Inspiring Stories – A Social Entrepreneur
When someone uses her education, knowledge and capability to make a difference in millions of lives, it is truly inspiring. There is no service greater than that which benefits mankind. Hers is among the most inspiring stories in my life.
Today, I am honored to introduce my friend, Gita Sharma, a warm and caring person and a social entrepreneur. She is an outstanding woman whose achievements prove her ability to initiate and establish novel projects. She has the ideas AND the commitment, drive & capacity to implement those ideas into products that benefit countless people.
If an entrepreneur may be defined as one who has an idea and the guts and perseverance to take it to the market and to the people and make a difference, Gita is one. A social entrepreneur.
With an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Genetics, Gita started her career as a lecturer. With 32 years of teaching experience (Microbial Genetics, Molecular Biology, Virology, Immunology, & Genotoxicity) and 42 years in research, she held prestigious top executive positions in companies that read like the who’s who of the pharmaceutical industry.
Her accomplishments are no less:
- One of the break through innovators of the country as creator of the first indigenous genetically engineered vaccine in India: Hepatitis B and Interferon, a drug for cancer.
- Produced ground-breaking results from research projects funded by the Govt of India.
- Developed eight indigenous technologies for vaccines/ protein products as import substitutes in the healthcare domain, of which 5 are in the market.
- Set benchmarks, ushering in the era of biotechnology in India, creating a platform for policy changes in science and technology in India
- Awarded the Best Woman of R.R district by Lions, Jaycees and Rotary Clubs for three consecutive years.
A glimpse into Gita’s background
Gita hails from a close-knit middle class family. Her father was a physician and her mother, a homemaker. She considers herself fortunate to have grown up in an encouraging and nurturing environment. She was a Cub, Girl Guide and NCC Cadet and this inspired her to be disciplined, instilling a sense of patriotism and a desire to be socially responsible and make a difference.
She has a degree in Bharathanatyam classical dance (Sangeet Natak Academy) and has also learned Carnatic music.
The turning point in Gita’s life came when she was in grad school and her older sister, also a scientist, was murdered in London, influencing much of what she did subsequently.
Excerpts from my conversation with Gita
What inspired you to become a scientist, Gita?
My quest for science, the desire to be a scientist began in school. Everyone assumed I would pursue medicine, following in my father’s footsteps. Cell function fascinated me. How does a cell know it has to divide now or stop dividing? What made it to decide to make an egg or just yet another cell? I realized these are queries answered by genetics and thus was born my love for Genetics. I joined the Masters programme in Genetics at Osmania University, Hyderabad, the first of its kind in India. An enthusiastic faculty fuelled my appetite for learning. This remains unquenched even today!
I know you are involved in a lot of social causes. Please share.
Around 1968-70, when the Telangana agitation disrupted our academic activities, my peers and I used these forced vacations to develop our neighbourhood and community. We formed the Benjamin Franklin Memorial Club and I was a charter member. We exchanged ideas and discussed and debated political and social issues. It is now a full-fledged youth club focused on development both at the individual and community level. Accomplishments include:
- Improving Malkajgiri’s connectivity, convincing the APSRTC to introduce several bus routes. The area has grown from a suburb to a mini city today.
- Organizing free health camps, seminars and workshops with eminent speakers for the community’s benefit and free coaching classes for students appearing for major entrance exams.
I continue to mentor the club. During this time I also became the core member of two organizations:
- Indian Women Scientist Association, Hyderabad where we took a number of programs on child health, labour, education to the less privileged. Some have become bills, policies.
- Stree Shakthi Sangathan, a proactive group for empowering women, dealing with dowry deaths and domestic violence on women and children.
Gita, you had an MSc and PhD in Genetics. Didn’t you aspire to go abroad?
Oh yes. US, the land of dreams! The Statue of Liberty’s torch beckoning everyone who dared to dream. My sister, also a scientist was murdered in London and this changed everything. I had a fellowship from more than one Nobel laureate and a US visa at a time when not everyone got one, but my parents, who always encouraged me did not want me to go. I just had no choice but to put them first.
I have no regrets though. In retrospect it was a good decision. I was destined to go down in the annals of the history of Osmania University as the founder faculty of the Department of Microbiology.
However, ten years later, I did go to the US. I was with the Rochester Medical School and then the world-renowned Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, flanked by Rockefeller Foundation Institute, New York Hospital and other Ivy League institutes. I rubbed shoulders with the who’s who in biology and was right in the middle of events that brought about a renaissance in biology: cloning, genetic engineering and all else. This laid the foundation for the sunrise industry, biotechnology which holds promise for health and overall economic growth of nations. I returned to India, eager to transform what I learned for my country’s benefit.
I am excited that you developed the Hep B vaccine. How did that happen?
When I returned to India, Mr Varaprasad Reddy, a Padma Shri awardee, approached me to make Hepatitis B vaccine. I took on the challenge and successfully enabled the launch of Hep B vaccine in a record time of three years while the pharmaceutical giants were dabbling for the last ten years. I set benchmarks, ushering in the era of biotechnology in India, creating a platform for policy changes in science and technology in India. I’ve enjoyed some major milestones in my career. But I always cherish those moments of working on the first product for my country.
Thereafter, during my stint in the bio-pharma industry from 1993 to 2010, my most significant contributions are the development of indigenous technologies as import substitutes in the health care domain.
Today, as I face the dusk of my life, I am keen on seeing my work reaching out to the public without the time lag involved from discovery to its appearance in the market. I develop important diagnostic tests for patients in Hyderabad at an affordable cost without compromising on quality.
“Knowledge enables Truth, Justice and Righteousness. Therefore, aspire for it, and acquire it. Knowledge begets all else of value.”
In 2010, Gita took voluntary retirement from her high pressure, high profile job to focus on her dream – to reach the common man with her work.
She takes care of Research and Development and enables genetics based tests at Tapadia diagnostics Pvt Ltd in Hyderabad, a family owned enterprise whose mission is to make diagnostics affordable and provide value added medical care to the underprivileged and the poor. Besides consultancy facilities through a panel of specialists, the lab has a Blood Bank as an NGO that offers free blood specially to thalassemics and a dialysis center that charges only Rs.300/- per dialysis and also actively offers free services for hematology disorders. The goal is to make diagnostics affordable and provide value-added medical care to the poor.
Outside her lab, Gita’s enjoys gardening, cooking, reading and time with family and friends. She has pledged to donate all her organs after her death and the remaining biological material to medical research.
Gita has a strong sense of social responsibility and is involved in developing her community, and supports social issues including child labor, women’s empowerment. She has been awarded the Best Woman of R.R district by Lions, Jaycees and Rotary Clubs for three consecutive years.
My special thanks to Gita for her kindness and patience, for sharing her life with me, in spite of her busy schedule.
Here are some gorgeous photos from her garden that she sent to cheer me up when I felt a bit low a few days ago.
Written for the Indiblogeshwaris Ladies Independence Special Contest in association with http://womenentrepreneursinindia.com/