Read an exclusive excerpt from At the Wheel of Research, the biography of Dr Soumya Swaminathan - Hindustan Times
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Read an exclusive excerpt from At the Wheel of Research, the biography of Dr Soumya Swaminathan

ByAnuradha Mascarenhas
May 24, 2024 01:51 PM IST

The former chief scientist at WHO recalls her early years, the deep friendships she forged, and strategies she evolved for coping with pressure.

The scenic beauty of Geneva and its surrounding areas held allure for the WHO staff. Among Soumya’s friends were Dr Mariângela Batista Galvão Simão and Dr Princess Nothemba Simelela from South Africa. Soumya and Mariângela, who hails from Brazil, hit it off quickly and along with Dr Simelela, fondly known as Nono, planned weekend getaways whenever it was possible to get away from work.

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Geneva is surrounded by majestic mountains and an hour’s drive takes one to the French Alps, the highest mountains in Europe with innumerable hiking trails. Soumya, Mariângela, Nono and others would rent a chalet and bond over food and treks. Soumya’s eagerness to explore places was infectious and soon she was leading a group of intrepid hikers with their warm jackets, sweaters and closed-toed shoes.

‘Oh my god, Soumya used to walk and walk and walk. She was super energetic,’ recalls 67-year-old Dr Mariângela. ‘I eventually got fed up with hiking up and down the mountains and would let the others go while I rested at the chalet in the Alps,’ she says.

Nono remembers how Soumya would keep trying to convince her to climb the mountains. ‘I am fragile and simply love South Africa’s sunny skies. But Soumya would make me walk in the snow and climb mountains in snow shoes that did not fit. We were once walking on a slippery stretch of road on our way up to the mountain and we kept laughing all the way. We truly behaved like kids. Soumya was really such fun. Returning to the base of the slope all cold and shivering, she would insist that we get ice cream,’ she says.

During their stay in Geneva, the women would often get together and go out for dinner or have late night chats. Two years had flown by just like this. Since their appointment in 2017, the WHO team had been working closely with each other and their experiences both at work and beyond had helped them forge strong friendships, a balm when one is miles away from one’s family.

Mariângela and Soumya shared similar interests as both of them had prior experience in the field of HIV/AIDS. ‘Despite our cultural differences, Brazilians and Indians have a lot in common,’ Dr Mariângela reflects. Both Mariângela and Soumya were usually on the same page on most public health issues, and often brainstormed on ways to improve access to medicines in the developing world. This was probably because both had experience working in the government and dealing with complex policy matters in their own countries.

Soumya made friends easily. Remembering the fun times, she speaks about a WhatsApp group called the ‘Amazing Ladies of Geneva’ that was created by women from different organizations. It had senior women from the Stop TB partnership, WHO, UNAIDS, Global Fund and other international organizations. ‘This was more of a social group. We bonded well discussing what was happening globally and in each other’s lives,’ says Soumya. All we needed was a place where we could meet and share our happiness and our pain, she says.

(Excerpted with permission from At the Wheel of Research by Anuradha Mascarenhas; published by Bloomsbury; March 2024)

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