Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Chase your dream with passion

This is an excerpt from the keynote address of Dr Susan Punnen Grandy at the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Providence College. She spoke about her journey from small town Coonoor to the higher echelons of the global Pharma industry 

Dr Susan Grandy in the centre with Sr Principal on her left and Sr Assumpta on the right

"Start with a dream and pursue it relentlessly…with passion. The path that you take to reach your dream may not be easy. But the road will be scenic and interesting.

Ø The road to success is not a path sprinkled with rose petals.

Ø The road to success will have detours and some potholes too.

Ø The speed of your journey will vary along the way.

Ø You may have to slow down due to traffic congestion and accidents. At other times you can cruise along or race at 100 miles an hour as if you were on an  autobahn  
Ø On the road to success you stop at different places and have different experience, some good and some bad.

Ø On the road to success you meet people who can impact the direction you take in your journey. Some people are with you for a short time while some others are there throughout the journey.

Ø A sense of achievement will be the signal that you have attained your goal.

Ø  Don’t stop dreaming then. Continue to strive for new heights and newer dreams.

Susan’s story

This is the story of the journey I made; today, I stand on this stage in disbelief. The last time I was on a stage at Providence College; I was playing the lead role in William Shakespeare’s Othello. The auditorium was a tin shed.  Never in my wildest dreams did I envision this moment, that I would be back on the Providence College stage as a chief guest, after 40 years.

I have stood on many stages and at podiums around the world giving my research lectures at international scientific meetings. But being invited to this stage, to speak to you and participate in the Golden Jubilee celebration of Providence College, my old alma mater, is truly an honor…It seems I have made a full circle to come back to where it all started 

A door closed

I left Coonoor and India as a teenager. After completing my Pre-University Degree from Providence College, my dream was to attend medical school and become a doctor. However, I was met with hurdles. While applying for a medical seat in Kerala, I was told the Pre-University course I had undergone was not recognized. I would have to get a two year Pre-Degree course or apply after my Bachelors degree. This, of course, was very disappointing and needless to say frustrating for a young 17 year old.

I did not let this deter me from my dream.

I decided to pursue my Bachelors Degree and kept my options open to other possibilities.  I applied to Universities in Kerala, and at the same time I also applied to Universities in the US for the Pre-Med Program.
My determination paid off as I not only got admission to Upsala University in New Jersey, US, but I also received a full 4-year scholarship.  

How did I get the scholarship? 

The University Admissions office was so impressed with my Pre-University grades from my education at Providence, and my TOEFL exam (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores. They said that they had never seen such a high English test score from a foreign student. Little did the University in US know that English was the language that I was most familiar with; and I owed that to my education at St. Josephs’ and Providence.

When one door closed God opened another

I started chasing my dream with the university admission letter in hand and $8 in my purse, (that was all a student was allowed to carry at that time). I boarded an aircraft for the first time in my life. The flight was from Cochin via Bombay and Saudi Arabia; it made a detour to Paris for an emergency landing (because of a fire on the plane) and finally to New York. I landed in New York about 18 hours late.

There was a person waiting at the airport holding a placard with my name on it. He was sent by Upsala University to welcome me. He helped me with my luggage and to make a call to the folks who were supposed to pick me up, who were not at the airport because all roads were temporarily closed in New York due to torrential rain which lashed the city. The roads would open again only at 7 am. It was four in the morning; everyone had left the airport even the janitors who clean the airport. I sat there alone waiting for daylight. You can imagine how scared I was, a 17-year old alone at the John F Kennedy International Airport.

But things got better; and I started my student life and education in America. I had joined Upsala University a month late due to visa delays, so I had some catching up to do.  A student counselor had enrolled me into courses that I had never even heard of or could even spell like Calculus. But I was in good hands. All the professors were very helpful, especially my Math Professor who took me under his wing and coached me so that I caught with the rest of the class.

The Pre Med Program

I soon realized that the “Pre-Med Program” was actually four years of college to earn a Bachelors in Science . This was not the 6 month pre-med Program that I had envisioned where I would move automatically into a full- fledged medical education. In the US, the minimum degree you need to apply for medical school was a Bachelor’s degree. So now, I realized that becoming a doctor would take a little longer.

I worked hard for the next few years. I was on the Dean’s list every semester, and graduated with distinction in three and half years instead of the mandatory four. Once again I was excited that I could now apply to medical school in the US. I took my MCATs (Medical Aptitude Test) and proceeded to apply to medical schools and was told that since I was not a US citizen admission would be very difficult.

Another door closed

I had come this far and I must not give up my dream now. So I applied for a Masters Program and received admission in the prestigious Seton Hall University in New Jersey. While studying at the University one of my professors introduced me to one of his old students’ who had graduated with a Master’s and then enrolled into a PhD Program in Pharmacology at the Rutgers University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ. I had never thought about going for a doctorate degree. As I learned more about the PhD Program it occurred to me that Pharmacology was all about Medicine. You had to study everything a medical doctor studied and then you had to do original research and discover new science.

This intrigued me. So I decided to apply for the PhD Program in Pharmacology at Rutgers University of Medicine and Dentistry. Only three students are selected each year into the program. Well, I was selected and I started my PhD Program.

Another setback

Two months after I joined the PhD program I was in a very bad car accident. My car was destroyed and I almost lost my life. With the help of highly trained doctors in the Emergency room I was patched up and then spent the next few weeks in the hospital intensive care unit. My face was completely smashed. I had temporary paralysis and could not walk. I thought my life and my academic pursuits were over. With medical care from doctors, nurses, and rehabilitation with physical therapy and friends I slowly recovered my ability to walk. I spent the next few months gaining my strength and recovering back to health. I was now afraid to drive…

But I picked myself up and went back to the University…I had missed a few months of my first semester classes. The University Professors and my classmates worked with me and I caught up on all the courses and exams I had missed and I was back in full force pursuing my PhD.

The first two years was all course work for the PhD Program. When that was complete I had to go through an oral exam with a panel of professors who would decide if I can proceed to become a candidate for the PhD. I passed. So the next phase was to pick a professor and select an area of research that you want to pursue.

I picked Dr. Hreday Sapru, a Neuro-pharmacologist in the Neuroscience Department. He was a terrific mentor and guided my research in his laboratory the next two and half years. My research was mapping out the neural pathway and neurotransmitters that controlled blood pressure. My Professor was very disciplined and strict. He wanted me to present my research findings at International Scientific Meetings and publish in scientific journals. By the time I stood in front of my Defense Committee to defend my PhD thesis, all work was published and there were no questions left un-answered.

Donald Rice, Professor and leading neuroscientist at Cornell University in New York was on my defense committee. He was very impressed. Right after, he shook my hand and congratulated me on my research; he offered me a post-doctoral fellowship in his laboratory.

Two weeks after I got my PhD, I got married. I had met my husband John Paul Grandy, MD when we were both at the medical school. I then did my post-doctoral fellowship with a National Institutes of Health Federal Grant.

I took a year off after my postdoctoral fellowship to have my daughter Samantha and stayed home a few months be a mom.