A Farmer’s Daughter

I recently shared  this story at a Seattle Art Museum & Tasveer event in celebration of the “Migration Series” by Jacob Lawrence

I was born in Punjab, India – the eldest daughter of a Sikh farmer and housewife, and the granddaughter of a retired colonel and former sarpanch of the village. Life was great!

My grandfather wanted to make sure my sister, brother and I had bright academic futures and every opportunity – both were threatened by the violent political unrest in Punjab in the 80’s before and after the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. When the immigration papers arrived for the family, my grandfather didn’t waste a minute getting us on a plane headed west. We landed in Cleveland, Ohio during the cold early spring of 1987, the year I turned 10.

My family just after leaving India. Top left to bottom right: mom, dad, little brother, me and little sister.

Without a doubt, the first few years were tough. To save money in our first year in Cleveland, our family of 5 lived with my aunt’s family of 4 in a 2 bedroom apartment. My siblings and I spent the first summer in Toronto to make things less crowded, away from our parents with our aunts and uncles.

While both my parents worked blue collar jobs – sometimes more than one at a time – to make sure we all had what we needed, I was busy trying to fit in at school. I couldn’t stand out more if I’d tried – I had waist-long hair, a dad with a turban and a mom with colorful clothes. Sadly, I didn’t appreciate the value and beauty of being different until I was much older.

I excelled in school fitting the South Asian stereotype and got made fun of for having a slight smell of curry from my mom’s cooking. Curry wasn’t as popular a smell in the 80’s as it is now.

Growing up, I teetered between two worlds – the one at home with desi food, tight family structure, traditions and rules and the one at school, with its promise of freedom, individual self-expression and new way of life. Both were at odds with each other. My American friends didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to cut my hair. And my parents didn’t understand why I wanted to go over a friend’s house or a party.

My dad would later tell me that he and my mom didn’t know what was right or wrong so they just said no to everything to protect us. I guess I get it.

Beyond the struggles of my parents trying to make it in a new country and my own personal identity crises, things weren’t too bad. We never felt like we weren’t wanted or perceived any threats.

That all changed on 9/11. I had just moved to Seattle for Graduate School and suddenly I felt very brown and had a sudden, strong urge to display the American flag wherever I could – my apartment, my car, etc – to make sure people knew I belonged.

We heard the news of a Sikh man being killed in Arizona in a hate crime. Not long after that, a man approached my dad at a gas station and said, “You look like Osama Bin Laden.” Without skipping a beat, my dad responded, “You look like Timothy McVeigh.” The other customers inside the store cheered.

At the Migration Stories event at Seattle Art Museum on April 13th. 2017. Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series panels can be seen in the back.

I always laugh, with pride, when I tell this story to my friends and talk about how hilarious my dad is. But we weren’t laughing when it happened – knowing that my dad was an easy target with his turban.

The thing about my dad is that he’s a proud man. Though I was worried about fitting in with my long hair, he never considered cutting his hair and removing his turban. He still defiantly, and maybe a bit dramatically, says, “I’d rather have my head cut off than cut my hair or remove my turban!” Maybe it’s a bit extreme, but I really respect and am proud of his decision to determine his own identity.

And now, with recent political events and a renewed climate of hate, I worry again about my father. He’s now a real estate agent and sometimes does open houses for his clients. The idea of my dad being alone in a house in the county with some sign outside with his picture on it scares the hell out of me. I actually don’t even know if his picture is on the sign but that’s the image that’s in my mind.

I talked to my brother and sister about it and both of them responded defiantly that we can’t live in fear. We have to live our lives and continue doing everything we do, which I agree with in principle. Both of them changed their tune after the recent violence against South Asian’s in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the country.

My dad on the other hand, stands strong with his identity as a proud Sikh American. As do I – with my own identity as an immigrant, an American, an optimist and proud daughter.

#WeBelong

Senator Patty Murray Responds

Dear Dr. Dhillon:

Thank you for contacting me regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Your opinions on this topic are powerful and deeply felt, and please know that I respect them.

