Stanford professor who needed bone-marrow match dies at 54

Nalini Ambady, whose students rallied to find donor, loses battle with leukemia

A Stanford professor, whose students and friends organized events around the world to try to find a bone-marrow transplant donor for her, has died.

Nalini Ambady, 54, a professor of psychology, died of leukemia Oct. 28 without having found a donor.

Cheek swab events throughout the United States and near her birthplace in India did locate matches for seven other people in need of bone-marrow transplants. But of the roughly dozen people who were potential matches for Ambady, half ultimately turned out to be incompatible and the others chose not to donate.

A social psychologist, Ambady was known for her research showing that people can form accurate first impressions about others based on only seconds-long observations of their nonverbal behavior.

"Thin slices," as these quick impressions are known, have become a staple of social science textbooks and were popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2005 bestseller "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking."

Born in Calcutta, Ambady earned her bachelor's degree from Delhi University. She came to the United States to study for a master's in psychology at the College of William and Mary and later earned a PhD in social psychology from Harvard University.

She taught at College of the Holy Cross, Harvard and Tufts University before joining the Stanford faculty in 2011.

Ambady argued that nonverbal behavior is important because it is a quick, efficient and relatively effortless way of obtaining information about others. At birth, humans respond to and produce nonverbal cues and nonverbal behavior that can serve as a primary mechanism of socialization across the lifespan. As she put it, "Nonverbal behavior offers a means of adapting to the social world."

She put these concepts to the test in one of her first publications, in 1993. She created 30-second, silent video clips of college professors delivering a lecture and asked people who had never seen the professors before to assess their teaching effectiveness. Remarkably, the scores from independent raters fell in line with those of students who had actually spent an entire semester in the professor's class. The results held even when she shortened the clip to 10, 6 and 2 seconds.

The work demonstrated that perceptual judgments made on the basis of very brief observations of nonverbal behavior can be surprisingly accurate and can influence a person's long-term impressions. The findings challenged established wisdom that intuitive reasoning is typically wrong and became a basis for the growing appreciation of the usefulness of nonconscious or "fast" thinking.

Ambady believed that even without conscious awareness, initial evaluative impressions can influence whom we sit next to in a subway, whom we hire for a job and, perhaps, even whom we marry. Her follow-up studies showed that similar snap evaluations can accurately predict a person's sexual orientation or political affiliation or a CEO's company profits.

In 1999, she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Bill Clinton in recognition of this work. In February, she will be posthumously awarded the prestigious Carol and Ed Diener Award in Social Psychology, a recognition give by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology to scholars whose work has added substantially to the body of knowledge of the field.

Ambady was originally diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, but treatment drove the disease into remission. When it returned last November, doctors told her she needed a bone marrow transplant. South Asians – and minorities in general – are severely underrepresented in bone marrow donor registries in the United States.

Students and friends began fundraising drives to purchase and distribute the cheek swab kits used to identify potential donor matches, both in the United States and near her birthplace in India, where doctors believed there might be a better chance of locating a genetic match.

There are many reasons people ultimately decide not to donate, including cultural taboos or fears of pain or inconvenience, medical experts say. Donating bone marrow is only slightly more complex than donating blood, though it requires multiple visits. Some people's contact information simply falls out of the system, especially the case with college-age donors who frequently change addresses.

Ambady is survived by her husband, Raj Marphatia, and their daughters Maya and Leena.

Memorial services are pending. Memorial contributions can be made to the Nalini Ambady Memorial Fund, care of the Department of Psychology, Jordan Hall, Building 420, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. Make checks payable to Stanford University.

— Palo Alto Weekly staff


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Posted by Bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 1, 2013 at 12:06 am

Bru is a registered user.

What a terrible shame. I feel so sorry for her and her family. I think maybe the people who do these transplants for bone marrow need to post a video of the procedure so people can be informed about it. I've heard it is not that bad, not what it used to be. What a waste. Such a bright mind and such interesting research.

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Posted by a
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 1, 2013 at 9:17 am

What an amazing person, it is a real loss to the world. My own life is palpably better because of the societal shift about intuitive thinking, I did not know the central role her work played.

Please do not think the situation with the bone marrow donor is a tragedy. In my own case, I have signed up for a registry years go, but in the time since, was diagnosed with an illness that makes me ineligible to donate. You don't know why people did not, very likely if they chose to go in the registry, they didn't just choose not to donate without serious reasons.

And transplant isn't guarantee of a cure. Two very close people to me have died of lung complications from bone marrow transpants in the last four years. One was told she had such a great chance of cure, the doc said if you were going to have cancer, you'd want it to be that one. In both cases, there was an exact match, including sibling match.

I hope those who loved her can take comfort in the lives saved by their efforts, but let go of any recriminations that they somehow failed because the matches they found didnt (or more likely, couldn't) donate.

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Posted by The facts, please
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 1, 2013 at 9:28 am

The truth is that it is very difficult to find a perfect match for people of certain ethnicities, and near impossible for people of mixed ethnicities to find a perfect match. The match MUST be perfect to succeed.

Case in point: The daughter of a close friend desperately needed a bone marrow transplant due to the fact that she had developed secondary leukemia as a result of chemotherapy for a spinal tumor. After three years of searching, including a search in Europe, no perfect match was found, and time was running out. A close, but not perfect match, was found in another state, and that bone marrow donation was flown here for immediate transplantation. Less than two years later, my friend's daughter developed host vs graft disease as her body rejected the transplant. Her immune system failed, she caught the flu twice in a row, developed double pneumonia twice in a row, and died of multiple organ failure.

This poor girl was of mixed ethnicity, and had been sick since nine years of age, and had spent nearly half her life in the hospital. The fact is that ethnic and mixed race people do not donate organs and bone marrow as much as other Americans. Mixed race is such a broad term that it is very difficult to match the exact mix of the patient, even from a large pool of mixed race donors ( if such a pool existed).

Ideally, everyone would be a card-carrying donor, but this is not a perfect world. Cord blood donations can be lifesavers, but the cost of donation and storage are extremely prohibitive. Until these problems can be remedied, valuable lives will continue to be lost.

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Posted by Goolrukh Vakil
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 1, 2013 at 3:19 pm

My deepest sympathy to Dr. Ambady's family.

This potentially avoidable tragedy highlights the impact of culture in our daily lives. From creating interesting differences, to misunderstandings, to academic insight, here we have a situation where cultural taboos (of the Indians who genetically matched for a bone marrow transplant) play an important role.

Mired in superstition, Indians largely conduct their daily lives based on the location of the stars and their influence shed down upon us on earth. Shrouded in spiritual quest, legitimate for many, some conduct their relationships with a fa├žade of tact and neutral sympathy that belies true empathy. The giving of life for life can perhaps be one's greatest opportunity for good karma, yet, while believing so strongly in karma, Indians who were a match defied their own superstition and rejected this opportunity--to give mere marrow, not even their life.

It is not their "fault." The psychology behind their fear, this transposition of beliefs, this self-defeat, this confluence of superstitions one on top of the other such that there is ultimate confusion as to what is the spirituality in their religion, is what underlies decisions to not donate bone marrow to save a life. It is a real-life study in cross-cultural psychology. The importance of non-compartmentalized academia is unavoidable now--it can join cultural psychology with sociology, religion, anthropology, philosophy in order to continue to truly educate. To educate not only our educators (of people who can donate bone marrow), but to understand the underlying forces that prevent people from donating bone marrow such that they too can be handled with empathy while encouraging to overcome their fear.

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