Otago set researcher on track for success

University of Otago researcher Vimla Patel. Photo supplied.
University of Otago researcher Vimla Patel. Photo supplied.
Renowned researcher Vimla Patel began her academic career at the University of Otago in the 1960s. She left Dunedin in 1968 and has never been back. But she would like to. Carla Green reports.

Vimla Patel will be the first to say it: she has done exceptionally well in her life.

Despite being uprooted more than half a dozen times in her 60-plus years - sometimes across the globe - Dr Patel has won accolades everywhere she goes.

Dr Patel grew up in Fiji but when she was in high school, she moved to New Zealand to improve her English.

She attended Southland Girls' High School in Invercargill.

It was cold, she says.

"I excelled because all I did was study. I didn't socialise much.''

She had to do well - her visa required her to achieve good grades or be sent back to Fiji.

She was aware of it - it hung over her, she said.

She worked hard and she loved school.

New Zealand schools taught subjects that were not available at that time in Fiji - physics, chemistry, maths, even botany - "the kinds of things necessary to get into university''.

"I wanted to apply to med school. Pre-med. So that's what I did.''

Dr Patel's application to study at the University of Otago was accepted and she moved to Dunedin.

She was one of the only women in the programme. Dr Patel said she was "conservative''.

In her first year, she lived at St Margaret's hostel.

She did not drink.

She did not party, although others did, "even Indian girls and other girls who came there.

"And it's very easy to do, because we came from such a constrained environment and suddenly you have the freedom to do what you wanted.''

But she did not join in.

"I knew the risk. And I kept saying, ‘there's going to be a day that I'll have that freedom'. I wanted it! It's not that I didn't want it - I wanted it. And I wanted it on my terms.''

Dr Patel met her future husband in Dunedin.

He was an Otago medical student.

It was "a quasi-arranged marriage'', she said.

"Times were different then''.

Her husband announced he wanted to continue his studies in Australia.

It was the first in a series of long-distance moves throughout Dr Patel's 20s, mostly driven by her husband's studies and career.

Finally, they landed in Montreal.

At that point, Dr Patel had already had her first child and she wanted to stay put - at least for a while.

In her moves across the Tasman, then the Pacific, Dr Patel had left a trail of half-finished degrees.

An aborted master's degree at Otago became a postgraduate diploma.

In Melbourne, she began another master's degree in biochemistry, but left before she could finish it.

In Montreal, she was determined to finally get a PhD.

"I sat my husband down and says, 'OK, I want to do a PhD'. And he says, 'OK, do a PhD ... it's up to you. If you can manage the house, manage the two kids, and do a PhD, then go ahead. But if you can't, then wait until the kids grow up, and then do a PhD'.

"I said, 'no way - too late'. So I thought, I would just do everything together.''

Once Dr Patel finished her studies, she was quickly handed a tenured associate professor position at Montreal's McGill University, then promoted to full professor.

She eventually became the director of McGill's cognitive science programme.

She was doing research she was passionate about, looking at how doctors make decisions about diagnosis and treatment, and how to use that information in training medical students.

Her husband was working as a doctor and an academic at that time, also at McGill.

Then, in the late 1990s, Dr Patel found out her husband was sick with colon cancer.

Eighteen months later, he died.

Dr Patel decided she could not live in Montreal any longer.

It was just too hard, with her husband gone, she said.

So, yet again, she decided to move.

For the first time, it was entirely her decision.

"I took [a position at] Columbia, because Columbia was the closest to Montreal,'' she said.

Columbia - a prestigious university in New York City - was about seven hours' drive from Montreal.

"Once again, [I] decided to close my eyes and move forward, because if I don't, it's not going to work,'' Dr Patel said.

"So I moved forward, and I pushed and pushed forward. And I was extremely successful there, too.''

She worked at Columbia for seven years, still doing research on doctors' reasoning, and on how technology affected reasoning.

She was a professor in the bioinformatics department.

Dr Patel met her future second husband in New York.

He was chairman of the bioinformatics department.

Then, after seven years in New York, the news came.

"Lo and behold, believe it or not, it always comes down to spouses,'' Dr Patel said.

"He decides he wants to go to Arizona State University to be their dean of medicine.''

Dr Patel went with her husband and was appointed chair of biomedical informatics at Arizona State University.

She liked Phoenix, Arizona, at least in winter.

Summers were too hot.

So when her husband was offered a job in Washington DC, she decided to move back to New York, taking up a position at the New York Academy of Medicine.

She now divides her time between Phoenix and New York, escaping the bitter New York winter.

Dr Patel returns to the South Pacific often - she still has family in Fiji.

She has been back to New Zealand but has not set foot in Otago since she left and is not entirely sure why.

"I really need to do that one day.''

"The memories I remember of Otago was studying late at night in cold, cold weather. Nothing really is open - everything is shut.''

She remembered being stressed by her studies and the conditions of her visa.

But that was not all she remembered.

"There would be this little Chinese guy, called Tui, and he used to make this fish and chips thing ... and I was vegetarian, so I could only eat the chip part of it.

"On a cold night, there's nothing nicer than warm chips in my hand,'' she said.

Thinking about that memory - the cold night, the warm chips in her hand - Dr Patel came to a conclusion.

"Sometimes our memory gets suppressed about certain things, and you need to jog them if you go and visit.

"So I deliberately haven't visited [Dunedin], because I'm too scared to see what I might find. But I think I should,'' she said.

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