Love for ballet brought Kamala and Yalda together at a dance school in Berkeley. The two girls were waiting to be picked up by their parents after class. When Yalda’s mother Mina Bissell reached the ballet school, she heard the two dancers speak about their scientist mothers. She fondly recalls, “One evening there was another little girl waiting to be picked up. The girl proudly told my daughter Yalda ‘my mom is a scientist. So, she may be running a bit late in picking me up’.”
Yalda tolde her the same. “My mom is a scientist too!” Shyamala came to pick up little Kamala. We said ‘hello’ and I got to know her. She told me that she worked in the Department of Physiology at University of California, Berkeley.
When Dr Mina J Bissell, a distinguished senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California met Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher and mother of Kamala Harris, at a Berkeley dance school, little did she know that her daughter’s little friend Kamala Harris would one day create history by becoming the first woman, first African-American, & first Indian-American Vice President of USA.
Gopalan Taught the Girls to be Proud of Who They Are
Kamala Harris refers to her mother Dr Shyamala Gopalan as ‘the most important person in her life’. The mother ‘whose shoulders I stand on’ has been a recurring theme in Harris’ political career.
The daughter of a senior bureaucrat in British India, Gopalan reached Berkeley for a PhD in nutrition and endocrinology at a time when hardly any woman in India pursued higher education. Discriminatory laws placed strict quotas on Asian immigration – no more than a hundred Indians were allowed into US per year. There were approximately 12,000 Indian Americans in the US at that time, a majority of whom were men. When 19-year-old Gopalan arrived, America was witnessing massive protests against the Vietnam War and racial inequity. Berkeley of the 1960s was the epicentre of the chaos.
Shyamala met Jamaican Donald Harris, a fellow Berkeley student and aspiring economist, at one of Berkeley’s civil-rights events. They got married a few years later and had two daughters – Kamala and Maya.
Iranian-American scientist Dr Mina J Bissell sparked a friendship with Dr Shyamala Gopalan Harris after that chance meeting at the ballet school. Both women had chosen barrier breaking paths by reaching Berkeley to become scientists. They both came from privileged backgrounds. “I was from Iran and she from India - entitled, educated women. Shyamala had money from her family in India. She had come from a well-to-do rich family in India, so she was teaching her girls about values of education and hard work, also telling them to be proud of being black and that it was okay. She later divorced her husband and raised the two girls herself,” shares Dr Bissell, who became a lifelong friend and colleague.
Gopalan Never Allowed Others to Define her Girls
By the time she filed for divorce in 1971, Dr Gopalan had completed her doctorate and was working as a cancer researcher in Berkeley. Her marriage to a black man had broken traditions of a conservative Indian society and so did her divorce.
Kamala Harris wrote in her memoir ‘The Truths We Hold’, “Her marriage was as much an act of rebellion as an act of love. Explaining it to her parents had been hard enough. Explaining the divorce, I imagine, was harder.”
Dr Gopalan never allowed society’s expectations to dictate her. Kamala Harris’s campaign credited her mother for ensuring that she and her sister never allow others to define them. Dr Bissell remembers Dr Gopalan as a mother who was devoted to her daughters, “She was a very proud person. Shyamala knew how to raise them, to let them know they are beautiful and wonderful. Even though she was very young when she was raising them, Shyamala was a terrific mother. The children were everything to her. Kamala loved her mom.”
How Gopalan Returned to Berkeley
Dr Gopalan was a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, when Dr Bissell was the head of the Cell & Molecular Biology division at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Dr Bissell recalls that they were up for a prestigious professor position in the 1970s when women scientists and professors were rare, “My understanding was she had been promised that she will get to stay at the Department of Physiology and if a job becomes available, she would be given that. They advertised for the job she was promised. NIH wanted women professors. But the head, Morgan Harris, wasn't honouring his commitment. She came to us and said that we all should sue them jointly. She sued them and they fired her. She then went to Canada.”
Kamala Harris was 12 years old when the family moved to Canada, where Dr Gopalan continued her research at the McGill University. Shyamala’s friend Dr Bissell remembers meeting her in Canada, “When I became the Director of the division at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and was invited to Canada, I went to meet Shyamala at her house. I said let's get dressed and go for dinner. We wore sarees and we went to a fish restaurant for dinner. She and I have a picture wearing sarees in Toronto.”
Their friendship has turned into lore. Dr Bissell ‘helped Dr Gopalan return to the US’ after a few years in Canada. Dr Bissell laughs while saying, “If I hadn’t brought Shyamala back (to the US), Kamala wouldn’t have been our VP today! I brought her back from Canada when I became a Director. I decided to not just bring her back, but also other men and women willing to work on the mammary gland. I wanted her to be at a real biology department. She was happy to be back at Berkeley.”
Dr Gopalan and Dr Bissell were fellow cancer researchers at California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for many years after that.
Kamala and Shyamala - Driven, Opinionated, Just
Founded in 1931 by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest O Lawrence, managed by the University of California, Berkeley Lab is where Nobel laureates and inventors conduct research across a range of scientific disciplines. Dr Gopalan was interested in estrogen-progestrone link and mammary gland. Dr Bissell speaks of the passion Dr Gopalan had for research, “She was in a building with animal facilities and I was in the next big building. She had so many animals (for research). I would go there to bring mice to our facility. When a person became a complete friend with her then she would collaborate with them, and published with them. She was a very good scientist.”
Dr Bissell finds many similarities and some differences between VP Harris and her mother.
"“Kamala and Shyamala – they are not necessarily different. They are both very driven. Shyamala was very opinionated but very just too. Shyamala was very sure of herself. She was not a public person. If she would have run for something, it would be difficult for me to believe that she would win! Kamala is very sure of herself and charming. Maya and Kamala, they both have done well.”" - Dr Bissell, Shyamala Gopalan’s Friend
Dr Shyamala Gopalan Harris was passionate about cancer research and worried about her research animals, recalls Dr Mina Bissell, “She stayed in the lab with me when I was the Director. After I stepped down we had more interactions. She had cancer but I didn’t know. Her concern was where can we get enough money for housing the mice to make sure they would live and be useful for research. I had got a grant and I told her ‘you will have enough funds for your mice’.”
The two friends Mina and Shyamala met for dinner one last time, “The last time I met her was when I went to see her at her Lake Merritt (Oakland, California) home, to take Shyamala out for dinner. I saw that she was packing. I think she knew she had cancer. But I didn't know. She kept saying - I am not going to be sad and I am not to complain. At that time I didn't know what she was saying that in reference to. Shyamala said to me her brother in India had been pushing her to get a scan. We had a nice dinner and I drove her back to her home,” remembers Mina.
Left Behind a Legacy in Cancer Research
Dr Shyamala Gopalan was 70 years when she passed away. She left a legacy in breast cancer research.
Daughter VP Harris paid a tribute to her mother on 5 February on World Cancer Day : “My mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, came to this country with a dream: to cure cancer. She became a breast cancer scientist and worked for decades in the lab to advance the fight against the deadly disease. It was a shock when she told us in 2008 that she herself was diagnosed with colon cancer - and a great sadness when she passed away a year later. I miss her every day.”
Shyamala Gopalan was also instrumental in making history as Kamala Harris wouldn’t likely be VP today without her mother raising her to strongly believe that there was no office that her daughter could not aspire to hold.
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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