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Ananya Banerjee

While women were absent from the forefront of diabetes research for several decades after Dr. Banting’s discovery of Insulin in 1921, Canadian academic institutions saw a rise in the number of women doing research and development during the last quarter of the 20th century. At the turn of the 21st century, women began enrolling at major Canadian academic institutions, like the University of Toronto and McGill University, and undertaking  significant research in increasing numbers. Among the several high profile women doing diabetes research in Canada today, Dr. Ananya Banerjee’s story stands out. Dr. Banerjee is a trail blazing woman who wears many hats, including researcher, educator and community advocate. A hundred years after insulin’s discovery, Dr. Banerjee is involved in diabetes research and development in a wide range of innovative ways – namely Community-Based Participatory Research, a method where communities are highly involved with the healthcare practitioners and researchers in finding unique solutions to prevalent diseases in their communities. Today, South Asian-Canadians suffer from the highest diabetes rates in Canada, with equally high rates of insulin dependency. As a Canadian woman of South Asian descent, Dr. Banerjee’s research mission is to unfold the determinants behind the devastation of having the highest diabetes and cardiovascular disease rates in her community and to save them from the agony of living a life dependent on insulin.

Dr Ananya Banerjee (centre) with students Shudipta Shabnam Islam (left) and Amina Khan. Photo courtesy of Dr. A. Banerjee and Mohammed Khan.

Dr. Ananya Banerjee’s parents immigrated to Canada in the 1970s and she grew up in Rexdale, Ontario, which she describes as a “very disadvantageous” neighbourhood in the Greater Toronto Area. “It’s a classic immigrant story,” she said “they came with very little, and they worked hard to get where they are now”. While growing up, she recalls Rexdale to be a dichotomous community of middle and lower income communities, and that she considers herself privileged because, like most South Asians in the region, she belonged to a strong middle-class household. She remembers seeing stark differences between racialized students in school, where Asian and South Asian students were thriving compared to their Black counterparts. These inequalities struck her from a young age. During middle school, she remembers her parents voicing their concerns regarding the local school not being the best for their children, and instead sending her to Smithfield Middle School “on the other side of Rexdale”. Realizing that the local high school was also unfit for secondary education for young Dr. Banerjee, her parents sent her to Martin Grove Collegiate Institute, a little farther from home but one of the best rated secondary schools in Toronto.

Dr. Banerjee expressed the feeling of living through dual experiences at high school, one of privilege and another of a racialized minority. She had come from a diverse racialized community and was now experiencing secondary education in a dominantly white society, enjoying privileges traditionally reserved for the elite schools that included advanced programs dedicated to giving students a head start. Banerjee recalls that she thrived in her secondary education as she had already become accustomed to social divide, and ended up with a scholarship to attend York University’s Kinesiology and Health Sciences program. She took her experience of social inequalities to post secondary education, and while reflecting on her privilege of access to physical activity, started noticing racial divides in the physical activity arena. Banerjee was one of few people of colour among a predominantly white student body in the Kinesiology program. It was not uncommon for Banerjee to be on the receiving end of questions around her identity and her place in the program, often with assumptions that South Asian women did not embody physically active lifestyles, and that physical activity was a phenomenon not encouraged in their culture.

While working as a Research Assistant in her final year at York University, Dr. Banerjee came across an article that highlighted South Asians as having the highest cardiovascular disease rates in Canada. It was the first publication she had seen on health disparities in South Asian communities. The article was authored by Dr. Sonia Anand, is a professor of medicine at McMaster, vascular medicine physician at Hamilton Health Sciences, a senior scientist at PHRI, and director of the Chanchlani Research Centre at McMaster. Ananya Banerjee, who considers this woman of colour a pioneer in her field, credits this research article to be the springboard that led her to enter research at the University of Toronto’s Masters in Science Exercise program; She realized the power of data, which proved that physical activity among South Asian-Canadians was inadequate. Banerjee decided to get to the root of the issue in order to help these communities. Coincidentally, the night before Banerjee was to submit her Masters thesis proposal, Dr. Anand was speaking at Women’s College Hospital and Banerjee made the decision to attend the talk, despite her looming thesis deadline. This night became the defining moment for Dr. Banerjee and, by extension, for women of colour suffering from diabetes and cardiac health issues. Dr. Anand noticed Banerjee’s capabilities and extended an invitation to supervise her PhD at McMaster University. This life changing career decision landed Banerjee in academia and public health. She discovered the link among Canadian places of worship and better health outcomes. Her research demonstrated that churches acted as venues of health promotion and was able to make the connection between  higher rates of attendance at church to lower rates of heart disease, blood pressure and diabetes. She brought these findings to the diverse places of worship in Canada, one of which was implementing an exercise program at a mosque. 

