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Curing From Within
Indians who grow up in America often feel pressured to join the ranks of doctors and engineers. Tejal Desai’s father, an engineer by training, tried to dissuade her instead. It’s a good thing he didn’t succeed because Desai’s groundbreaking work in bioengineering could eventually help diabetics do away with their daily injections.
Desai works with very small machines that can enter the body to treat diseases. They are unique because "they don’t just deliver the drug but also find the right target", she explains.
Desai, who grew up in Santa Barbara, California (yes, where the soap opera is set), was equally interested in science, literature and sociology in high school. In tenth grade, she was selected for a summer course during which she met women in the burgeoning field of biomedical engineering, and was hooked. She went on to get an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering, with a minor in political science, at Brown University. She received her PhD at the University of California, where her advisor was studying drug delivery.
Since her research started out in pancreatic cells, Desai has expanded on it. Her work centres around the creation of tiny capsules that release insulin when needed. The basic device is small enough to be implanted, or even ingested, into the body. The actual capsule, which looks more like a miniature photo-frame than a pill, is 500 microns in area, or about five times the diametre of a human hair.
Each device, or bio-microelectromechanical system (bioMEMS), has two components: a healthy cell—in this case, a cell from the pancreas that can secrete insulin—and a silicon chip on which the cell is placed; and they are wrapped in a semi-permeable membrane through which the insulin can diffuse out but nothing can enter. These bioMEMS could also be used in treating anaemia or enzyme deficiencies, according to Desai.
Science is not the only thing that occupies Desai. Between teaching, work-related travel, tennis, hiking and working out, she finds time to mentor youth, especially girls, with an interest in science. In college, Desai was a peer counsellor and worked with the admissions office to secure financial aid for deserving minority applicants.
Currently, Desai maintains a lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago as well. Though she started at Boston University in January, her personal effects only got to Boston three weeks ago. Desai and her husband are still settling into their new life in Massachusetts.
In the air are talks of starting up a biotechnology company with some of her colleagues in the field. Desai’s research has garnered much attention. In 2000, at the age of 28, she was hailed as one of technology’s top 100 young innovators. She’s still young and the innovations are sure to continue.