Tejal Desai's fantastic voyage
By Tim Stoddard
Not many scientists have eureka moments while riding their tricycles, but Tejal Desai recalls a pivotal ride on her childhood trike that steered her toward a career in biomedical engineering. To be accurate, it wasn't the ride so much as the fall, which sent her to the hospital for stitches. “It introduced me to the world of medicine,” she says, “and to the idea of developing things that can repair the body.”
Visitors to the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, Calif., this summer will be able to learn more about Desai's formative years as a shy, inquisitive child who grew up to become a rising star in the field of biomedical engineering. Desai, an ENG associate professor of biomedical engineering, is one of several researchers featured in an upcoming exhibition on nanotechnology at Lawrence Hall, a public science center on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, that promotes science education in prekindergarten through high school.
Supported by a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the exhibition, entitled NanoZone, will introduce teenagers to the world of nanotechnology and show them that today's leading researchers were themselves once curious kids. “One of the big things they're trying to get across,” Desai says, “is that any little kid can become a scientist. I had exposure to science exhibits like this when I was young, and I think it's great that Lawrence Hall is promoting engineering to young girls using nanotechnology for biomedical applications.”
Visitors to NanoZone will be able to explore the science of ultra-small things (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter, or about 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a single human hair) through interactive displays. Computer kiosks in the exhibition will have animated virtual characters and educational games. In the wing focusing on Desai, a computer screen will display an animated biography of her childhood, which she helped the Lawrence Hall staff develop. The cartoon begins with a reenactment of her fall from the tricycle, followed by other events in her childhood that nurtured her interest in science, such as inspiring teachers who encouraged her to get involved in science-related activities outside of the classroom. “The exhibit talks about how I was shy in school — and I was — and how I wore glasses and braces,” Desai says. “It also talks about how when I got older, I wanted to do work with diabetes because there's a history of the disease in my family.”
Desai, who was recently named one of the top 10 brilliant scientists for 2003 by Popular Science magazine, is probably best known for her work designing biological microelectromechanical devices (bioMEMS) for treating type-1 diabetes. As a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, she set out to build an implantable device that would eliminate the daily insulin injections diabetic patients need to give themselves to control blood sugar levels. Her solution was a tiny silicon microcapsule that functions like an artificial pancreas. Smaller than half the width of a human hair, the microcapsule is a hollow silicon bubble filled with pancreatic cells that secrete insulin. The shell is perforated like a tea strainer, with pores allowing oxygen and other nutrients to flow in to keep the foreign pancreatic cells alive, and let insulin flow out. The openings are small enough, however, to prevent antibodies and white blood cells from entering and attacking the foreign cells. Desai's implant has worked in rats, and is now being developed by a private company for human use.
NanoZone will have an eight-inch-long biocapsule that visitors can hold to better understand the concept behind this treatment for diabetes. There will also be a computer game called Save Ratty, where kids can test their understanding of porous membranes and the mechanics of biocapsules. Ratty is a virtual lab rat with type-1 diabetes, and the goal of the game is to design a biocapsule for him with pores that can prevent antibodies from attacking the insulin-producing cells inside.
Desai recently visited Lawrence Hall with her family to see a prototype of the exhibition. “It was kind of strange to see a big poster of me as a little kid,” she says, “but it was fun. It's nice to see your work from a kid's point of view. There were actually some kids at the exhibit, and it was neat to see them getting excited about the concepts.”
For more information about the exhibition, or to browse through a prototype of Save Ratty and Desai's animated autobiography, visit www.nanozone.org.