Ruby Pawankar stumbled across Japan in 1988, when as a young physician in Pune, western India, she accompanied her Indian husband here to curate an exhibition held as part of the Festival of India in Japan.
Twenty-two years later as a professor in allergy at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, the Kerala native has her feet firmly set in Japan. Not only that, she is now at the pinnacle of her career in the field of allergies.
This month, she formally began her two-year term as the 22nd president of the World Allergy Organization, an umbrella group for regional and national academic societies of allergy researchers and clinicians from around the world. It’s a position she was elected to in 2009, a position she says she wants to use fully to further advance education, training and research to help influence policymakers about rising allergy-related medical concerns in many countries.
“My presidential theme is severe allergies and asthma as a global unmet public health need — and my focus is going to be pediatric allergy,” Pawankar said in a recent interview in Tokyo. “The vision is to try to make a difference by helping reduce the rise in allergy through an integrated and holistic approach globally that can also forge toward developing better treatment strategies.”
On her initial visit to Japan, however, she never imagined staying this long, says Pawankar, who comes from a Syrian Christian family that runs one of India’s largest Malayalam language newspapers. She graduated in 1982 from the Armed Forces Medical Academy of India in Pune, one of the top medical schools there.
Japan “is not a place most Indian physicians come to,” she said. “We would go to the U.S. or the U.K. and I planned to go to the U.S. myself.”
But after learning during that first-ever trip to Japan about the high level of clinical training and allergy research going on here, she decided to apply for a six-month fellowship — which she eventually won — from the Japanese Association of University Women. She subsequently pursued her training and doctorate in the field of allergy and clinical immunology at Nippon Medical School, and was given a faculty position there in 1996.
Why allergies? Pawankar was a childhood asthmatic and later became allergic to crustaceans. But what has really driven her is her experience in India seeing many allergy patients who couldn’t be helped, due to lack of clinical specialty and training in that field in the developing country.
“Now it’s much better in India, but (back then) we didn’t even have good diagnostic tests, we didn’t have knowhow on how to treat it, and we didn’t know how to help many suffering patients,” she said. “So I felt that this was an area that needed more expertise, and so I said I should be one of the people who would try to do this. And at that time most of my colleagues said, ‘Allergy? What a strange field you are going into.’ “
Looking back, she says she made the right decision by making the specialty her lifelong professional theme — and by choosing to stay in Japan.
Her commitment to Japan didn’t waver — even after her husband, Umesh Pawankar, who was a professor of international cultural relations at Sophia University, passed away from a sudden brain hemorrhage at the end of 2001. It was the same year that she organized her first major international conference in Tokyo, which was also the nation’s first to probe the link between asthma and rhinitis.
“That was a major turning point in my life,” she said. “I had the option of going back and I was offered positions as a professor in the U.S. and in Europe, which could have been a change for me, but I just wanted to be where my husband was. We spent most of our married life here. Second of all, my husband was the biggest inspiration for my career. Despite his busy schedule, he always supported me, wanted me to be able to do something valuable and meaningful at a global level. So I decided to stay on and continue my work and focus hard on it. In retrospect it was very good.”
Now that she has the top position at WAO, she wants to involve more Japanese experts in the organization’s international activities. Likewise, she hopes that largely homogenous Japan will internationalize more.
“Japan should open itself more, bring in good talent from outside, because that only creates healthy competition,” said Pawankar, one of only a handful of foreign nationals working at Japanese university hospitals.
Medical fields in Japan “have to open doors for others like China does or South Korea does, with more actual collaboration and interaction” facilitated between Japan and foreign professionals, she said.
And being a definite minority in the male-dominated medical establishment, Pawankar has a lot to say about the lack of encouragement for women in Japan to continue their careers. But she says obstacles and glass ceilings exist everywhere, not just in Japan, and that women themselves should also be determined.
Not using female talent is a big loss for Japan, said Pawankar, the first female WAO president in its 61-year history.
“It’s not because we want to become somebody. That should never be the aim,” she said. “It’s not for the position or making money, but it should be a larger vision — a vision larger than ourselves. I think cultivating that kind of attitude in people is very important, because the moment you try to strive to work for something bigger than yourself, the energy comes from yourself.
“I’m in the same society. I’ve lived here for 22 years in the same society as every other Japanese woman. And I’m a foreigner. I came from a developing country, and I think if I can do it, there are many other Japanese women who can also do it — if they put their will, mind and strength to it.”
Pawankar says her ultimate aim is to be a strong bridge between India and Japan and to establish an institute that will provide training, patient care and state-of-the-art medical research in India.
“For me personally, (that would be) my ultimate life’s mission,” she said. “Because it’s very needed, and it would help not just India but the whole subcontinent.”