The ACA has helped a record number of Americans obtain insurance, but there is still more work to be done to improve our health care system. Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress are currently attempting to go backward instead of forward. They want to repeal the ACA without any kind of replacement, ripping health care away from millions of Americans and creating chaos throughout our whole economy.  I believe this is absolutely the wrong path for Washington state families and our economy.

I am ready like I always have been to talk about ways to expand access to quality, affordable health care coverage. But first, Republicans in Congress have to show that they are willing to put families ahead of politics. Please rest assured, I will continue to fight to protect access to health care for families in Washington state and across the country.

Again, thank you for writing me about this important issue.  If you would like to know more about my work in the Senate, please feel free to sign up for my updates at http://murray.senate.gov/updates.  Please keep in touch.

Sincerely,

Patty Murray
United States Senator

Dear Senator . . .

Plea from a cancer survivor and scientist to save the ACA and science funding

 

Dear Senator,

My name is Kiran Dhillon and I live in Seattle, WA (98102). I am writing to ask you to help save the Affordable Care Act and to strongly support increased funding for scientific research.

In March 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news was devastating but I powered through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I even met you at a fundraiser for you in West Seattle soon after I had lost my hair to chemotherapy. At the time, I was a scientist at the Fred Hutch, studying chemotherapy resistance in breast and ovarian cancers of all things. I had excellent insurance and acquired only a few thousand dollars in debt from medical bills. Now as I wait for my 2 year mammogram on March 10, I find myself filled with an enormous amount of anxiety. My cancer was found early so the prognosis is very good but I still can’t help being nervous before the big test. This time around, the prospect of repeal of the Affordable Care Act has added another dimension to the anxiety. I have insurance now but if I ever had a recurrence, would I be denied coverage due to preexisting conditions if President Trump and Republicans had their way with the repeal of the ACA? This thought terrifies me. Would I have to make decisions based on my financial ability instead of my medical needs? Would I become a burden for my family?

As a scientist and someone who now promotes scientific research as the Director of Scientific Programs for the Rivkin Center for Ovarian Cancer, I’m also alarmed at the prospect of reduced funding for scientific research. Men and women who are currently battling or have survived the horrible ordeal of cancer are depending on scientists across the nation to continue to work hard until we have a cure for these deadly diseases.

The United States has been the leader of research and innovation since the time of Benjamin Franklin—a tradition that continues today. I believe there are (at least) two major factors that have contributed to our success and both are under threat with the new administration. First, we invest more at the federal level on research and development than any other country. Second, our immigrant past and present ensure a diversity of ideas and approaches that are required to solve difficult scientific, medical and engineering challenges. The policies and tweets of the current White House administration threaten both federal funding for research and development and immigration and diversity. We will surely not remain leaders in innovation and research if these trends continue.

Senator, we need you and your colleagues in both the Senate and the House to fight for us. Fight for cancer survivors like me. Fight for the ACA. Fight for science. Fight for immigrants. We also promise to do our part. As you have seen we have organized ourselves. You and your colleagues will hear from us. We will provide you the public support you need to help defend our freedoms and rights to equality, healthcare and a healthy environment. Fight for America.

I appreciate your help and ask that you please send me a response with a commitment to protecting the ACA and funding for research. Thank you for your time and considering my request.

Sincerely,

KD Signature

Kiran Dhillon, PhD

Hutch United Fellowships Awarded!

I’m excited to announce that the first Hutch United Predoctoral and Postdoctoral Fellowships have been awarded to Vasundhara Sridharan and Dr. Athea Vichas! The Fellowship is the result of efforts by a large team of dedicated volunteers, the Fred Hutch Development team and senior Fred Hutch Leadership. The awards signify a very important step towards increasing scientific diversity at the Fred Hutch.

Read more about the awardees in the Fred Hutch News Service piece written by Bill Briggs:

http://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/center-news/2016/07/hutch-united-fellowships-diversity-aml-grant-research-genomic-sequencing.html

Hutch United Fellowship Program Launched!

