We’ve all had a moment where time stood still. 

In the case of Rupa Lalchandani Tuan, PhD, that moment came during her freshman year at UCLA. Grades had just come in after Tuan purposefully jammed her course load full during the previous quarter in an effort to focus on academics over distractions. 

She snuck off to another room at her parents’ house to reveal the worst possible result – a failing grade in math class. “While I was never a great student, I had never gotten a grade that low in my life,” she said. “Was I on the right path towards living a life of purpose? What was my purpose, anyway?” 

Tuan immediately knew she needed to slow things down to find success. 

It was that experience that propelled Tuan to a budding career as a health care educator and researcher, one that evolved over time with help from her family and important lessons learned along the way. 

Tuan, an associate professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, shared the anecdote at UC San Francisco’s Parnassus Heights campus during the annual Last Lecture. The program is a student-initiated series where a nominated faculty member shares the professional, personal, spiritual and cultural experiences that have shaped them. 

Tuan serves as a teaching faculty in the UCSF schools of medicine, pharmacy and dentistry. She received a BS degree in psychobiology and a minor in education studies from UCLA, completing a PhD in physiology and pharmacology at Georgetown University. Tuan later explored a role for dynorphin in learning and memory as a Neurosciences Institute Interdisciplinary postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University before coming to UCSF. Her passion for teaching also has taken her into classrooms at UCLA, Georgetown, George Mason University, Foothill Community College and Notre Dame de Namur University. 

‘So the next generation could fly’

Tuan’s family had a major influence in shaping her life. 

Her grandmother, Chandra Lalchandani, whom Tuan described as “incredibly bright and hardworking,” was often at the top of her class in the Sindh region of India. After British rule on the Indian subcontinent ended in 1947, a number of economic and societal conditions changed. She became a widow with only a fourth-grade education in her teens. 

My grandmother was laser focused on making sure the next generation, especially the women, were independent and therefore educated.

Rupa Lalchandani Tuan, PhD

“Because of all of this, my grandmother was laser focused on making sure the next generation, especially the women, were independent and therefore educated,” she said. 

Her father then left for a better life in the U.S. at the tender age of 15. 

As Tuan described it, he “made some friends, bagged some groceries and went off to medical school” before coming back to India and ultimately marrying her mother before bringing all three back to a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia. 

“My grandmother took care of us, her three grandchildren, while my parents were able to work and build their careers,” Tuan said. “We benefitted not just from the precious time that we spent with her, but also seeing how she put her purpose into practice every single day in supporting the family so that the next generation could fly.” 

Through that family unit, Tuan learned the importance of working hard, putting family first and finding a cause to work toward. “The strong sense of purpose that these three people have – my grandmother, my father and my mother – has shaped who I am, what my missions are and how my purpose evolves with time,” she added. 

black and white very old photograph of two young women wearing Indian clothing
Tuan's grandmother, Chandra Lalchandani (left), with her sister, Champa Advani (right).
Indian family of six pose for a studio photo
Tuan's family: Her father, Ram Lalchandani (top left), MD, mother, Sita Lalchandani (top right), grandmother, Chandra Lalchandani (center), sister, Mira Lalchandani Kothari (left center), MD, Tuan (bottom left), and brother, Gopal Lalchandani (bottom right), MD.

Teaching the teacher 

Back to that moment at her parents’ house in Sacramento, Tuan was able to find the patience to succeed at her own pace using the lessons she learned from her family. 

But the lessons gleaned from her parents weren’t over yet. 

While we may perceive that those who came before us had a unifying purpose that tied their life neatly together, the reality is that everyone’s purpose evolves with time.” 

Rupa Lalchandani Tuan, PhD

Years later, when she told them she was dating an Asian American (who would later become her husband), their initial adverse reaction turned positive as they got to know him. As Tuan put it, her mother and husband, Edward Tuan, PhD, now regularly team up together during family disagreements and discussions. “Whenever I go to my parents’ house, they always talk about him and wish that he was there,” she said. 

Their ability to evolve was informative in Tuan’s personal growth. 

“I am a child of immigrants, so I know my culture as an Indian American but I don’t truly know their culture which is rooted in 1970s India,” she said. “But suffice to say, seeing this change in my parents changed my perspective too. They showed me that it is never too late to be adaptable and to be willing to grow.” 

That experience helped shape Tuan’s decision to move out of research and into teaching full time. “I had to pursue the dream that was always there,” she recalled. 

That road eventually led her to UCSF. 

“I realize how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to be even thinking about this,” she told the audience at Parnassus Heights. “It’s all because of what the generations before me have done and what they have sacrificed. While we may perceive that those who came before us had a unifying purpose that tied their life neatly together, the reality is that everyone’s purpose evolves with time.” 

Rupa smiles at audience holding paper notes

Last Lecture Series

The Sumner and Hermine Marshall Endowed Last Lecture is the product of an endowment created by the couple’s sons in their memory. The program is hosted annually by the UCSF Graduate and Professional Student Association. Recent years have featured D’Anne Duncan, PhD, Peter Chin-Hong, MD and Kai Kennedy, DPT. 

View past lectures