Breast cancer survivor, botanist beats the odds

Parikh kneeling on a green hilltop with more green hills in the background.

Dr. Anuja Parikh is a botanist, wife, sister, daughter and breast cancer survivor. She played an instrumental role in collecting key data to support land managers’ and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s work to recover the San Fernando Valley spineflower. Photo courtesy of Dr. Nathan Gale


Ashley McConnell
October 9, 2019

“Field season is coming,” said Dr. Anuja Parikh. “You can’t just sit around during field season.” She put on her gel prosthesis underneath her field gear, and headed to the day’s survey site: the slopes of Grapevine Mesa in southern California. Her husband, Dr. Nathan Gale, hiked just ahead of her, bushwhacking through some of the heavier brush to protect his wife from the thorny branches.

Parikh and her husband, Dr. Nathan Gale pose for a picture together.

Dr. Anuja Parikh and Dr. Nathan Gale, fondly called the “spineflower whisperers,” were among the botany team who rediscovered a once-believed to be extinct plant called the San Fernando Valley spineflower in 2000. Credit: Ashley McConnell/USFWS

“The prosthesis was filled with gel, and I didn’t want it to get poked by a shrub and have that stuff oozing out everywhere!” she said. It was the spring of 2000.

Parikh is a botanist, wife, sister, daughter and breast cancer survivor. She played an instrumental role in collecting key data to support land managers’ and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s work to recover the San Fernando Valley spineflower, a tiny buckwheat plant once believed to be extinct in Southern California.

She was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in late 1999, and underwent a complete mastectomy of the left breast soon after an annual mammogram detected abnormalities.

“It was all over the breast… so widespread. The doctor wanted the whole thing out,” she said.

The youngest of four sisters, Parikh came to the United States from India in 1983 at the age of 24 to pursue her doctorate studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Parikh around ten years old in India.

Anuja Parikh around ten-years old in India. Photo courtesy of Anuja Parikh.

“There were no woods to explore where I grew up in the city of Bombay, but I always was interested in hiking outdoors and exploring the natural world whenever possible,” she said.

During her second year at UC Santa Barbara, a large wildfire swept through the Los Padres National Forest, prompting her to narrow her focus to forest ecology, and eventually, the study of plants.

Later on, Parikh went on to pursue a career in botany with her husband, whom she met at UC Santa Barbara.

“I love what I do,” she said. “Spending time outside and looking on the ground for little flowers… it’s a chance to be a kid all over again.”

Parikh and Gale have been surveying and studying plants across Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, Kern, and Riverside counties in California for more than 30 years.

During her first field season following the mastectomy in 2000, the husband and wife team were among a team of botanists that rediscovered the San Fernando Valley spineflower on Grapevine Mesa of Newhall Ranch in Los Angeles County. Using her expertise in plant taxonomy, Parikh was the first to positively identify the species from Newhall Ranch. Later, she and others found more occurrences of the plant in other areas of the ranch.

Parikh and Gale look on the ground at spineflower growth.

Anuja Parikh and Nathan Gale observe growth from San Fernando Valley spineflower plants at Newhall Ranch in spring 2019. Credit: Ashley McConnell/USFWS

Some of these locations were on land slated for a large master-planned development - thousands of homes and businesses – threatening the continued existence of the spineflower. A multi-year phased effort ensued to find a balance among landowners, conservationists, natural resource agencies, scientists and the local community, with the goal to preserve, understand and recover the enigmatic species.

Following their rediscovery of the San Fernando Valley spineflower, Gale and Parikh were hired on as consultants by the landowner, Newhall Land and Farming Company, to conduct an inventory of flora across the ranch. Fondly called the ‘spineflower whisperers,’ they collected data integral to the long-term conservation of the tiny-flowered plant in the buckwheat family. Their surveys contributed to the development of a 2010 Spineflower Conservation Plan and a 2017 agreement between landowners and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish plants in new and existing sites and manage the species long-term.

Parikh sits on the ground examining a still unidentified plant.

Anuja Parikh examines a yet to be identified plant species in Southern California in 2011. Photo courtesy of Nathan Gale

In good rainfall years, Parikh and Gale would conduct daily field surveys for four to five months straight.

“After 10 to 12 hours slogging it out in 100 degree heat, she’d spend hours in the evening looking through a microscope to ID a plant,” Gale said. “She is incredibly thorough, incredibly persistent.”

In February 2018, Parikh was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma again, this time in her right breast. Following a partial mastectomy, she underwent 33 radiation treatments, five days a week through late spring.

A little more than a year following her second mastectomy and radiation therapy, Parikh and Gale walked the hillsides of Newhall Ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley, San Fernando Valley spineflower plants flourishing around them.

“It was astonishing,” she said. “It’s been a good year with a lot of rainfall and germination. Hopefully next year we’ll get good rain again.”

Since her initial diagnosis in 1999, Parikh has undergone eight surgeries, including reconstructive surgeries, and a hysterectomy due to a high risk of ovarian and cervical cancers.

Parikh examining a plant

Anuja Parikh in her typical field gear conducting a botany survey. Photo courtesy of Nathan Gale

“She will not give up. When other people give up, she keeps going,” Gale said.

Parikh was by Gale’s side when pre-cancerous polyps were detected in his colon. “In the middle of what she was going through, she also saved my life. It was her persistence with getting screenings... that’s why we’re both still here.” He had part of his colon removed in 2004.

Both continue to undergo annual screenings.

Black and white photo of Parikh when she was around three with her sisters, mother and father, and maternal grandmother in the foothills of the Kumaon Himalayas in India.

Anuja Parikh, around three-years old (lower right), with her sisters, mother and father, and maternal grandmother in the foothills of the Kumaon Himalayas in India. Photo courtesy of Anuja Parikh.

Parikh currently is in remission, and continues to enjoy worldwide travels and botanical explorations, while making plans for another year of field work ahead. “It’s such a privilege to be here doing what I love to do,” she said. And it certainly helps to have Nathan at the ready to help clear any thorns along the way.

For more information on early detection, visit https://www.cancer.gov/ or https://www.nih.gov/about-nih/what-we-do/nih-almanac/national-cancer-institute-nci.

Ashley McConnell

Ashley McConnell

About the writer...

Ashley McConnell is the public affairs supervisor for the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office. Ashley established her love of wildlife and the great outdoors as a child exploring national parks in South Africa. Today, she guides a team of communicators who tell stories about the unique and diverse wildlife and wild places of the southern and central California coast.

You can find more of their work at http://www.fws.gov/ventura and http://www.facebook.com/VenturaFWO

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