Fellowship team
Hutch United members who have contributed to the fellowship include, left to right, Laura Martinez, Dr. Laura Gaydos, Dr. Tony Abeyta (founding core board member and former co-chair), Bish Paul (member), Dr. Kiran Dhillon (founding core board member), Heather Noble (member), Jackie Lang (current core board co-chair), Andrea Casasola (former core board member), and Erin dela Cruz (current core board co-chair). Photo by Bill Wright / Fred Hutch News Service

Two years ago, four of us – founders of Hutch United – started work on a dream project to develop and acquire funding for fellowships that would fund scientists from backgrounds typically underrepresented in science to bolster their chances of success in their chosen path and, in turn, increase diversity in the scientific pool. We wanted this to be an inclusive fellowship that would support traditionally underrepresented , women, LGBTQ and international scientists. Due to the efforts of a large team of Hutch United members and support from Fred Hutch Development and Fred Hutch CEO Gary Gilliland, the dream has finally become a reality! We’re proud to announce two fellowships, each for $100,000/year, that will support 1 postdoc/medical scientist and 1 graduate student for two years each. Funds can be used for salary/stipend, tuition (grad students), benefits, conference travel and research. The first round of Hutch United Fellows are expected to be announced this summer.

Read more about the fellowship in this Fred Hutch News Service piece written by Bill Briggs:
http://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/center-news/2016/05/hutch-united-fellowship-program-seeks-applicants.html

 

THE BLACK AND WHITE OF BREAST CANCER (Reblog)

Here’s a piece I co-wrote with my colleague Kathy Briant on the disparities in survival from breast cancer. Next week, Hutch United hosts two Diversity Seminars that will include discussion on efforts of cancer research centers to decrease such disparities. The post was originally posted on the Hutch United Blog.

Photo credit to Wally Gobetz.  This picture has a creative commons attribute license.
Photo credit to Wally Gobetz. This picture has a creative commons attribute license.

The color of your skin may impact your risk as well as your prognosis for breast and other types of cancers. It sounds absurd, but it is true.  For example, last year, a study published by the Sinai Urban Health Institute and the Avon Foundation for women reported that black women are 40% more likely to die from breast cancer than are white women, even though mortality rates from the disease are decreasing overall. In some cities in the US, they’re up to 70% more likely to die. What’s worse is that this disparity in mortality is growing in a majority of the cities analyzed.

Disparities in cancer incidence and mortality rates are not a new phenomenon and they exist for a number of reasons—and the problem isn’t exclusive among black women. In fact, regardless of race or ethnicity, disparities are often seen among people of low socioeconomic status and people who live in areas with limited or no access to effective health care (e.g. Native American women living on Indian reservations and Hispanic women living in rural Yakima Valley).  These medically underserved populations tend to suffer from a disproportionate burden of cancer when compared to the general population (NCI Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities).

Why does such disparity in breast cancer mortality exist?

Reports from Avon and the Fred Hutch highlight some of the underlying socio-economic and biological causes of this disparity. Differences in both access and the quality of cancer screenings may explain some of the disparity. Medically underserved women may have less access to “cutting edge” screening technologies. Additionally, there may be differences in both the access and quality of cancer treatment for them because they may seek treatment at local hospitals as opposed to cancer centers that not only offer treatment, but conduct research and can offer access to novel therapies. Further, distrust of the healthcare system due to historical injustices may keep black and other minority women away from traditional sources of healthcare for longer, which delays diagnosis and treatment and negatively impacts survival.

It’s also possible that genetic differences, however slight, may also contribute to differences in survival. For example, higher obesity rates known to occur among black and Hispanic women may place them at higher risk for breast cancer. It’s important to note however that this doesn’t explain differences in treatment once a diagnosis has been made. Another reason for worse outcomes is that black and Hispanic women tend to get a more aggressive, and less treatable, type of breast cancer.

Increasing trust and removing barriers to access

thompson
Photo credit: Bo Jungmayer

Dr. Beti Thompson, Director of the Health Disparities Research Center at Fred Hutch offers some solutions to reduce the existing disparities. One much needed solution is ‘connecting with the community’ and building trust. Historical abuses, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study, continue to have repercussions in the present day.  These types of cases laid the foundation for distrust and fear of the medical establishment by minority populations.

