As a young girl growing up in India, Shaloo Puri, MD, pointed her telescope deep into the New Delhi night sky, searching for distant worlds.
She dreamed of viewing the Earth from miles above while floating through the zero-gravity cabin of a space shuttle. But Puri didn’t have to become an astronaut to see the world from such a rare view.
She’s seen the world through the eyes of a physician, a humanitarian, an activist, a thought leader and an academic. At St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, she has the rare opportunity to pursue another childhood dream: inventor.
Her life could fill a page-turning biography, but she’s not yet ready to write that book. As assistant dean of the St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Puri has spent the past nine months launching the school’s online Master of Science program. Students who complete the two-year program will earn master’s degrees in global child health. They can become agents of change in childhood health, pediatric cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
“I’m definitely in the right place at the right time,” said Puri, whose role includes directing global studies and other initiatives of St. Jude Global Pediatric Medicine. “I’m living one of my dreams that I had as a child—to invent something.”
As a child, Puri was grounded with a sense of responsibility and connection to people and her community. Her parents showed her the way by opening their doors to the needy and disadvantaged. At age 8, Puri and her two younger brothers gathered her books and toys to share with children at a nearby orphanage. Two years later, she led neighborhood children in a door-to-door clothing and food drive after a flood. The children also helped deliver the supplies.
“Those experiences formed my ideas around how much needs to be done in this world,” Puri said.
Throughout high school and early in college, Puri wrestled with a career choice of scientist versus physician. She decided on medical school after two years of studying biochemistry. As an intern, Puri noticed how some doctors “examined” infectious tuberculosis patients from across the room. In the medical wards, she saw helpless patients who struggled to catch their breath. She also witnessed the hopeful faith that family members put in the doctors.
Her 10 years of medical school and pulmonology residency included preventive medicine projects in the community. Most of India’s 1.3 billion people lack health insurance. That means they rely on public hospitals and health care facilities or pay private providers. Working in the clinics, Puri realized she was prescribing medicines to people who did not have food to eat.
“The public-sector institutions were overcrowded, and it was never enough,” she said. “I’m reminded of the elderly man who smirked at me when I asked him to buy an inhaler. He said, ‘Am I going to spend money on that or bread to feed my wife and children?’”
Puri left her practice to gather her thoughts, backpacking across India. During this trip, she suffered a serious head injury in a motorcycle crash but recovered with a renewed purpose. She went to work in a Delhi slum, where she created a school health program and ran a free outpatient clinic.
She then joined the Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), which links more than 4,500 health and development institutions across India. Her role was part clinician, part community health care worker and part trainer. She helped manage organizations and community-based groups, including women’s self-help groups. She traveled to remote rural areas to set up medical camps and explore socioeconomic issues impacting health.
Puri often visited these villages alone or with colleagues. She lived with families, eating meals offered by generous villagers and sleeping in tents, small homes and huts.
“In many parts of India, the first point of contact for a sick person is someone in the village and not a specialized doctor,” Puri said. “It was inspiring to see how community members supported each other despite their minimal resources.”
During her time with VHAI, Puri helped lead disaster-relief efforts. A 1999 cyclone killed 15,000 in the Indian state of Odisha. A 7.7-magnitude earthquake shook the state of Gujarat in western India in 2001. At the earthquake’s epicenter, Puri witnessed a large influx of international aid—but supplies often weren’t delivered where they were most needed.
Puri and her team advocated for resources, coordinated the multi-sectoral efforts and worked with local government representatives. At nightly meetings, they reviewed the distribution of goods and services to ensure delivery of food, tents, medicine and other supplies.
“There was a lack of good policies, strategic programs and coordination among different sectors,” said Puri, who was nicknamed “Firebrand” by a senior official in the Ministry of Health. “That was when I realized that it takes more than good intent and shouting slogans. I wanted to do more.”
The thought leader
With encouragement from the Indian Ministry of Health, Puri applied to be a medical consultant with World Health Organization. She served for 15 months, gaining a better understanding of some of the root causes of India’s health care issues. She learned the importance of effective policies and better understood the relationship among government, private health care providers, local and international NGOs and businesses.
Puri joined the World Economic Forum in 2004 to lead a business alliance that included government, international organizations, chambers of commerce and non-governmental organizations. She created alliances in India, China and South Africa to work on tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, malaria and to build health systems while establishing herself as an expert in how public-private partnerships strengthen health systems.
In spite of these successes, Puri sought even more effective results. Seeking a fresh perspective, she decided to return to school.
Puri wanted to use academic reasoning to examine her real-world efforts. She was accepted to both the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her husband, Kiran, who Puri describes as the epitome of optimism, also studied at the university.
As a fellow at the Kennedy School, she examined in depth how public-private partnerships affect health systems and explored the resulting governance challenges. Puri took part in health-sector reform projects, developing a migrant workers’ health policy for Qatar. She was the technical lead on policy analysis for a Malaysian project. Then Harvard asked her to direct their Doctor of Public Health program.
“I still dreamed, and this role was my way of achieving my dreams through those students and a strong reason why I came to St. Jude,” Puri said. “I want to nurture those who have the passion and the commitment to do good, help them become better leaders and managers.”
Puri directed the program at Harvard for three years, before leaving for St. Jude to reprise the role of inventor in a different way. She learned of the hospital’s strategic plan through conversations with Carlos Rodriguez-Galindo, MD, chair of Global Pediatric Medicine and director of St. Jude Global.
The decision to come to St. Jude was also personal. Puri’s mother recently died of esophageal cancer, and Puri fondly remembers her mother always taking time to help and care for children.
The Tennessee Higher Education Commission approved the St. Jude program in January of 2019. The program is open to all health care professionals and will focus on basic and applied research, health systems and population sciences, in addition to management and leadership skills. Courses will be online, with some on-campus workshops and team projects. Students will write master’s theses, which will include project proposals that address a child health issue and a personal journey statement. Global Pediatric Medicine will consider select proposals for funding after degree completion.
Puri is working with Graduate School Dean Stephen White, DPhil, as well as with faculty and school staff and Global Pediatric Medicine to develop the curriculum and program policies. Classes begin in July, with the first class expected to graduate in 2021.
“This brings together all of my experiences—inventing a new program and working with incredible professionals across the world. St. Jude cannot be everywhere, but we can train people, who can help those we need to reach, whether in rural Tennessee or Odisha,” Puri said. “The Master of Science program is empowering others to travel with us through that last mile to reach children and improve access to quality health care.”