Memories of Malavika Subramanyam

Mala alone and smiling

We are deeply saddened to report the unexpected passing of our colleague and alumna of the Department, Malavika Subramanyam, after a period of illness in India. Mala is fondly remembered by many as a result of serving as one of the most longstanding Teaching Assistants in two of the Department’s core courses, Society and Health, as well as Multilevel Methods, where she influenced an entire generation of students coming through our programs. Her warmth, humanity, patience, and kindness – above all her infectious ability to spread cheer — touched us all. Mala’s innately cheerful and kind personality was something that not only she was endowed with, but she always found ways to spread it. During the entire time we had the privilege to know her, she never focused on herself or showed herself to be “down” no matter what challenges she may have been facing. She was constantly attentive to those she was around with. One time she injured her foot and the ceiling of her apartment broke, in quick succession. We teased her that perhaps she had stuck her foot through the ceiling during a particularly vigorous bout of Bollywood dance practice. “The ceiling is fixed and my injuries are better,” she replied, “I hope my streak of not-so-good-luck is finally ending. I should perhaps pray to the appropriate Hindu Gods to prevent further annoyances!”

Mala served for two terms as the Editorial Assistant to the journal, Social Science & Medicine, where she was the “face” of the journal to countless researchers throughout the world. Mala’s tactful ability to deal with all of the correspondence with authors (some of them irate) as well as intransigent reviewers played a big role in the success of our social epidemiology office. Her work at the journal culminated in her curating the collection of commentaries on Sir Michael Marmot’s report, Fair Society, Healthy Lives. Mala did all of this while she was working on her doctoral dissertation, which focused on inequities in childhood nutrition in India. Her studies cast doubt on the ability of economic growth alone to cure these inequities (M. Subramanyam et al. Is economic growth associated with reduction in child undernutrition in India? PLoS Med. 2011 Mar;8(3):e1000424). At the Indian Institute of Technology where Mala was Associate Professor, she continued to break new ground in studying the influence of socioeconomic context (at multiple levels and in multiple domains), neighborhood of residence, and macroeconomic factors on under-nutrition, as well as obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes. In recognition of her breadth of expertise, Mala was appointed in September 2020 to the international Advisory Board of the journal, SSM-Population Health.

Her commitment to her students, especially, as a faculty member at IIT was unwavering. This fundamental quality had not changed even one bit when Subu (her academic advisor) met her in Gottingen a decade later after she had left the Department. It was inspiring and humbling. Mala will be deeply missed by us all. At Departmental social gatherings and International Nights at the School, we remember Mala as the life of the party with her colorful performances of Bollywood dancing. We will be putting together a collection of remembrances and pictures from colleagues and fellow alums for whom Mala will forever remain in their hearts.

S.V. Subramanian, Professor of Population Health and Geography
Ichiro Kawachi, John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Social Epidemiology

Recollections From Former Harvard Chan and SBS Students

Mala is a bright light during my time at HSPH. She was a year ahead of me and was my TA for an epi class. She never hesitated when I asked for help and at times, would spend what seemed like a selfishly long time working through a problem with me. I felt so guilty taking her time, knowing that she also had her own work to do. But that is what made Mala so special and beloved. An incrediblly generous spirit who loved teaching and sharing her knowledge. HSPH will be lucky to find someone like Mala. I don’t think it will ever have as much dancing in the halls again, at least. Taken far too early from us. Rest in peace my beautiful friend.
Kim Hanh Nguyen, ScD ’09

Mala called me Gurubhai and brought me into her clan. Whenever I had news–good or bad–she would hold her knuckles against her temples, say a prayer, and then give me a blessing. I remember when she parked all of her books and notes in one of the microlab carrels for a whole semester and nobody said anything because that was Mala and she would not be denied.
Lee Ackerson, ScD ’07

Mala is one of the most intellectually curious and caring people that I have ever met! She was my TA for multi-level methods. All of my questions (and I always felt like they were too many!) were approached with genuine curiousity. This was consistent with her approach to research and all things public health—looking for what she could learn. This was also how she approached people—genuinely curioius–looking for what she could bring to the table with humility. And she was so talented with dancing and so spirited! I still miss her choreography, her love of life, and her passion for sharing her talents with all fo us. Rest peacefully, we will miss you.
Jhumka Gupta, ScD ’07