In addition to building trust, Dr. Thompson and others suggest education to dispel cancer myths and empower community members to make informed decisions about cancer prevention and screening.  Equally important is increasing access to screening by offering appointments outside of normal business hours for the working class, bringing mobile mammography units to communities with limited access, or partnering with the Breast, Cervical and Colorectal Cancer Early Detection Program to offer low-cost or no-cost mammograms for those who are uninsured or underinsured. In addition to lowering screening costs, bringing screenings to communities can result in increasing access to early diagnosis for even the most isolated communities.

Addressing the critical need for increased participation of minorities in clinical trials

Though major advances have been made to understand the genetic basis and treatment of breast and other kinds of cancers, most of these studies have been conducted in white women (and men). It is critical to understand if findings from these studies are broadly applicable to patients across all ethnic groups. There has been a push in recent years to expand studies to other minority populations but progress has been slow.

Recruitment of minorities in clinical trials still lags due to a number of issues including recruitment problems and fear among patients due to past abuses discussed above. Perhaps recruitment can be improved by developing culturally relevant communication tools that are tailored for communities. Minority community members may not be aware of the importance of participating in trials—treatment may benefit them individually, but it also helps advance research to develop cutting edge therapies.

Additionally, different tools or approaches may be needed for the recruitment of patients of different ethnicities. An increase in the diversity among the clinicians and other caregivers who are attempting to serve patients from different communities may ameliorate the recruitment and trust issues. This paired with more cultural training for non-minority clinicians may decrease potential biases that interfere with recruitment of minority patients in clinical trials.

As scientists and clinicians, we help provide solutions to the myriad of health problems that plague humanity. However, it is also imperative that we strive to bring equitable access to those solutions among people from different socio-economic and cultural walks of life. The problems are grand and the solutions are not simple. Building trust has to occur at the level of the community and that is slow work, but we can do it.


 

Kiran Dhillon is a postdoctoral scientist working to identify mechanisms of chemotherapy resistance in BRCA-associated breast and ovarian cancers at Fred Hutch. In addition to being a breast cancer researcher, Kiran is also a recent breast cancer survivor. She is a founding member of Hutch United and a member of the Fred Hutch Diversity Council. 

Katherine (Kathy) Briant is a bilingual (English/Spanish) and bicultural community health educator with the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) National Outreach Network.  She works with Dr. Beti Thompson of the Health Disparities Research Center at Fred Hutch using a community-based participatory research approach to implement and evaluate community interventions that address issues around health disparities. Kathy is also a member of the Fred Hutch Diversity Council.

Fifty Nifty United States: A Citizenship Story

As of September 3, 2015, I am officially an American! Laila Kazmi, a producer at the local PBS station KCTS9 asked me to write about my citizenship experience for their Borders & Heritage: Stories of Immigration project. I’m sharing the piece with you here. You can read the original post on the KCTS9 website. You can also listen to my reading of a version of this piece as part of KUOW 94.9 (NPR)’s Storywallas, a storytelling event inspired by the Moth. The recording also has other stories shared that night, with mine appearing in the last 15 minutes of the recording.

Fifty nifty United States from the 13 original colonies ….

This is the song that was stuck in my head as I stood in the FedEx office putting together all the required materials for my United States Naturalization application. The giddiness and excitement had caught me completely by surprise. I had resided in the country for 28 years and had felt like an American for at least half of that time, despite being a green card holder. I had viewed getting my citizenship as a formality for “officially” becoming an American, and of course, gaining the right to vote. Yet I felt so excited that day that I sang the 50 states song all the way to work from the FedEx office. Perhaps getting my citizenship was more than just a formality and I couldn’t wait to get my U.S. passport. Reflecting back, it was a long journey getting to this point though.

