Gita Cherian believes in dreams, but she puts her faith in hard work. It was hard work—and a bit of luck—that propelled her from a small farm in the forests of southern India to the mountains and plains of Canada and now to the Department of Animal Sciences at Oregon State University.
Gita Cherian. Photo: Dennis Wolverton
Cherian came to OSU as an assistant professor of poultry nutrition in January 2000.
"She’s been very prolific," said James Males, the head of the Animal Sciences Department at the College of Agricultural Sciences. "We really appreciate that aggressive approach."
Cherian teaches courses in animal nutrition on both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Her research includes finding ways to introduce beneficial fats into poultry feed to benefit both the animals and humans. Cherian also has experimented with pig and dairy cattle nutrition.
"Working hard is more important than being smart," she said. Cherian had to be both to forge a career against the odds–and against the traditions for women growing up in rural India during the 1960s and ’70s.
She was born in Kerala, a lush, forested strip of land between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, a mountain range that runs along India’s west coast.
Her father, Mathew Cherian, was a role model. In addition to his job in the marketing department of a sugar and chemical company, the family had a small farm where they grew rice, coconuts and spices.It was not a life his young daughter wanted to emulate.
"I wanted a good professional job—something to give me job satisfaction and long-term career development," she said. Cherian’s love of science began early.
She belonged to a science club at school. Friday afternoons, she and the other students performed experiments. Cherian remembers how she watched, enthralled, as crystals of rock candy formed in a glass of sugar-water. The students also built a herbarium of medicinal plants, labeling each one with its scientific name.
"I always believed anything you did with your hands, you remembered," she said.
Cherian’s fascination with science continued through high school and two years of college, where she decided on a career in either human or veterinary medicine. It was a big dream, weighed against the odds of winning both a place in a university and a scholarship to pay her way.
"In a country with a population–at that time–of 980 million, getting any scholarship was extremely difficult."
Again, hard work paid off.
Cherian was awarded a scholarship from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. She was accepted for one of only 40 open places in the veterinary medicine program at Kerala Agricultural University.
As she completed her lower-division courses she became interested in animal nutrition.
Her dreams took a turn to the west when some young professors returned from universities in Canada and the United States with exciting accounts of the possibilities there.
"They were role models for me," she said. "I thought ‘If they can do it, so can I.’"
Tradition interrupted the 21-year-old Cherian’s plans.
"During my last years of college, my father decided that I had studied enough, and it was time for me to get married."
After a few weeks of seeking a suitable groom, Mathew Cherian brought home a polite young man named Raj Joseph for a formal, traditional "bride seeing" ceremony. Joseph was born in Kerala, but had moved to Canada, where he was pursuing a career in hotel management.
"I told him ‘I have this big dream of studying and furthering my education up to the Ph.D. level. Is that fine with you?’ He said yes." So she did, too.
Within three weeks, Gita Cherian and Raj Joseph were married. A few weeks later, they left for Banff National Park in Alberta, where Raj worked at the Banff Springs Hotel.
Although awed by Banff’s beauty, Cherian was bored by the lack of mental stimulation.
As often as she could, Cherian made the 90-minute drive to the University of Calgary. She completed her English-language requirements for university enrollment through independent study.
Cherian worked part-time selling jewelry and china at a gift store in Banff. Her days became more hectic in 1982 with the arrival of her son, Phillip, now a freshman at OSU.
Cherian was accepted as a graduate student in animal sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and the family moved. She earned her master’s degree in 1985.
The following year, she gave birth to another son, Danny, now in high school.
Cherian felt like a pioneer.
"Ten or 15 years ago, it was still rare to see women in the field," she said. "I would attend conferences and people would ask me ‘Are you here with your husband?’"
Respect for her work began after she published her first article in the Journal of Animal Science in 1988, an experience she described as being "like a kid with a new toy." She has published dozens since and still is thrilled to see them in print.
After three years as a research assistant, Cherian began working on her doctorate in poultry nutrition.
"One of the best memories I have of Edmonton was walking across Convocation Hall at the University of Alberta for the Ph.D. ceremony," she said.
Cherian has new dreams that occupy her energies now.
"I would like to develop the poultry nutrition program at OSU into one of the best in the western part of the U.S.," she said. "Through this process, I’d like to train future scientists, so they can meet the needs of the country."