Brilliant, bright, one-of-a-kind, a “cheer-o-meter”, exceptional, loving, unique, a star, a live wire, sensational on the dance floor…She was my friend, sister, mentor; she had my heart. Until we meet again, Malavika.
Sanghamitra “Sana” Savadatti, MPH ’04

What a gift to know Mala and spend time with her. She was so generous with her time, whether helping unravel problems as a TA or continuing to hold regular Bollywood dancing practice sessions long after I-night had come and gone. She encouraged everyone around her to engage with life, approaching problems with curiosity, enjoying color and movement and laughter whenever possible, noticing details to make people feel special but not sweating the small stuff, like rules about use of the microlab. My heart goes out to everyone who cared about Mala.
Rebecca Lundin, ScD ’11

Mala’s smile and quick wit is what I will remember most about her. Mala and I bonded over preparing for our written comps and she was so supportive, brilliant and caring. She could always turn a bad day into a sunny one and just had a spirit that filled a room. The loss is incredible she will be missed. I was so excited about the contributions she could make, and I’m heart broken that she is no longer with us.
Jennifer Anne Bishop, ScD ’11

Exceptionally brilliant, infectious smile, the most loving person ever, beautiful friend, a person one can never forget. Every moment with her is close to my heart. She was there in support when my husband and I decided to get married at the Cambridge City Hall. Her presence made the occasion even more special. I also fondly rmember the train trips we took to get to the Hindu temple in Framingham. We interacted just a few weeks back and I was so excited with the possibility of seeing her in India over the summer. My heart literally feels so heavy with the loss that I just have not had the energy to speak. Thank you for all the great memories and all the love Malo. Rest in peace dear Malo!
Manisha Joshi, MSPH ’04

Mala was a sunshine and joy at HSPH. I will remember her as a supportive and generous spirit, and always quick to bring laughter and kindness to every situation. Her memory will live on, we’ll miss you Mala XO
Rachel Shelton, ScD ’08

Mala was one of my closest friends. A sister I never had. She was there to share in my joy when I became a mother for the first time and there for me as I navigated many challenges of being a student mother. Some days it was clear that Mala believed in me, more than I believed in myself. I cherished her most for the many ways in which she reminded me, through her words and actions that the greatest gift in life is to find happiness in every moment. Whether she was dancing to Bollywood songs, eating ice cream cones at JP Licks, making dosas, or dozing in a microlab cubicle surrounded by piles of books she brought joy to everyone around her, Mala was a gift.
Shalini Tendulkar, ScD ’08

I remember Mala always offering a kind word of support and encouragement. We will miss you Mala! Your bright light touched so many of us that were privileged to know you. Rest in love, dear friend!
Reggie Tucker-Seeley, ScM ’04 , ScD ’09

What I remember best about Mala is her capacity for joy and curiousity. She took such delight in new experienced – from the latest Harry Potter Book, to her first ever hike (in little high heeled sandals, no less!) to meeting new friends. Our long hours in the microlab were often interrupted by Mala’s infectious laughter – coming from her always cluttered carrel. I miss Mala’s sweet smile, and am so grateful to have had her in my life.
Ellen Connorton, ScD ’10

It is no surprise that Mala’s friends often use words like “light”, “bright”, and “sunshine” when describing her. This is who she was to me – a true bright light in the dim microlab “dungeon”. I relied on Mala to help get me through the days and nights as I argued with SAS. She was encouraging, humble, and brilliant. May the light of her accomplishments and gifts continue to shine on in her friends and family.
Jill Fromewick, ScD ’08

I am devastated to learn of Mala’s passing. She was a true gift. I was blessed to be her friend. Admired her for her brilliance. So deeply grateful and always brightened by her kindness. Sending much love and thoughts of peace to all. Always.
Jeff Blander ScD ’08