I was born in India and moved to Cleveland, Ohio when I was 9 years old. I had known for about a year that my family was going to move to “Amreeka” but I had no idea what that actually meant. I knew that my grandfather was worried about the political climate in Punjab, India at the time. The fallout from Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards and the ongoing separatist movement in Punjab had made India unsafe for Sikhs in the 80s. My father’s farm was on the other side of the city from our house, and I remember we would all wait by the window until we saw him pull up in the tractor and breathe a sigh of relief, especially on days when curfew had been enforced due to shootings or other unrest.

My family a few years before our move to the US

My dad’s sister had been living in the United States since the mid-70s and had filed paperwork for us to immigrate since the early 80s. After anxiously waiting for the better part of a decade to receive our invitation to the U.S., it took only a few months for us to leave the only home we had ever known. Despite the dangers in India, I know it was an incredibly difficult decision for my parents to leave everything familiar for a new country with very different customs and ways of life.

Within a few days, I went from being one of the popular kids in my grade and school to being a complete outsider with a strange accent and strange way of doing things. Over time, my accent slowly disappeared and I made lots of American friends, but those changes didn’t alter that feeling of not belonging.

It wasn’t until my first (and only) trip back to India 11 years later that the feeling would change. I had just finished college and decided to go on a trip with my dad. I was so excited! We spent the first two days in the hustle and bustle of New Delhi before going “home” to Punjab.

Though reconnecting with family we hadn’t seen for years was great, the experience was far from the homecoming I had expected. The place that I had expected to feel so familiar, didn’t feel like home at all. And though I dressed in a traditional Punjabi salwar-kameez, people treated me like a foreigner. Sadly, my once fluent Punjabi now resembled that of my ABCD, or American-Born-Confused-Desi (“Desi” is a slang term referring to people from South Asian countries) friends, with a healthy interjection of “Okay” and “Yeah.”

Once again I was an outsider with a strange accent and a strange way of doing things. When I questioned customs pertaining to religion or the roles of women in the household, I was seen as rude or disrespectful. On the opposite spectrum, people thought the questions I was asking were cute or funny — I just couldn’t say the right thing. I missed the openness with which we can talk about almost anything in America. Though I enjoyed the trip, the culture shock I experienced was completely unexpected!

After returning home to the U.S., I went through a sort of identity crisis — confused about where I belonged and how I saw myself.

It took me a while to understand, but I finally realized that accepting a place as home was more about a decision I needed to make and less about others accepting me or making me feel at home. I had spent my youth hanging on to India as home — I hadn’t realized how much of an American I had become. And despite its imperfections, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the world.

My need for holding on to my Indian identity was borne out of living in a close-knit family, and as is the case for many immigrants, a fear of losing integral aspects of a cultural heritage.

The turning point for me was moving away from home to Seattle for graduate school soon after that impressionable visit to India. It was the first time I only had to worry about myself, which felt selfish at first, but I soon learned to call it “self-loving.“ I loved the taste of American independence that accompanied a focus on individuality! I wasn’t afraid of being labeled “too American” anymore. I was proud of it. I soon learned that I didn’t have to choose to be one or the other — I was a good mix, loving my American individuality with a healthy appreciation for the close familial bonds of my Indian culture. I finally could stop questioning who I was or where I belonged.

As I sat in the auditorium along with people from 15 other countries at the Seattle Office of Homeland Security, waiting to take the oath to officially become an American, I felt an enormous tide of emotion well up inside me. President Obama came on the screen and talked about the hard work and sacrifice it took for us to be there and how we should feel not only pride but a sense of duty to our new country. It might sound overly sentimental, but I felt it. I also registered some sadness at not being an Indian anymore, but most of the emotion I was feeling was indeed pride! I couldn’t wait to pull out the small American flag in the packet I had been handed and wave it at the end of the ceremony. The official told us that the only office higher in the land than President was that of citizen. “We the people,” begins the Constitution. We the people, indeed! I had finally come home.

