The pioneering scientist changing lives and fighting prejudice

Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Professor Meena Upadhyaya is a groundbreaking scientist, whose work in the field of genetics has shed new light on disorders affecting people all over the world.

But during her esteemed career she has also faced prejudice and personal heartache, both of which she says have had a huge impact on her life.

Meena's story begins four thousand miles away in India. One of six children, she grew up in a small town close to Delhi. There was a lot of poverty, and seeing people suffering sparked an urge in Meena to help people.

"Believe it or not, I wanted to be a priestess when I was growing up," Meena said.

"Then I realised that - like my other sisters - I would be married off and my future would be sealed.

"My husband had seen me from a distance without my knowledge, whereas I never got to see him, and my parents got together with his parents and arranged our marriage."

Meena says the poverty she saw growing up in India inspired her to help others. Credit: Meena Upadhyaya / ITV Cymru Wales

Meena followed her husband Krishna to the UK, where he was working. In the early 1970s, they settled in Cardiff.

She had always shown a flair for science, both at school and at university, and in Wales she embarked on a PhD, focusing on male infertility.

"I interviewed about 200 couples attending the infertility clinic and I saw how desperate they were for a child," Meena said.

"I realised at that point that I was really driven by science. I wanted to do this; I wanted to help people."

Meena's research has focused on the genes that cause various genetic disorders. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

By the 1980s, Meena and Krishna had a child of their own. Weekends in the park were a chance to spend precious time together, away from the demands of her scientific work.

But those days in the sun wouldn’t last. Aged just 35, her husband suffered a huge heart attack and passed away, leaving behind Meena and their daughter Rachna.

Meena with her husband Krishna, who passed away aged just 35. Credit: Meena Upadhyaya / ITV Cymru Wales

"He didn’t smoke, he was not obese. So, it was a total shock," Meena said.

"He was an extremely caring person, very jolly. He was a perfect companion for me.

"The years after his death were like a nightmare for both me and my daughter. But I tried to keep myself busy - as busy as I could. And my daughter - she gave me strength. I knew I had to look after her and she was my responsibility. So, I was quite determined and we persevered. Both of us persevered."

After Krishna's death, Meena threw herself into her research. She was now specialising in genetic diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and a condition called Neurofibromatosis Type 1, where patients can develop life-threatening tumours. Little was known about the disease at the time - but Meena’s research changed that.

Meena's work has informed clinical trials of new medical treatments. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Prior to [Meena's] breakthrough, no one really understood how the condition really originated. So up until the gene was found there was no prospect of developing specific treatments for it - because there was no understanding to base that upon. And that's something that's changed. It's a slow process, but those initial steps that Meena contributed to are now coming to fruition, through clinic trials of new treatments for people with these disorders.

Professor Julian Sampson

Despite her groundbreaking work and the countless lives she has helped, Meena says she’s had to fight hard to be accepted as an Indian woman in Wales.

Meena has suffered prejudice because of her religion, language and appearance. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

"I’ve had multiple barriers because of my religion, my language, my physical attributes and my beliefs," she said.

"When I first came to Wales, I was very noticeable because I was the only person in my department in saris. A number of times, people underestimated me. I was often mistaken for a tea lady.

"I remember a visitor came to our department and I was introduced to him as a senior scientist. Instead of talking to me, he started speaking to the person who was standing next to me.

"These are subtle discriminations and you feel it all the time, but they have hurt me in a big way and it has had a huge impact on my life. I took it personally and I just said, ‘One day we should be able to eradicate this prejudice in Wales'."

Meena's charities recognise the achievements of ethnic minority women across Wales. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Meena says the discrimination she's experienced has emboldened her. As an advocate of women’s rights, the numerous charities she’s founded have shone a light on the achievements of ethnic minority women from across Wales.

It’s a testament to a true pioneer who has achieved so much - against the odds.

  • You can see more of Meena's story on Welsh Lives, Thursday 4th April at 8:30pm.

  • Or you can listen on our Welsh Lives podcast.