I met Mala in my first semester at HSPH when she was my TA. Mala had an incredibly joyful and welcoming presence and was one of the kindest people that I’ve ever met. She inspired so many of us personally and professionally, and I was privileged to learn from her and call her a friend. Mala transformed the microlab into a supportive community, which made a world of difference for so many students. I will always remember Mala’s warmth, curiosity, and enthusiasm, and I offer my sincere condolences to her family and friends.
Natalie Slopen, ScD ’10

Mala and I were in the same cohort at HSPH. This is a devastating loss for so many. I will never forget how she came to class with just a little purse, no notebooks to take notes. She was able to retain the information in her head. In addition to her briliance, Mala was indeed a bright light and ray of sunshine for me; there in good times and bad. We all left our belongings in the microlab and Mala had her belongings piled up. She made the microlab a warm, welcoming home for herself and others. When I had my daughter she came to visit us in the hospital and sprinkled dollar bills on her as a blessing for good fortune. She was one of a kind and the kindest of people. The world is a darker place without her in it. I love you Mala.
Joanna Almeida, ScD ’08

I don’t believe I have ever known a more kind, open-hearted, brilliant and humble person as our Mala. She honored the humanity in everyone. She was that person who truly made you feel loved and worthy (even in one’s most desperate, self-loathing, 2am microlab moments). She tried earnestly to teach us to dance — a colossally failed experiment on me. And yes, she stored a lot of crap in the student carrels. She was mischievous and side-splittingly hilarious. She showed me that one’s human foibles did not preclude greatness, and moreover, goodness. I don’t say this lightly — She was an angel among us. Bless you, precious Malavika, eternally.
Candice Belanoff, ScD ’09

Mala brought a bright and caring light to HSPH. She TA’d with kindness and patience. She served as an example to others in how to live life fully including through dance, friendship and joy, even during graduate school. She was a real visionary. I am thankful to have known her and to celebrate all that she brought to the world. Her loss is felt deeply. Thank you, Mala.
Michele Decker, ScD ’08

I’m stunned to have learned of Mala’s passing. Mala was a unique and bright light – brilliant, hilarious, and deeply insightful. She was initimably herself, with a huge heart and a willingness to bend the rules and bring mischief and fun to the supposedly serious business of studying public health. I’m so grateful to have been her friend and classmate. Her memory will certainly be a blessing to all who knew her.
Rebecca Firestone, ScD ’08

Learning of Mala’s passing was a hit to the heart. Even though I had not seen her for years, I immediately could see her big beautiful smile in my mind’s eye, and immediately heard her hearty laugh in my ears, enduring memories from our time together at HSPH. She was always quick to support her peers, the school, and to contribute her culture and heritage to the diverse fabric that was/is HSPH. May her beautiful soul rest in peace. She will be missed dearly.
Mona Mowafi, ScD ’09

What an absolutely stunning human being – in every way. Mala was joyous and curious and incredibly sharp and steadfast. She was a light while dancing, a light while explaining multi-level models, a light in times of need. She was simultaneously a calming and stirring presence. When Andrés was first diagnosed with cancer she made us a CD (remember those?) of healing chants and music. Soon after, as I struggled with another last-minute change to my dissertation data, she was there as I refigured the SAS code. I was so lucky to laugh with her and learn from her and share with her. May her memory be for a blessing.
Lindsay Rosenfeld, ScD ’08, ScM ’04

Mala was an extremely special person who exuded warmth, wisdom, and wit among so many other amazing qualities. Though small in stature, Mala had huge presence; an immense love of life and openness. May we all carry her forward. May she continue to inspire us and as we say in the Jewish tradition, may her memory be for a blessing.
Deb Stone, ScD, MSW, MPH ’10

I can, in seriousness and without exaggeration, say that Mala was holy; many have. She was indeed the sun’s shine who brightened our days and years at Harvard. Our Mala was overly generous in sharing her brilliance—patiently explaining difficult concepts and even jokes to me and many others. Her patience knew no bounds. She preached and lived loving patience for all and always pointed out that we lost little by being extending charity and grace. I don’t know anyone more beloved by many from all walks of life. The sun’s shine has dimmed, but lives on in the many souls she touched. Our Mala, we shall miss you.
Cassandra Okechukwu, ScD ’08

Photos of Mala