told the illustrious gathering at NIH. “Their whole reason for being is to pursue what is possible for the sake of improving human life and condition. It is such a noble pursuit”, she said.
Describing the second dose of the Moderna vaccine as “relatively painless”, the vice president urged everyone to take the coronavirus shot when it becomes available to them.
“It is really pretty painless, and it will save your life”, she said. “These scientists, these medical professionals, doing the work of pursuing what is in the interest of the public health, have been a big part of the vaccine that I just took. They — through the research, through the dedication – created something that will save your life and the life of your family and the community”, she stressed.
“So, thanks to all who are doing this great and important work. Let’s make sure everyone gets a vaccine”, Harris said.
The same afternoon, President Joe Biden announced a nearly 16 percent boost in vaccine deliveries to states over the coming weeks. The new administration expects to protect some 300 million Americans by the end of summer or early fall.
At the vaccination, Harris was joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, as well as other leading scientists and researchers.
Turning to these NIH staff members, she said, “I know what you do. I know that you work around the clock with those experiments that have to be checked on every few hours, and they don’t care about what time it is on the clock. I know the work you do and the collaboration that is required. I know the work that you do reviewing grants because, of course, some of the most significant scientific research have been publicly funded. That’s what my mother did: she reviewed grants”.
The vice president noted, “The importance of NIH is that this is about an essential function of government which is to provide for the public health. The work that happens here has one goal: to improve public health. And the importance of the pursuit of the work that happens at NIH is it’s not about profit; it’s about the people”, she said.