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Passion for the Pacific

Siteri Sauvakacolo
Friday, October 13, 2017

SHE may live thousands of miles away from home but the memories of Fiji still caress the scars in the heart of Dr Padma Lal.

Padma, as she is commonly known, is the wife of academic Professor Brij Lal.

She and her husband have not been able to enter the country for the past seven years. Despite these restrictions the Gujarati woman, who spent most of her young days at her Toorak home in Suva, has never stopped doing good using her interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to help Pacific Island countries address their priority development priorities.

Padma was recently named as one of the Pacific's 70 inspiring women. It's something she describes as an honour although she has no idea who nominated her. She was advised of this after the award had already been considered by the Pacific Community (SPC).

"It is very pleasing to be recognised as a successful Fijian and as a professional person in the company of other distinguished Fijians and Pacific Islanders, especially as I have been forced to live away from Fiji for many years," Padma said.

"Taking heed of my father's advice, I would suggest that one should not think about things like success, or fame and fortune.

"What is important in life is to find what makes you happy, follow your passion, do what your heart tells you and be prepared for hard work and perseverance.

"Even though I did not have a mentor, equally important in realising your full potential (based on my husband's experience), is the support of a good mentor, at least in the early stages of one's professional life."

Padma was one of Fiji's first science graduates and a gold medallist from the University of the South Pacific. She went on to teach at the same university.

She also did pioneering work in marine biology, and a pioneering PhD in environmental economics in relation to Fiji's marine environment and the interface with commercial agriculture.

Her book, Ganna (sugar cane in Hindi), brought together a collection of articles analysing most problem areas in the sugarcane and milling industries, including detailed analysis of the productivity (or rather the lack of it) on cane farms and sugar mills.

She has also worked for and developed solid reputations with international scientific research organisations such as ABARE (Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics), IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation).

Padma had no intention of leaving Fiji with her husband where she had a high profile regional job and they had bought a home for their retirement.

When she returned from Australia to Fiji to work in mid-2000, she had hoped to use her interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to help Pacific island countries to address their priority development priorities.

These were also development issues that could have benefited from her postgraduate education in Australia and Hawaii and professional experiences working as researcher and research manager in Australia as well as in Asia and the Pacific.

Despite all the problems she and her husband have faced, Padma still works on Pacific issues because that is where her heart is.

Padma also stressed that regardless of what circumstances we're born into, Pacific Islanders have all the opportunities to realise their full potential. She stressed it was important to embrace the opportunities with both hands and for people to pursue their passion without regard for fame or fortune.

"The world is your oyster; so work hard and overcome any challenges to leave the world a better place than you found it. That is my personal motto, my heartfelt passion."

Like any other successful woman, Padma has a few words of advice to share.

"Success is making a difference to the lives and wellbeing of our people through sustainable and resilient development while also conserving natural resources in the face of changing global, national and local forces.

"A successful person is one who makes the world a better place than what one was born into through hard work and sheer perseverance regardless of constraints and challenges faced."

Padma and her husband have two children.

Yogi, the elder has a Masters degree and is a change management consultant to the Queensland Government while their only son, Niraj, has a PhD in solar physics and works for the Victorian Government.

He was voted as one of the top five scientists in Australia under the age of 40 and produces science communication programs for ABC TV.

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