Cancer gets personal

Time to get personal. Here I share a piece I wrote for the Fred Hutch News Service about my own recent experience with cancer and how the associated hair loss invoked questions of identity. Though many of my friends and family know about my diagnosis, I apologize to those who are finding out through less personal ways.

http://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/center-news/2015/06/cancer-researcher-with-breast-cancer-hair-identity.html


 

It’s more than hair

A cancer researcher with cancer writes about family, identity and being outed by her own hair

By Dr. Kiran Dhillon / For Fred Hutch News Service

Editor’s note: Dr. Kiran Dhillon, a 37-year-old postdoc studying chemotherapy resistance in breast and ovarian cancers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, was diagnosed with breast cancer herself in March. This is the first installment of an occasional series chronicling her experience.

sli-150603-kiranjit-dhilonAs long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with my hair. I was born into a Sikh family and keeping all hair in its natural form is of paramount importance to practicing Sikhs, who believe in keeping the body in the state that God created it. Men, as well as some women, wear turbans to keep their hair tied and clean, and also as a symbol of their Sikh identity. This is what I was taught growing up in India and then after we moved to the United States. 

But as I got older, I had other ideas about what I wanted to do with my hair. In short, I wanted to cut it and have cute haircuts like my friends. Knowing the importance of hair for my family, especially for my father, I couldn’t quite muster the courage to ask. I knew how he felt about it.

As time went on, somehow my mother got permission for my sister and me to finally be allowed to shave our legs so gym class wouldn’t be quite so embarrassing — kids can be mean and not very understanding of other cultural norms.

A few years later, I finally began to broach the subject of cutting my hair with my father. I came up with all sorts of excuses about why I should be allowed. I told him my thick hair, which came down to my waist, was so heavy it gave me headaches, that it was so long I sat on it and that it was too hard to manage. The one reason I didn’t use was, of course, that I wanted to cut my hair to keep it how I wanted  — me, not someone who lived long ago and wrote the religious texts. 

Finally, my father gave in.

Admittedly, my first haircut wasn’t a pretty one. My sister cut it straight across about halfway up my back with a pair of dull scissors. But it didn’t matter what it looked like. I finally felt liberated!

In the years since, I’ve never let it get much longer than shoulder length. I half-joke with my friends that when it gets to be a little below my shoulders, it reminds me of my “oppressed period.”

I’ve tried all sorts of hairstyles over the years — bobs, perms, flipped out, flipped in, layers and bangs. But the one hairstyle I’d never had the courage to try was bald.

That is about to change.

In the midst of my obsession with how I wanted my hair and why, the one thing I never considered was that I would lose the option of choice, for which I fought so hard. 

Cancer took that choice away. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on March 10. I think, or rather hope, I’m one of the lucky ones. I found the beast early (stage 1) during a self-exam and have a very good prognosis. I had surgery and still have to jump through the hoops of treatment — chemotherapy and radiation.

I know all about breast cancer — my job is to study chemotherapy resistance in breast and ovarian cancers at Fred Hutch. I know the statistics and facts, but when my doctor called me to tell me I had cancer, my first thought was “I’m going to die.” In that moment, there was no room for rational thought.

Now that I’ve had time to get used to the diagnosis and have a lot more information after the lumpectomy, I’m fairly convinced that I’ll have a normal(ish) life after treatment. Life has no guarantees but I’m cool with my odds (being a scientist really helps here).

The thing is, even being really optimistic about the outcome, I still have to live through the challenges of treatment. Right now I’m a third of the way through a 12-week course of chemotherapy.

I’ve been lucky that life has remained fairly normal so far. I’m working pretty much full time, keeping up my normal social butterfly schedule, and I’m not experiencing any uncomfortable side effects (yet).

Unless of course if you count the impending hair loss. I’m finding this one difficult to deal with since my hair has long been a symbol of my struggle to fully become who I am.

Right before I started chemo, a friend cut my hair into a pixie style, the shortest it’s ever been, so that when it falls out, maybe it would be less traumatic. I’ve been yanking at my hair since the start of chemo last month trying to see if it’s falling out. Finally, last week, strands started coming out every few times I pulled at it.

