From a small town in India to a small town in Southwest Colorado, Fort Lewis College professor Tapati Dutta’s journey has taken her all over the world with largely one goal in mind: to understand and help other people.
“It has been quite, looking back, adventurous, reflective, and given me a chance to touch people’s hearts,” she said. “The journey wouldn’t have been possible without a huge amount of support, love, kindness.”
Dutta, 47, grew up in a small town in India, a single child to a father who worked in the public sector and a mother who was a homemaker. Around the fifth grade, her father became blind after an illness, which changed the course of her life.
As a result of her father’s blindness, he lost his job. In a stringent patriarchal society, her mother was not allowed to work in India, and the family experienced homelessness for a time. Eventually, her father died by suicide.
“I was hardly in middle school, and I did not know whether I’d complete my schooling or not,” she said. “I had most of my learning through the stumbling of my own experience.”
But through it all, Dutta said she was able to learn the values of caregiving and understanding people in vulnerable environments and populations. So when she had to choose an area of study at school, it was obvious: social work.
“Those were the seeds that taught me education is the key, and come what may, that has to happen,” she said.
Dutta completed her studies in 1998, and went on to work at different humanitarian organizations addressing issues such as HIV, sexual reproductive health and cervical cancer, in India and Africa.
“Being at the receiving end during my childhood years, I loved that notion of helping people to help themselves,” she said.
But increasingly, Dutta became interested in not just the micro-view of issues on the ground through social work, but also looking at larger global issues through the lens of population studies.
She received her master’s degree in population studies in 2013 from the International Institute for Population Sciences in India, and not long after, received a scholarship to start researching those issues on an academic level.
Dutta made her way to the United States in 2015 and went for her doctorate at the School of Public Health in Indiana.
“My interest, passion has been people-centric,” she said. “How do you engage with different kinds of communities? Why are some human beings just uncomfortable to talk to another person?”
By that time, Dutta could use her past experience working with sex workers, remote tribes, even cannibal tribes in Africa, and start thinking about how best to reach at-risk, often stigmatized groups in a meaningful way.
And after receiving her master’s, Dutta knew she wanted to explore and accomplish that goal through academia.
So, she applied and took a job at FLC in 2019 to teach global health, principles of public health and epidemiology, along with mentoring students on their public health internships.
“I think this is the most ideal place I could have been,” she said. “It’s small, it’s diverse and it allows me to concentrate on every student.”
Dutta’s line of studies is especially apt as the COVID-19 pandemic changes the way communities across the world think about public health.
While vaccines, for instance, have been met with some skepticism in the U.S., that’s not unique to the country. Dutta said she read a study where Indigenous leaders in South America fear the vaccine will turn people into alligators.
In Australia, on the other hand, Dutta said health officials are conducting community-led, evidence-based work for effective vaccination communications among tribal populations there.
“Historically, we’ve never seen a vaccine come up that fast, and that’s a huge leap and thing to applaud in terms of research and vaccine science,” she said. “But because it came fast, that leads to different questions.”
To address the issue, Dutta said there needs to be better messaging to communities, and that messaging needs to be tailored in a fashion that speaks effectively to that particular group.
In a way, it’s an exercise of the exact studies she’s been doing all these years, and she can see that looking at her own past after living homeless, the loss of her father and an uncertain future.
“I don’t think community-based systems were there to listen,” she said. “But things are changing.”