Wearing Two Hats

Date: June 3, 2022 By: Emily Makowski

Ragon member Gaurav Gaiha is a physician and scientist, Indian and American

As the son of Indian immigrants, Gaurav Gaiha, MD, DPhil, describes himself as wearing two hats. He was born in the U.S. and grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, outside of Chicago, which resulted in “a dual identity … at one moment you’re very much American, and then in the next moment you identify with your upbringing as an Indian,” he says.

Gaiha’s parents are originally from New Delhi; in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they immigrated to the U.S. for his father’s medical training and residency, a move that Gaiha calls “incredibly brave.” He credits them for being able to “usher themselves into a new world and find a way to assimilate with different values and a different way of doing things.”

Growing up in Lake Forest—a predominately white, generally affluent suburb—Gaiha says he never felt prejudice in any significant way other than a few “pinpoint moments” that he didn’t let get to him. “There was this general sense of being a bit different than my friends and classmates, but I didn’t think much of it. I think that was a really important lesson that my parents taught me, to simply adopt a mindset of, ‘You have this amazing opportunity to grow up in this wonderful country … just do your best and don’t worry about what people are going to say. That’s on them, that’s not on you,’” he says.

Gaiha has relatives throughout the U.S. and in India. He has a vivid memory of one of his first visits to India as a six-year-old when he remembers seeing families sleeping on sidewalks and in the medians of roadways. He had never seen poverty up close like that before and it had a major effect on him. It ultimately was the initial spark towards his decision to pursue a career both in medicine and in research with the potential to have a global impact.

As a physician-scientist, Gaiha also wears two hats in his career. He’s a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and also leads a lab at the Ragon Institute. His research on T cells—including work on HIV vaccines, HIV reservoirs in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, pan-coronavirus vaccine development and therapeutic HPV vaccines—and clinical work treating patients with general GI issues and inflammatory bowel disease have often felt like “two disparate worlds” to him.

But as the lab has grown and Gaiha has gained more clinical experience, he is starting to move in directions that unite these areas. “I’m starting to see new opportunities to take insights from my clinical work and relate them to my research,” he says. For example, it turns out that some of the genes with mutations in hereditary colon cancer syndromes are the same genes that are critical for proper T cell functioning in people with HIV, genes that Gaiha first identified in a study in Immunity as a postdoctoral fellow in Bruce Walker’s lab. Gaiha is now beginning to study the T cells of these patients in what he calls a “serendipitous project that simply developed by being interested in T cells on one side [and] being a GI physician” on the other side.

Other future plans include visiting India again as well. Gaiha has not been to India in several years, but he is interested in going again in the future with his own family. His daughters, ages two and four, are just starting to understand their own multiple ethnicities (his wife, Janine Gaiha-Rohrbach, whom he met when he was a medical student and she was a postdoc at the Ragon, is originally from Switzerland). “While the children both love Indian food, at some point, it will be important for them to really experience India and genuinely have a sense of where part of their family comes from,” he says. In the meantime, he is focused on raising a tight-knit nuclear family with an emphasis on education—two of the “wonderful things” that were instilled in him by his own parents.

This article is based on an interview conducted during AAPI Heritage Month in May. Visit the Library of Congress site for more AAPI Heritage Month resources.

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