Continuing a Legacy of Science, Wisdom, Giving and Friendship: The Shanthi V. Sitaraman Intestinal Pathobiology Endowment

Shanthi V. Sitaraman’s generosity couldn’t be limited by walls, job titles or clocks. As a celebrated physician scientist at Emory University with numerous honors and accolades, her lab discoveries shed important light on the causes of and treatments for inflammatory bowel disease, which causes more than 100,000 hospitalizations each year in the United States. But she worked just as hard to inspire similar discoveries on the part of her students — and to help ensure the health and welfare of others wherever she went. Her husband Suresh tells the story of how they happened upon a car accident on their way to South Carolina years ago, and how Shanthi spent time on the phone with the paramedics to make sure they’d be prepared to properly treat the victim when they arrived.

”This is one example of several incidents where Shanthi would spring into action to help someone in need, medically or otherwise,” Suresh says. “Shanthi was an extraordinary woman, unparalleled in generosity and kindness.”

For a while, even cancer couldn’t stop her from helping others. Even after her first operation, she volunteered her medical skills at a Red Cross shelter for Hurricane Katrina refugees in Atlanta and helped provide health care for the uninsured. Only after a brave five-year battle was cancer finally able to stifle her generous spirit on April 9, 2011.

“She was a truly giving person, putting everyone before her own interests,” says Georgia State biology professor Didier Merlin, Ph.D. He and fellow Georgia State professor Andrew Gewirtz, Ph.D., first met Shanthi at Emory in the late 1990s, forging a friendship that lasted more than a decade — through the daily grind as junior researchers to achieving full professorships. “Other people’s problems were always the main priority before her own. Even when she was sick, she was thinking of other people.”

Embracing New Discoveries at Georgia State

When Merlin and Gewirtz joined the Georgia State faculty shortly after Shanthi’s death, one of their priorities was creating something that would continue her legacy as both a researcher and a humanitarian. In November of that year, they established the Shanthi V. Sitaraman Intestinal Pathobiology Endowment. Intestinal pathobiology was, at the time, a relatively new area of focus for Georgia State’s Department of Biology, and the endowment was designed to promote further interest in the study of gastrointestinal health on the part of both faculty members and students.

Merlin and Gewirtz also hoped to use the endowment to sponsor an intestinal pathobiology symposium at Georgia State. Their goal was an ambitious one — plan a symposium in four months and hold it less than a year after Shanthi’s death — but in March 2012, they succeeded in bringing more than 20 respected researchers to the Petit Science Center to share their knowledge.

“These were world leaders,” Gewirtz says of the dozens of researchers who gave presentations at the symposium. “These were the best people in gastroenterology research from around the country. And I don’t think anyone we invited turned us down.”

However, the endowment created more than the symposium: It’s been instrumental in creating the Digestive Disease Research Group, which meets twice a month to give students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty members — usually from inside the Georgia State community — the opportunity to present their work. “It’s an opportunity to help our students and postdocs hone their presentation skills,” says Gewirtz, “and get the hands-on experience and back-and-forth discussion that they might not get at a national meeting.”

Memories of a Mentor

The roster of speakers is managed by Pallavi Garg, Ph.D., a member of Merlin’s research team. Garg can give a firsthand account of Shanthi Sitaraman’s generosity and wisdom — thanks in large part to the mentorship she received from Shanthi at Emory, she’s now an assistant professor at Georgia State.

“She was a great mentor,” Garg says. “She was a very constructive critic, but at the same time she gave us freedom of expression. Even if she thought we weren’t right about something, she’d let us express ourselves.

“It was a very healthy mentor-mentee relationship because she never spoon-fed us — she would teach us how to solve our own problems,” Garg remembers. “And if we went to a conference with her, her first questions would be, ‘Who did you meet? OK, what ideas did you get?’ She knew how important networking is for researchers, and she trained us to introduce ourselves to leaders in our field so they would know who we were and we could learn from them. She was always very professional. Where I am today, it’s all because of her.”

Suresh Sitaraman, an engineering professor at Georgia Tech, says his late wife, whom he loved and admired, strove to make sure everyone around her got that kind of help and caring support. “She treated everyone around her fairly and equally, and treated them extremely well,” he says. “She didn’t care who or what you were. Status, position, money, power — none of that mattered to her.”

Continuing a Legacy of Giving

Shanthi Sitaraman’s esteemed reputation — for both her research achievements and her humanitarian spirit — was in evidence at her memorial service on Emory’s campus. According to Suresh, several hundred people attended, some of them coming from as far away as Italy and the United Kingdom. Didier Merlin adds that the association with Shanthi was key to the success of the biotech symposium they held a year later. “Without her name and legacy, it would not have been so successful,” he says. “And everything we create with those programs will be because of her legacy.”

With one successful symposium in the books, Merlin says he and his colleagues would like to use the endowment to produce another symposium in two or three years’ time. They’re also determined to keep the research group going and continue giving opportunities to a wide range of student researchers.

“This fits with her goal to help and educate young scientists,” Merlin says. “It’s important not just for us but for Georgia State. We want to continue what we’re doing and do it even better. This story’s not done — it’s just at the beginning.”