Dr. Asha Kapadia

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Uncorrected Transcript

Interview with: Dr. Asha Kapadia
Interviewed by: Dr. Shalom Vineberg
Date: February 2, 2013
Archive Number:


SV: I am Shalom Vineberg. I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston and a retired Professor of Rehabilitation at the Baylor College of Medicine. I am interviewing Dr. Asha Seth Kapadia on behalf of the Foundation For India Studies Houston and the Indo-American Oral History Project in partnership with the Houston Public Library and the Houston Community College.
Dr. Kapadia is Emerita Professor of Biostatistics and formerly Professor of Management and Policy Sciences at the School of Public Health, University of Texas in Houston.
Dr. Kapadia, where were you born and tell us something about your early life?

AK: Well, I was born in Lahore, which is now part of Pakistan. I don’t remember my years in Lahore, because soon after I was born there was this Indo-Pakistan war business and Lahore became part of Pakistan, but that’s where I was born and my early childhood was very memorable.
I am one of five girls in the family. My parents, my father was an RAF Officer, which meant that he would get transferred practically every year from one city to another in India, so he hauled all of us there along with him.
So I went to several schools, some convent schools, some prep schools, some public schools in different parts of India. My early childhood memories are just wonderful, fantastic, happy, healthy, secure feelings I have about my early childhood.

SV: I understand you come from a very distinguished family. Tell us about your family.

AK: I come from a distinguished family in the sense that both my parents were highly educated and liberal beyond their age and time. So they had to raise five daughters and the emphasis was on education.
My father was an RAF Officer, but he had a PhD in Indian History and he was also a professor of English Literature at the National Defense Academy. He was a very literary person, had lots of publications, and he was also Indian’s expert in military history and reconnaissance warfare.
My mom had a degree in Chemistry from Madras Christian College and she was the only scientist in our family. So I grew up in a family with very educated parents and the emphasis was on education.
So all five of us went to colleges and graduate -- we all have graduate degrees. And even though people, our family friends, told my dad, why are you -- Dr. Seth, why are you wasting money educating your daughters, you need to save money for their dowry and so on, but my dad had a standard answer, listen, don’t worry about my daughters, try and not worry about them, I will find boys who will bring dowry, I don’t need to give dowry for anybody -- to anybody for that matter.

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SV: That’s an unusual attitude towards young women in India at that time, wasn’t it?

AK: It was, but that’s how my parents were, both of them came from very highly educated families and the emphasis was on education. So I remember that when we were growing up in college and so on, the results from the college final exams would appear in the newspapers in Delhi and people would ask, for instance, do you think Asha will pass or something, and my dad used to say, listen, don’t worry about her passing, I just want to know if her name is ranked ordered one or two in the list of people who passed the exam.

SV: Fantastic! When and why did you come to America?

AK: I came to America in 1963 and I got a Government of India Scholarship. There was only one scholarship for the whole country and somehow I landed with it. I applied to different universities in this country; Stanford, and Harvard, and MIT and North Carolina, I think.
I got into all of them excepting MIT. So I wrote to MIT, look, Harvard has accepted me, how come you haven’t? So within a week they accepted me, even though it was a couple of months before the school started and the application deadline was like in January, and I am talking about like June or July of that year.

SV: I see. Tell us about your academic trajectory. 

AK: You mean my mathematical type trajectory?

SV: No, you were accepted to Harvard and to MIT, which did you go to?

AK: I was accepted for both. I went to MIT and I was the only -- actually I am the first woman graduate of their business school. So I was the only woman in all the classes I took over there. It was a new country for me, new sets of people, different looking people and so on, and I was the only woman, but luckily everybody was just wonderful to me.
I stayed in the women’s dormitory. It was a new dormitory for women at MIT. There were a total of about 200 women there; now there are I think 4,000 or something like that.
And I had the best, best time of my life those two years, but I did not get admitted to their PhD program, so my roommate, a very aggressive woman, insisted, you can’t go back to India, your mother will be very disappointment, you go to Harvard.
So she packed a lunch for me and I went to Harvard, and it was I think May or June of 1965 and I went to -- knocked on the door of the Head of Department of Statistics at Harvard, and when he saw me he said, what can I do for you? I said I want to be admitted into the PhD program.
So I still remember his words, a very famous statistician telling me, young lady, you know the admissions deadline was January 15th and this is June. I said, yes sir, I know, that’s why I came personally.
And fortunately, I had very good grades in MIT and I had gotten an A++ in my Master’s thesis, which I carried with me to show it to him. And it was highly mathematical, so I showed it to him and he said, you know, why don’t you come apply next year? I said, no, I want to attend Harvard this year, starting this year.
So he called the registrar and the registrar said, sir, the admission deadline was 15th of January or something like that, and he said, no, but I have an outstanding student. I want her to come and fill out the forms.  
So I went straight to the registrar’s office, filled out the forms, and in two weeks I got this fat envelope, plus the Head of Department was the world’s leading statistician at that time, called me in my dormitory at MIT offering me a summer job. So it was a wonderful beginning at Harvard.

