UTHealth Houston School of Public Health marks the passing of two beloved former faculty members, Asha Seth Kapadia, PhD, and Judith (Kay) Dunn, PhD, both powerhouses in terms of their academic contributions and, even more noteworthy, trailblazers as women in the field of biostatistics. A trailblazer is a pioneer, innovator, or person who makes a new track through a wild country. Kapadia and Dunn did, indeed, forge new paths for women to follow in the male-dominated fields of science, mathematics, and statistics.
Asha Kapadia was born in Lahore, British India (now Pakistan), in 1937, and Dunn was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1941 and raised in Mobile, Alabama. Though born and raised continents apart, their backgrounds are in societies and cultures steeped in gender inequality, rigidly-defined gender roles, and limited opportunities for women in science careers. Yet, they excelled academically and professionally, emerging as role models in fields dominated by white men.
ASHA SETH KAPADIA
In India, in the late 1950s, when Kapadia attended university, women represented only 15% of all students in the country’s universities. Yet, she ranked first in her college at both master's and bachelor's levels at Delhi University. Kapadia came to the United States in the early 1960s to continue her academic pursuits as the sole recipient of a prestigious national scholarship from the Indian Government. She completed her graduate studies at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where women accounted for only 3% of the student body. Kapadia was the only female in the school of industrial management and one of the first women to graduate from the MIT Sloan School of Management with a Master of Science degree. She was regularly siloed during her studies as 'the only woman in the room:' this was especially true when she was awarded her PhD in statistics from Harvard in 1969 – the only woman and only person of color to receive one that year.
Following her post-secondary education, Kapadia continued a career in teaching and research, serving in appointed faculty roles at the University of Houston, Rice University, Delhi University, University of Juarez, and UTHealth School of Public Health. She received tenure at UTHealth School of Public Health as an associate professor in 1976, a year in which tenured women made up less than 6% of the more than 10,000 faculty members appointed to mathematical departments in the US.
Not only was Kapadia accomplished, but she was also a beloved role model. "Asha stood out – forthright, confident, brimming with intelligence, elegant, proud of her culture, humorous, curious, welcoming, unafraid of setting high standards for her students, and importantly, devoted to her young son," said former colleague, Patricia Mullen, DrPH, MLS, University of Texas System Distinguished Teaching Professor. "Her navigation of personal and professional spheres was rarely seen on the health science center faculty [at the time], and it paved the way for those of us to follow."
Kapadia is remembered as an influential mentor and leader, saying in a 2015 oral history interview, "The sky is the limit if you are grounded." Serving as an instructor to thousands of students during a career that spanned over 50 years, her imprint upon students and colleagues holds lasting impressions. "Asha was connected to the world. Not only did she call everyone her friend, but she also treated them as one, and thus they became so. No matter her woes, her door, and heart opened wide to all," says Lem Moye, MD, PhD, retired biostatistics and data science professor, and a former student. "She was the Almighty's ambassador to us."
JUDITH (KAY) DUNN
Kay Dunn started her academic path by completing her bachelor's degree in 1964 at the University of Alabama in a climate of intense cultural upheaval in Alabama and across the American south. The university had just been desegregated the year before, and the federal Civil Rights act of 1964, promising equal opportunity for women and racial minorities, had just been signed. Women represented one-third of all mathematics majors in the US during this time, but there was still fierce debate about whether women even had the same quantitative aptitude as their male counterparts. It was assumed by most people that women with math degrees would settle for careers teaching secondary school. Dunn proved these skeptics wrong and received a master's degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1969, a year when only one in four master's degrees in mathematics were awarded to women. Dunn continued her studies and received her PhD in statistics in 1977 from The UTHealth Houston School of Public Health. While the number of doctoral degrees awarded in statistics was rising by about 5% per year, Dunn was among 914 students who received a doctoral degree in mathematical sciences in the US, a year when only 118 women obtained a doctoral degree in mathematical sciences (Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences)
Dunn taught at universities in Radford, Virginia; Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, and Galveston, before returning to Houston to teach and conduct research in epidemiology at Baylor College of Medicine and UTHealth Houston School of Public Health. Dunn's career accomplishments include many teaching awards, including the John P. McGovern Award for Outstanding Teaching, and contributions to significant research on the prevention and treatment of high blood pressure and heart disease.
"Kay Dunn had a major impact on my professional development. She was a powerful role model for me," said Paula Cuccaro, PhD, assistant professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health. "Kay was my advisor while I was a PhD candidate,” said Cucarro, “she showed me how to be a compassionate leader and a reliable collaborator. She was well respected by her colleagues and students alike. And as a mentor, she was selfless, encouraging, and supportive. I cherished the friendship that grew from our professional relationship."
Kapadia and Dunn passed away at the ages of 83 and 81, respectively. They were pioneering role models for female exceptionalism in biostatistics and public health, and were at the leading edge of a profound shift in the field and public health education. The world in which they began their education and careers was very different from the world they left. In 2021, 57% of the 78,371 applicants and 57% of 11,149 new students of biostatistical programs were women. According to the Association of Schools and Programs in Public Health, every year since 2010, the number of bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in biostatistics are roughly equal by gender.
These accomplishments should rightly be celebrated while acknowledging that schools and programs in public still have work to do towards achieving gender equality among biostatistics faculty. Between 2010 and 2021, the proportion of female faculty appointed to biostatistics departments rose only slightly from 37% to 40%. Among biostatistics programs at schools and programs of public health, 46% of assistant professors, 39% of associate professors, and one-third of professors are women. One-third of tenure-track faculty and one-third of tenured faculty are women.
UTHealth Houston School of Public Health celebrates the lives and legacies of Asha Seth Kapadia, PhD, and Judith (Kay) Dunn, PhD, with gratitude for their decades-long work with the school and its students, and for their trailblazing work at towards gender-equity and representation in Public Health. They were true pioneers who forged a path for women behind them; it is now time for a new generation to pick up that path, and continue the journeys they began.