Los Alamos biomedical researcher Alina Deshpande is dedicated to strengthening the world’s fight against infectious diseases by providing new tools for early detection and mitigation of disease outbreaks.
Hailing from the world’s second most populated country, microbiologist Alina Deshpande understands how our highly mobile and connected world may be susceptible to pandemics. A researcher at Los Alamos, Deshpande left India with her husband to become a student at the Lab and pursue a doctorate in biomedicine. Her graduate research focused on cervical cancer genetics. She received a post-doctoral fellowship in 2004 to pursue research on host-pathogen interactions, studying cholera and anthrax.
Always fascinated by infectious diseases, Deshpande leads a global disease surveillance project at the Lab, a multi-million dollar effort that explores the most critical aspects of international disease awareness. Deshpande’s team believes it is essential that nations are able to quickly detect and characterize a biological threat affecting human, animal or agricultural health. Detection and characterization enables lives to be saved and offers improved outcomes in various scenarios such as the purposeful release of a biothreat agent, an emerging infectious disease outbreak, pandemic, environmental disaster, or food-borne illness.
1) What inspired you to work in STEM?
My great grandmother, widowed at a very young age, was the first woman—and for that matter, the first member of my family—to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Prague. For a woman in India, this was a significant achievement at the time, and she has been my inspiration to pursue higher learning.
My teachers in undergraduate school fostered my affinity for biology and biomedical science. I had always been fascinated with the area of infectious diseases and had a dream of working at the CDC. Some people find Hollywood glamorous, for me it was the CDC in Atlanta!
2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?
I have been leading a project in the area of global disease surveillance for the past four years. I am proud of this project because my team and I were able to successfully deliver what we had promised our sponsors despite them asking us to complete the project in two years instead of the original three that we were awarded the grant for. In fact, this impressed the sponsors so much that they tasked us with more work and continued our funding. As a result our small project has grown much larger and is a multi-million dollar effort. I am very proud of my enthusiastic, diligent and creative team.
3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
Being a biomedical scientist and having a daughter, my experience has been that while the opportunities for engagement are offered in schools, a significant push must occur inside the child’s family, particularly if a parent is already in STEM. There is no greater motivation than to see and be encouraged by your parent to explore science and its application. My feeling is that this needs to be a two way street with schools and families having equal input, and starts made early in life. A simple approach could be to demonstrate science application in daily life.
Also, while STEM programs for women, girls and underrepresented groups may exist, often times, the awareness is what limits engagement. Better communication by schools and educational institutions and perhaps involvement by the commercial sector involved in science is key.
4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
You can be successful in anything your heart desires, but you must be persistent, focused and not impulsive.
5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I have a beautiful and smart daughter, Ashvini who is 16 and is attracted to biology right now. My husband, Raj Vaidya and I have been married for 23 years and he has always been my motivator. He is big on education and always inspires me to keep learning. We love to travel as a family and have visited many countries around the world. Both Raj and I have been teaching step aerobics at the YMCA since the late 90s.
I volunteer in school for various activities and have been volunteering as a teacher of North Indian classical dance (Kathak) at the YMCA since 2004. I direct and choreograph benefit shows every year and proceeds of my shows have gone to orphanages, schools for mentally challenged, science labs for the underprivileged, hospice care, cancer wards, etc. in various locations in India. Dance is my passion and creating the story, directing and choreographing the annual shows is my stress release!