Sahana Athreya ’25 (She/Her)
We Are Wildcats is a human-interest column that aims to share the extraordinary within the ordinary at Davidson College and to showcase the inspiring things that make each and every Wildcat unique. If you wish to be featured or know someone whose story needs to be heard, please feel free to contact email@example.com! Stay tuned for future stories! This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is your name, class year and major?
A: My name is Kavi Gandhi, I’m a member of the class of 2025 and I’m not too sure about my prospective major, but I’ll say potentially a double major in Biology and Public Health.
Q: You and your parents operate the Yash Gandhi Foundation. Would you like to tell us more about its origin story and your mission?
A: My parents started the Yash Gandhi Foundation back in 2001 after they got my brother’s diagnosis for a rare genetic disease called mucolipidosis II. It’s a terminal condition that has no cure, so they set out to find ways to raise money that they could then contribute to research efforts into the disease. As it stands right now, our mission, [which] I think I can quote directly, is to build patient advocacy, sustain research, and raise awareness to eventually find a cure or develop therapies and treatments for mucolipidosis, which is also known as I-cell disease.
Q: What kind of fundraising events have you done in the past?
A: Back before I was born, they did annual fundraiser functions where they had raffles and just small ways to raise money like that, and then back in 2011 we started doing golf tournaments for a couple of years. Then we started doing 5K runs, and those have kind of been our biggest fundraising events, helping us raise up to $60,000. We also have smaller-scale fundraising, like selling T-shirts. We’ve actually also fundraised a lot through other families who are somehow affected by the disease, who will rally up their friends and people in their community and raise money; that’s also been a really powerful way to do fundraising [because it] kind of branched out in different areas of the country and the world.
Q: A quote on your website said that it was because of the Yash Gandhi Foundation that there has been a renaissance in I-cell research, with more research in the last three years than in the last thirty years. Do you want to elaborate on what research you did and how your foundation helped with this ‘renaissance?’
A: Yes, absolutely! So the advancement in our research over the past couple of years has been really, really exciting. Since the disease is so rare it took a while to actually understand the way it just functions in the body, its pathology, and what causes it. So at the forefront, that’s what a lot of the research was; that work began in the 1980s and kind of went through the mid 2000s. We’re at a point now where researchers are comfortable with understanding how it operates in the body and what causes it at a biological level. There’s really been this big shift towards developing some kind of viable therapy or treatment for the disease, and we’ve also funded some of the early stages of that.
I guess most of those early stages were spent on understanding how the disease works, but at the tail end there was the beginning of pivoting towards developing some kind of treatment, which we’re still really far from. But the fact that they’re starting to look at that is really promising.
Q: I believe you interned at the Greenwood Genetic Center last summer. Do you want to tell us what your experience was like?
A: The Greenwood Genetic Center is one of the research institutions that we’ve been partnered with from the beginning. We’ve given research grants to them every year for a pretty long time now, and since this field is so small and the disease is so rare, they’re one of the most significant research institutions looking at the disease right now. I got a chance to spend seven weeks in their labs in South Carolina and witness firsthand the kind of research that they’re doing.
In the beginning, I spent a lot of time reading through some of the literature of the disease research. I had a really thick binder of scientific articles that I went through in a couple weeks and then spent a lot of time shadowing their labs. They have an aquaculture facility, where they house a lot of zebrafish with different genetic diseases. They look specifically at mucolipidosis as well. They’re able to do a lot of genotypic work in those fish and look at embryonic development which is super cool; it’s a really valuable research organism.
That experience was so impactful because I had spent so long on the fundraising side of what we do and just saying, “Oh yeah, we give our money to research into institutions,” but not really knowing what that meant. The time I spent there really allowed me to see the full circle of what it meant to be working in a research institution and what actually happened there, so that was remarkable.
Q: How can members of the Davidson community support the Yash Gandhi Foundation?
A: So I’ve talked a couple times about just how rare I-cell disease is, so one of the things we really champion is this idea of just raising awareness. Follow us on social media, and if you are compelled by our story, sharing it with someone you love can be a really, really big step. Of course, donations are very much appreciated. We donate 100% of every dollar raised directly to research.
Q: How has working for this foundation impacted you?
A: One thing I always love to talk about is the impact that the whole community of I-cell families has had on me. We did five 5K fundraisers before COVID hit and every year we had families from across the country join us. It’s so cool to meet people who you might have never met in person before, but feel like you share some kind of special connection [with]; that’s always been something that’s really important to me. This is not just for me, but for those families as well. They’ve been a huge part of this, and that community is something that is really special.