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SV: Yes. You mentioned mathematics along the way; you must have been as a child a wiz in mathematics. 

AK: No, what I am going to tell you, you will never believe. I was good in all the subjects excepting math, but I grew up in a family where daddy knows best, so my dad decided that I should study mathematics.
And it just wouldn’t come to me, and neither my mom, nor my dad knew much math, so I struggled so much that in my tenth grade I got the equivalent of C average, because I spent so much time struggling with math that all my other subjects got ignored.
So no college in Delhi would admit me, but my older sister being the star of the college that she was attending, my dad made her take me to the Principal of the college, what we call President over here, and she told me I am taking you to the Principal of the college, but on condition that you will not tell anybody in the college that you are my sister, because she was sure I was going to get real bad grades and I was suppose to study math.
After the midterm exam in the first year of college, I was in the Math major group, after the midterm the professor -- we were ten girls, it was a girl’s college, and the professor, who was Head of Department, came to the class and said -- he read out the names of the nine other girls and he said they can all major in math but Asha Seth can’t.
So I still remember crying and creating a scene and begging him and all, I can’t go home, my dad will be so mad, my mom will be so disappointed, please, please give me another chance to study math.
So he said, okay, so let’s wait till the final exams, which would take place in April. This I am talking about end of December or January. So I studied so hard that somehow it just came overnight to me, after all this struggle for so many years with math, it just came. So much so from coming last in my class in the midterm, I was number one in the class, and nobody believes it, but that’s what happened.
And after that I was -- I became confident and I was never second in anything.

SV: That’s a transformation, right? Wow! Tell us about your family more.

AK: Well, I am one of five girls. My oldest sister is a very well-known art historian, but after college she joined the Indian Administrative Service and she ended up being the Secretary of Health in the Indian Government. After that she became Chief of UNICEF and then became a member of the Planning Commission in India.
I was supposed to follow her example, she was number one in no matter what she did, and I am glad that she was that way because we had a role model to follow.
And then my other sisters, they are all highly educated, each one of us has at least two degrees. And what else?

SV: That’s plenty.

AK: And three of us have studied overseas, two of them got married early after their college, so they didn’t study overseas, but everybody is very fond of studying and reading and so on in my family.

SV: What brought you to Houston?

AK: Well, after Harvard I was working in a management consulting firm in Boston, and actually I forgot to mention that while I was at Harvard, after one-and-a-half years I got married. I met this gentleman who was a graduate of University of Pennsylvania and we had lots in common, he was from Bombay, and I got married.
And then after my PhD, one day I come home and he told me that he had taken a position in Houston, Texas. I had never even heard the name of Texas at that time. I mean, I had heard, but I never dwelled on it.
So very reluctantly I followed him like a good wife. I had my son here in 1971. And now I am happily divorced, because my marriage didn’t work, but my ex-husband and I are very good friends.
In fact, in the School of Public Health, Department of Behavioral Science would invite me to talk about my divorce, because they had never heard of such a wonderful congenial divorce.

SV: Fantastic! Tell me in coming to America, what was your experience in transferring from India to America?

AK: Well, there was not much cultural difference for me, because my dad was in the RAF and we went to prep schools in India and we had English food at home, at least few times a month. And we were taught by English nuns and so on, so we were familiar a little bit with Western culture.
There was not a big shock for me excepting that I was all by myself and nobody that I knew was there. That was the big cultural shock.
But the people were so nice, so nice. I didn’t realize I was so nice that they were so nice to me. Nobody in India had pampered me like that.
And when I was in MIT I was considered kind of exotic, because I wore my sarees and all that, and few newspapers would come all of a sudden -- newspaper people would all of a sudden show up in the dormitory or in my class to say that they want to take my pictures because there was going to be a write up about me.
So there were a couple of write ups like first Indian woman in business school in MIT or something like that, I don’t exactly remember. But I do remember two articles about me on the cover of the Boston Globe. First page I mean.

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SV: Any peculiarities of expression or pronunciation that dogged you from India into the United States?

AK: Yes, there was. English-English is a little bit different from American English, so in the beginning I didn’t quite understand the slang, but people were so helpful and so nice and several American families adopted me.
In fact, when I got married one of the American families had my wedding reception in their home. And the gentleman, the head of the family walked me down the aisle and so on. I had the best time of my life I can say. I mean, I can’t imagine anything better than that.
So the people made me feel very safe, very secure, very wanted, very loved. And my classmates in MIT were like that, the professors were wonderful, both at MIT and Harvard, so I have no negative memories of any of these places.

SV: How about your family now?

AK: Well, I have one sister who lives here in Houston and rest of my family, they all live in New Delhi. My parents are both deceased, but I have sisters and I have -- since I graduated from American universities, lot of my nephews came and went to Ivy League schools in this country and they are all over the world. So right now my family is in India as well as several parts of the world.

