ERODE: After Thulasendrapuram celebrated US vice president-elect Kamala Harris's victory, another Tamil Nadu village -- Perumapalayam in Erode district -- is elated over the achievement of its ‘daughter’ Dr Celine Gounder who was appointed to US president-elect Joe Biden's Covid-19 advisory board on Monday.
The 43-year-old Dr Celine is a clinical assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine. She is also a practicing HIV/ infectious diseases specialist and internist, epidemiologist, journalist and filmmaker.
Dr Celine’s father, Raj Natarajan Gounder, hailed from Perumapalayam. He moved to the US in the late 1960s and worked at the Boeing Company.
Unlike Harris, whose relatives all left Thulasendrapuram decades ago, Celine has visited Perumapalayam several times before establishing a foundation in her father’s name in 2018. The Raj Gounder Foundation supports children’s education and helps the government-run Modakurichi Boys Higher Secondary School where her father studied.
Celine's cousin S Thangavel, a retired Tamil Nadu Water and Drainage Board employee, who resides in the village told The New Indian Express that Celine's achievement has been the talk of the village for the last two days. “Our family is very proud of her. Children and the residents fondly remember Celine's visit to the village," he said.
Former headmaster of the Modakurichi Boys Higher Secondary School, Avvudaiyappan, recalled Celine's down-to-earth nature and a keen interest in supporting students’ education. "It was the 72nd Independence Day celebration at our school and we invited Celine and her husband as the chief guests. During her interaction with students, she motivated them to follow their passions. She sponsored the setting up of smart classrooms in the school. Every year she provides scholarships to the class 10 and 12 toppers to pursue higher education," he added.
Devaraj Nallasivam, secretary of the Raj Gounder Foundation, said Celine's achievements had given hope to youngsters to do their part in making the world a better place. They are eagerly awaiting her next visit, he said. "She has been actively supporting around 30 disabled children who are part of the Inclusive Education for Differently-Abled children (IED) centre in the village,” he said.
Celine realised that children would miss out on nutritious meals due to schools being closed during the lockdown. “She directed us to deliver grocery kits at their doorstep to ensure children could access a healthy diet. Even before the lockdown was announced in India, she made us aware about Covid-19 and sent the villagers guidelines on how to stay safe and prevent the spread of the disease," he said, adding that Celine always aspired to develop the government school as a model school.
Celine on Twitter on Tuesday noted that “my people in Tamil Nadu” are very proud, sharing screenshots of Indian news articles about her appointment. In a Twitter thread, she acknowledged that many were asking why she had retained her caste name as a surname. “Many ask why I use the caste name Gounder as my last name. My father immigrated to the USA in the 1960s. Americans had a hard time saying Natarajan. Gounder was easier for them to pronounce,” she explained, pointing out that many still had difficulty pronouncing “foreign-sounding” names.
“My father changed his name to Gounder in the early 1970s before I was born. My name is my name. It's part of my history and identity, even if some of that history is painful. I didn't change my name when I got married. I'm not changing it now,” she added, alluding to caste and its implications.
Celine, whose mother is from France, has had an impressive career in health and infectious disease control. She has a BA in Molecular Biology from Princeton University, a Master of Science in Epidemiology from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and an MD from the University of Washington. Dr Celine studied TB and HIV in South Africa, Lesotho, Malawi, Ethiopia and Brazil and volunteered as an Ebola aid worker in Guinea. She has served as Assistant
Commissioner and Director of the Bureau of Tuberculosis Control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She was elected a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America in 2016. In 2017, People Magazine named her as one of the 25 Women Changing the World.