Retired Professor Gifts $1 Million to Steele Children’s Research Center

Against the backdrop of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, the University of Arizona Steele Children’s Research Center has announced that Professor Emeritus Rabi Bhattacharya has committed $1 million to the center.

The gift will be used to create the Gouri Bhattacharya Endowed Professor of Pediatric Cancer, named in honor of Bhattacharya’s late wife. Rabi and Gouri Bhattacharya are the parents of Deepta Bhattacharya, professor of immunobiology, and a daughter who followed in her father’s footsteps and chose a career in math.

Gouri made monthly donations to a charity dealing with children’s cancer research before being diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2017. During her treatment, she often encountered children with cancer and their families, whose courage in their shared battle, she said, reaffirmed her strength as she waged her own.  She was able to fight her battle with cancer for one year and Rabi Bhattacharya attributes her resiliency to the spirit embodied by those children. Her doctor noted after her passing that “she fought the disease with grace and dignity.”

“I wanted to honor my best friend and wife in two ways. One was to create something in India, so I partnered with Bharat Sevashram Sangha, one of the largest and most reputable charities in India. Near Kolkata, where Gouri and I were raised, my family established a microfinance project for poor village women to make a living for their families on small plots of land in addition to the project headquarters, the Gouri Bhattacharya Memorial Building. So far, 500 women have been helped,” said Bhattacharya, who was a professor of mathematics. “The second was to create something in our adopted home of Tucson, and it is through this gift for children’s cancer that we are able to do just that.”

The university is grateful that Bhattacharya chose to honor his wife at the institution where both he and his son have made their mark, said UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins.

“We are very honored by Dr. Bhattacharya’s generous gift, which is an incredible way to honor his wife’s legacy,” he said. “Their family has given and done so much for the university already, and this endowed professorship dedicated to combatting childhood cancer is a thoughtful and inspiring way to expand their impact. This gift will advance the university’s commitment to the children and families impacted by this devastating disease.”

The endowed professorship will strengthen the center’s efforts to recruit the best minds to solve the most challenging issues in pediatric cancer today, according to Dr. Fayez K. Ghishan, professor of pediatrics and director of the Steele Children’s Research Center. A hiring process will begin immediately to add a tenure-track researcher or clinician-scientist to the clinical, basic and translational research team.

“Our work has always been about creating and propagating the kind of knowledge and science that informs personalized treatments for kids with cancer, and we’re overwhelmed by Dr. Bhattacharya’s generosity, which will strengthen our capacity to bring these exciting discoveries made right here in Tucson to bedsides all over the world,” Ghishan said.

Dr. Emmanuel Katsanis, professor of pediatrics, medicine, pathology and immunobiology, hopes to find a world-class researcher to work alongside him. He leads the university’s pediatric hematology, oncology and hematopoietic cellular therapy and transplant program and is a member of the UArizona BIO5 Institute.

“In my 31 years as a pediatric oncologist, I have witnessed survival rates almost double for many pediatric cancers,” Katsanis said. “But we cannot stop basic, translational and clinical research until we are able to cure every child who develops cancer.”

This new endowed professor is a step in that direction, said Katsanis, who has a dual role as a physician performing hematopoietic stem cell transplants in pediatric cancer patients while also directing an active basic science laboratory in the Steele Children’s Research Center.

“We know each family who will be touched by the research discovered will be eternally grateful to Dr. Bhattacharya and his generosity,” he said.

Bhattacharya received his doctorate in statistics from the University of Chicago in 1967. He joined the UArizona faculty as an associate professor of mathematics in 1972 and was named full professor in 1977. In 1982, he joined the faculty of Indiana University as professor of mathematics but returned to UArizona in 2002.

Bhattacharya, a fellow of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, won the prestigious Humboldt Prize and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Though he formally retired in 2018, he remains active in the field of mathematics and is currently writing a three-textbook series for Springer Publishing Co. with one of his mentees.

“Dr. Bhattacharya is giving hope for families after suffering his own devastating loss. It’s a beautiful way to honor Gouri and to observe Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. We’re honored to steward this generous gift,” said John-Paul Roczniak, president and CEO of  UArizona Foundation.

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