‘We work at
adjacent desks in
our home office’
A Chetty family portrait.
‘They are proud to have
Raj stand next to them
as they graduate’
ambitious and has wanted to stand out from his very early years.
“Soon after coming to America (at age nine), he suddenly said,
‘Can you believe it? I cannot become President,’” Shanmugam
recalls with a chuckle. He had discovered that only American-
born citizens could be President. “I said something like, ‘Don’t be
crazy. You can achieve so many other great things.’
“I am a worrying type,” says Malathy. “In fact, I look for some-
thing to worry about. But Raja has been always composed. He
understands the teens better than I do, and when it comes to what
they should study and where they should stay, his advice matters
With Priya joining Harvard and Divya about to start at MIT, she
says she is doubly happy. “They are living close to my parents and
their Raja Mama.”
Divya was weighing between Stanford and MIT, with her par-
ents wanting her to study at MIT.
“Raja Mama discussed the pros and cons,” says Divya. “He told
me of the advantages I will have studying at MIT and he enc-
ouraged me to meet a researcher at MIT. He does all this without
being pushy. He offers a very good perspective. I was able to make
my mind because I discussed my options with him.”
The other day, V K Chetty told his son after hearing that Priya is
going to enroll at Harvard , ‘Raja, watch out. You are going to have
religious and cultural events in St
Louis and Chicago, where both of
Raj’s sisters happened to live.
I got to know both of his sisters
well, but didn’t meet Raj until
much later when we were introduced to each other.
After meeting, we soon chose to
move to Berkeley, California, together and have since then been
married for eight-and-a-half
My draw to academics began at
UC Berkeley where I did my PhD
Growing up in a family of physicians (father, two sisters, and
brother), I subsequently chose to
direct my interests in biology
towards patient therapy by doing
my post-doctoral fellowship in
stem cell and regenerative biology
at Harvard University.
Being an academic couple has
been a very enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Raj and I are both truly passionate about our research and having
an impact on society.
The hours and effort that go into
research before one sees the fruits
of the work can be long and extensive.
It has been most rewarding
when Raj and I have both made
new discoveries in our
fields that we are excited
to share and celebrate
COURTES Y: RAJ CHE TT Y
Using rats as models, it is easy to
assign a treatment and control
group: One set of rats is subjected
to a stressful condition while
another set of rats is not.
This experimental design then
allows one to identify what types
of effects stress has on the brain.
Similarly, my more recent work
in stem cell biology aims to identify whether certain chemicals/
drugs can drive an embryonic
stem cell into a more specialized
cell type, such as an insulin secreting â-cell, that could be used as
a source of cell replacement therapy in diabetic patients.
In economics, it is not as easy to
run randomized experiments on
the human population in which
one set of people is subjected to
certain conditions while others
are not. This is one of the biggest
challenges in the field, and Raj
has pushed the field to become
more experimental in its
approaches to tackle real-world
What are your shared passions
and life interests?
One of our main interests outside of work is food and cooking.
For instance, while most may
find grocery shopping a boring
chore, we enjoy our weekly trips
together to the local supermarket.
If we are not busy at work in the
office, we are likely to be in the
The kitchen in many respects is
like the lab for me, and Raj makes
a great research assistant by cutting vegetables.
While we are still trying to master my mother’s phenomenal Che-ttinad cooking, we also enjoy
experimenting with new recipes
— we often like to make fusion
Western dishes influenced by
Indian flavors (Indian Naan pizzas).
We also enjoy playing tennis,
spending time with family (
especially with our 10 nieces and nephews), and traveling to new
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