SV: And children?

AK: Children, I have one most wonderful son. He is the best son anybody can have. And he wanted to follow on his dad's footsteps and be a businessman, so he went to Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania.
Currently he is working as a Managing Director in a private equity firm in New York. And he is married to a wonderful lady from Atlanta and I have two grandkids. Wonderful, very cuddly, cute grandkids and I am very thankful for them.

SV: Fantastic! Do you envision future Indian immigrants having any problem in the United States?

AK: It depends on how you behave. If you take things for granted -- you can't take things for granted anywhere.
And secondly, you have to be very honest with yourself and dealing with other people.
So if you follow these two rules, this country has so many opportunities for everybody, for everybody in the world, and Indian people mostly who come here are educated, they are smart to begin with, so the opportunities are unlimited.
The other day I was reading, I think it was Businessweek, but I am not sure that of the Fortune 500 companies in this country, there are 13 CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies, 13 of them are of Indian origin. So the Indian people can't say that things are denied to us. It depends on how they behave and how they demand things and how hard they work, they are all doing very well.

SV: Yeah. Tell us about your travels.

AK: Well, I think if you want to see the world, academia is the best profession for you. I have been all over the world, Russia, Australia, you name it and I have been there.
And of course India I go couple of times a year. Greater part of my family is there, that's the biggest attraction.
And secondly, all the Indian Institutes of Technology, I have been invited to give lectures at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, the Indian Institute of Hygiene & Public Health in Calcutta, the University of Hyderabad, and of course Delhi University, where I am a permanent -- it's almost like I am permanent over there, because whenever I go they invite me to give talks, as well as kind of like supervise the doctoral dissertations of people in the Statistics Department, so I work quite a bit with them.

SV: Fantastic!

AK: Yeah. I enjoy, because I learn what they are doing, how they are thinking and so on, and it's interesting.

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SV: Yeah, yeah. How do you find comparing India to Texas like?

AK: In what respect?

SV: The academic university.

AK: Okay. The system of education in India is quite different from the system of education in America. In India there is no such thing as open book exams for instance, okay? You don't get credit for your midterms or midyear exams; it's only one last exam that you get credit for.
And the other thing that I found very strange was that when you are writing your doctoral dissertation, the dissertation supervisor is the first author in all your publication, which I found very strange, because here we do not insist on that, that's not part of the culture. If they put your name, no matter how much we work with the student, if they put your name on a publication, well and good, but we will never insist. But over there, they are like. So I found that a little bit difficult to accept, but that's the part of the Indian culture.
I go to India, as I said, a couple of times a year, and each and every time I enjoy. I learn a few good things and give a few lectures and get to see my family in the bargain.

SV: How are opportunities for advanced education comparing India with United States?

AK: See, in United States for advanced studies that means graduate school and above. Money is not a problem. If a student is good enough, I know that they find resources to support the student, whereas in India it is not so.
Very few scholarships are available to students, and with the scholarship money they can't rent an apartment by themselves and support, if they happen to have a wife and child or a husband and child and something like that.
So opportunities are considerably fewer, but the students in India seem happy and content. I don't go into their financial situations. Whole lot of graduate students, I mean the ones working on their PhDs are also working as lecturers in other colleges within Delhi for instance, and some of them have wives who are working as lecturers also. So they have double incomes and a good lifestyle they have, compared to when I was growing up.

SV: How do you compare the accessibility of college in the United States and in India?

AK: Okay, whoever wants to go to college in this country, they can find admission some place or the other, not necessarily Ivy League schools, even though everybody wants to go there.
The same thing in India, whoever wants to go, most generally they get in, but competition is a lot tougher, because there are fewer resources, in the sense there are fewer colleges and fewer universities, and the population is, everybody knows how much, a lot.

SV: Yeah. Getting back to you, what are your connections in the community and in the professional life?

AK: Well, I have been on the Board of the India Culture Center here, which is an organization which sort of brings the entire community together for cultural and educational events.
And then I was a member of the Planned Parenthood Association of Greater Houston. I was a member of the Board of Directors for eight years. I am now on the Board of the Harris County Hospital District Foundation. I am learning a lot over there.

SV: Any connection with academia in the present?

AK: Yes, since I am a Professor Emerita of Biostatistics, I am working on several doctoral dissertation committees. I am a member of the doctoral dissertation committees of several students. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to know that I have published a lot of papers since I retired. So that's very interesting!
Recently the former Dean of the Medical School asked me to join the Committee for Protection of Human Subjects, which is a university-wide committee here. So now I am on that Board and I am learning a lot about things like protection of human subjects and so on.
Every time I travel outside of Houston I am trying to see if this idea is being observed over there.

SV: Asha, you have been a charming and relaxed and informative interviewee and I thank you very much for that!

AK: Thank you!