Dr. Tejal Desai is one of the leading researchers investigating ways to deliver medicine on the microscopic level. Her career in research and academia has led up to her current position as chair of the Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences department in the University of California San Francisco School of Pharmacy. In an interview with Florida Polytechnic University, Dr. Desai shares her start in science and advice for aspiring scientists.
Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Florida Poly: What sparked your interest in science?
Dr. Desai: I was interested in math and science in high school, but it was a summer program for girls interested in engineering that sparked my interest in bioengineering. I met a women who was designing orthopedic implants and thought it was so cool to be able to design materials to help people.
Florida Poly: Any one person or event that inspired you?
Dr. Desai: I have had many great mentors over the years. My high school physics teacher, my undergraduate research advisor, and my PhD advisor were all instrumental in supporting my interests in pursuing science.
Florida Poly: How did you decide on nanotechnology specifically?
Dr. Desai: I trained as a biomedical engineer with an emphasis in materials science. I realized that in order to interact with cells in the body, you had to work in a size scale that was on the micron or nanometer scale. I was at Berkeley as a graduate student when the field of nanotechnology was just started to emerge, and I was able to start to apply those tools to biomedical science.
Florida Poly: Describe a discouraging moment early in your career and how you overcame it.
Dr. Desai: Early on in my college career I was not doing well in my engineering classes. I was involved in too many activities and taking too many classes and I didn’t realize how much time I needed to put into my courses. My faculty advisor told me that I probably wasn’t cut out to be an engineer and perhaps I should switch majors. I think that motivated me to prove him wrong. I buckled down and got involved in research and ended up enjoying and doing well in my subsequent classes. Little did I think I would be a bioengineering professor 20 years later.
Florida Poly: Tell me about a eureka moment in your research, or an event that confirmed you made the right choice.
Dr. Desai: There are many eureka moments that happen in biomedical research. I would say my first eureka moment was during graduate school when we first put pancreatic cells into a nanocapsule and realized that they could live and produce insulin in that environment. It was exciting to see how nanomaterials could interface with living cells – something that had not really been done before.
Florida Poly: Tell me about a typical day at your office.
Dr. Desai: My typical day involves meeting with students about research, lecturing in a course, meeting with collaborators on a project and working on grants or papers that we are trying to publish. No day is the same and the science as well as students make it very dynamic.
Florida Poly: What advice do you have for students considering a career in your field?
Dr. Desai: Be open to new ideas, take risks, and be resilient. Don’t let setbacks take you off your path.