If I had to estimate, I would say I’ve lost around 100 hairs so far. It seems silly to be counting. I think I’m doing it to reassure myself that I haven’t lost that much. My plan is to let it thin out until it doesn’t look good anymore and then buzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

I’ve been thinking about why it’s bothering me so much. There’s, of course, just simple vanity and I’m not embarrassed to admit that. It’s not about being some self-defined standard of beautiful, but more about not looking normal. Maybe it’s more about me looking in the mirror and seeing what looks like a sick person. I think that’s what worries me most. Now other people who don’t know what’s going on will know something is wrong as well. I’m being outed by my own hair.

The one thing cancer hasn’t taken away from me, despite some of these petty worries, is my sense of humor and optimism. Turns out there are actually a few things I’m looking forward to once my hair goes: I’m not going to have to shave my legs all summer. As another friend reminded me, getting ready in the morning will be a breeze with hair styling time cut to zero. Also, I’ll finally have the courage to try out some really short hair styles once it starts to grow back. 

When I first learned my diagnosis, I worried about how my precious lot of niece and nephews would react as my appearance changed. They do know I have an “owie,” but they’re too young to fully understand everything that’s going on. I didn’t want to scare them when I lost my hair so I decided to make a game of it with them. I told them I’m going shave my head for fun. And, if it didn’t look good, I’d wear some wigs. I even had them try on the wigs. They thought it was hilarious. Phew!   

In all of this, my father, the man who I was once afraid wouldn’t understand my desire to cut my hair, is one of my biggest supporters. He was at my side during my first chemotherapy treatment even though I know it was difficult for him to see his little girl in a hospital bed. It was that day that he noticed my pixie cut and we talked about the fact that I would lose my hair. He reassured me as confidently as he could that it would grow back.

It reminded me of when I was a teen, after that first haircut my sister gave me, which upset my grandmother. It was my dad who came to my defense then, relying on a Punjabi expression that came from the farming community where my family had once lived: “It’s our home grown crop,” he told her. “We can grow it as often and as long as we want. It’ll keep coming.”

Meanwhile, he sees me, the real me, aside from my hair. And I’ll learn to do that too.

Schedule for 3rd Annual Seattle Genetic Instability and Cancer Symposium Announced

SGICS LogoWe organized the first Seattle Genetic Instability and Cancer Symposium (SGICS) three years ago as a means to bring together local (Seattle-based) scientific talent focused on, as the title implies, genetic instability and cancer. The objective was to learn about local (unpublished) research and meet the researchers in an effort to increase dialog and collaboration. This year, marking the 3rd year of SGICS, will feature 14 short talks and 22 poster presentations selected from submitted abstracts. The talks and posters will focus on the following areas of research: Genetic Engineering & Cancer Biology, Chromosome Metabolism, DNA Damage Response, Genetic Instability & DNA Repair Disorders.

Dr. Aziz Sancar, Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the  University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is this year’s Keynote Speaker. Dr. Sancar will be talking about his extraordinary work on ‘Genome-wide analysis of human global and trancription-coupled excision repair of UV damage at single-nucleotide resolution.’

SGICS is a grassroots event organized by a team of graduate students and postdocs from Fred Hutch and UW School of Medicine. SGICS will be held on June 15th, 2015, from 8:30am to 6:30pm at the Orin Smith Auditorium at the South Lake Union Campus of the University of Washington. Check out the website for the final schedule and more information.

40 Years of Research at Fred Hutch

40year pic

From Left to Right: Dr. Matthias Stephan, Dr. Denise Galloway, Dr. Fred Appelbaum, Dr. Kathi Malone, and Dr. Kiran Dhillon

September 2015 marks the 40th Anniversary of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch). How has science and the environment in which it’s conducted changed over the last 40 years. I recently got invited to take part in a conversation with some very talented scientists at the Fred Hutch to reflect on these questions. Here‘s a link to excerpts of the conversation that were published in the 40th Anniversary edition of Quest Magazine.

http://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/quest/2015-02/five-fred-hutch-scientists-talk.html

Scientist, Communicator, Innovator

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