As she was setting foot into the world of research and development, Dr. Banerjee’s father, who she describes as a physically active and healthy-diet conscious individual, was diagnosed with diabetes. She recalls her father taking offence when the family doctor assumed that lack of physical activity and poor diet led to her father’s diagnosis of diabetes. Dr. Banerjee remembers being confused by the diagnosis , as her father not only followed a physical fitness and diet routine, but also lived a privileged life, where affordability of life’s amenities was not an issue. This moment led Dr. Banerjee to dig deeper in her investigation of social determinants of diabetes among South Asian-Canadians. She was determined to shift the false perception in Canada’s medical system that regarded South Asian culture and food, as the determining factors of diabetes prevalence in their communities, and South Asian-Canadians as having a cultural disposition of being physically inactive. She realized that migration was the mechanism that accelerated the risk of diabetes in South Asian communities, even when they got to a point of being settled. Dr. Banerjee lost her father shortly after and her pre-diabetic mother was then also diagnosed with diabetes. Dr. Banerjee continued to count their privilege because her mother was able to halt diabetes in its tracks and not become insulin dependent, which Banerjee says is unfortunately not the case for everyone diagnosed with diabetes.

Dr. Ananya Banerjee featured in a CBC article, titled “Toronto pilot project takes aim at South Asian teens at risk of diabetes” (Dec. 2008) by Adrian Cheung. Photo courtesy of CBC News and Yanjun Li.

“South Asians have the highest rates of diabetes that are not getting any better” she said,  “I’m afraid […] that more and more South Asians will succumb to being [dependent] on insulin”, and “as much as I am grateful to (the discovery of) insulin, we need to work harder” especially for the South Asian-Canadians in vulnerable settings. She implores this point so that individuals from communities vulnerable to diabetes do not become dependent on insulin “which is the hardest form of managing diabetes”. Diabetes is known to affect different ethnic communities in a range of ways, and insulin may be a ‘quick fix’ to the medically marginalized groups, but that accessibility to the lifesaving drug ignores the determinants of diabetes in those respective communities. To employ her mixed method approach, Dr. Banerjee founded the South Asian Research Hub, which is based on the model of Community-Based Participatory Research. She argues that this model is critically important to her community. It allows her to work closely with non-academics and South Asian students in Master of Public Health programs, and has ensured that research models are created and implemented by South Asian community members.

Dr. Banerjee credits Indigenous and Black scholars as giving her inspiration for the work, stating, “a lot of my research has been rooted in Black and Indigenous health studies”. She is cautious in paralleling South Asian experiences with that of Indigenous or Black communities, reminding us that “we can’t equate our history of oppression to them” and that despite being so “over-researched”, they are still being overlooked. Nevertheless, their research and socio-economic hurdles have formed the basis of the work she does.

Unfortunately, Dr. Banerjee asserts that the gender pay-gap and marginalization are a common occurrence for women and people from racialized communities in research and development. She recalls not receiving adequate mentorship at her academic institution, and she considers herself underpaid for her work compared to male colleagues who, in comparison, are given higher salary rates. Salaries are disclosed for the public sector employees in the province of Ontario and she points to the data which supports salary discrimination in academia, especially in the sciences towards women’s earnings. She also points out the duality of salary discrimination for women of colour, “We experience not just systemic racism, but a lot of women of colour experience agism, sexism.” She said that it is not necessarily white males, but often men of colour and also women that are white, who treat women of colour differently. “It’s a tough space for women of colour right now in academia,” says Dr. Banerjee, “many (women) are being vocal now, but there is always (a) risk to being vocal.”

Dr. Ananya Banerjee. Photo courtesy of Dr. A. Banerjee and Mohammed Khan.

Dr. Banerjee’s story of perseverance and personal sacrifice does not end with her work. In order to remove barriers in Canada’s medical system for racial minorities, and to help bring an end to systemic medical discrimation, Dr. Banerjee has admitted to consciously putting a very important part of her life on hold. “I had to put (marriage) on the side, just to get to where I am today…trying to get the most (done) before I enter the next stage of my life”. 

The story of insulin has evolved in the last one hundred years. A hundred years ago, Dr. Banting was on a mission to save Canadian lives by giving them the purified elixir of insulin. However, a hundred years later, Dr. Banerjee wants to save Canadians, especially the most vulnerable ones, from the misery of living an insulin dependent life. As a woman, her story of perseverance continues to resemble the stories of the historical women in research and development at Canadian institutions from a century ago. She continues to navigate the system with issues of gender pay disparities, medical biases, and racial marginalizations. However, like her predecessors from a century ago, who suffered grave injustices but kept finding solace in the successes of their work and being able to open doors for future women researchers, Dr. Banerjee continues to pave the path for future generations of women. She hopes that women will not have to continue to make sacrifices nor suffer injustices in the world of research and development. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Banerjee has emerged as the leading voice for racialized minorities suffering from medical based marginalization, and has advocated to prioritize the most vulnerable sectors of Ontario for COVID-19 vaccinations. Dr. Banerjee is currently appointed as an Assistant Professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill University. She actively utilizes social media platforms to advocate for health equities for minority groups and posts regular tweets bringing much needed awareness to Canadians on important subjects regarding diabetes and critical health issues. 

Bibliography:

Banerjee, Ananya Tina. Interview by Baneen Haideri. Video recording. Pickering, Ontario, March 3, 2021.

“Banerjee, Ananya Tina.” Dalla Lana School of Public Health, November 5, 2020. https://www.dlsph.utoronto.ca/faculty-profile/banerjee-ananya/;

“Team.” SAHRH. Accessed March 5, 2021. https://www.southasianhealthresearchhub.com/.