Back to contents

Contesting for a Cause

6 months ago / by Bindu Gopal Rao

Indian American research scientist Darshana Patel is running for the California State Assembly in 2024

Darshana Patel
Darshana Patel

As the daughter of immigrants who struggled to realize the American dream, Darshana Patel knows the challenges that families can face.

“My family struggled financially during the early 80s’ recession in America,” Patel said. “I will never forget teachers in my elementary school who helped my mom learn about the nutrition assistance program and helped her sign us up for lunch tickets during the difficult times when my dad was out of work.”

A Life in Research

With need-based financial aid, she was able to earn a B.A. in biochemistry at Occidental College, earning a research training award at the Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda Maryland.

She worked on the biophysics of cell membrane proteins to earn her PhD at the University of California, Irvine. For funding, she had to organize a mini-research conference. But she was also a representative of the School of Biological Sciences to the UC Irvine Associated Graduate Students, the graduate student government at UCI,

Patel did post-doctoral work at Genentech, Inc, a biotech company in the Bay area.

“At Genentech, I researched membrane proteins involved in autoimmune disease and published a few papers … and even filed a patent,” she said. “My interest in civic leadership continued… I was the chair of the South Asian Network at Genentech, supporting employees by fostering professional growth, mentorship, and networking opportunities.”

Giving Back

Then her interest shifted from research to community service.

“A couple years after the birth of my second daughter, my dad passed away,” Patel said. “He was a strong believer in community service as was very active with his local Rotary Club. Around the same time, my husband and I started noticing that the educators, health care providers and first responders, who serve and strengthen our community, could not afford to live in our community.”

Patel started off small, joining the Parent Teacher Association and School Foundation. She was elected to the town council, and then the Community Planning Board (a City of San Diego advisory body).

“In 2016, the Poway Unified School District struggled because of financial mismanagement and criminal embezzlement. My community encouraged me to run for school board to get the district back on track,” Patel said. “As an elected trustee, I helped restore effective governance and fiscal responsibility to the Poway Unified School District. I used my scientific training to guide local schools through the COVID-19 pandemic. Voters overwhelmingly reflected me in 2020. I also serve on the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs. I am president of the San Diego County School Boards Association, a member of the San Diego Police Captain’s Advisory Board, and as an advisor to the Fleet Science Center.”

She noticed racial bias and bigotry involving immigrants and those not perceived as typically “American,” regardless of citizenship.

Representing the Underrepresented

“Our California state legislature is only 41.7% female despite women being about 50% of our state population,” Patel explained. “We don’t have many moms, scientists, or Indian Americans in elected office at that level. These gaps contribute to policy blind spots where those communities won’t have their needs addressed. Many immigrant families struggle to find the right balance between achievement, success, and well-being as they make sacrifices to gain the American dream. Our government policies should help them along their journey.”

Patel said immigrants can benefit from understanding how business development is different in the U.S.

“Additionally, to help dismantle bias and counter hate against Asians, I would promote diversity and inclusion by celebrating South Asian culture,” she said. “Also, I would increase education for South Asians on how to file hate incident complaints and hate crime reports.”

Fully funding public education is one of Patel’s top priorities. In addition, she said that the health care system needs reform.

“When middle class communities struggle with accessing high-quality, reliable, timely, and affordable health care, we know that the working poor have even greater struggles,” Patel argued. “Finally, I want to allocate attention to addressing climate change by supporting a range of policies that ensure we have clean air, water, and energy while mitigating impacts of floods, fires, and drought.”

A Changing World

The tech and innovation sectors in her district has grown. It also spawned award-winning K-12 and higher education institutions of learning. It also has a high-performing hospital system, and thousands of acres of dedicated park land and open space. But people worry about the rising cost of living. They worry about higher education costs, climate change impacts, health care accessibility, and the struggle to achieve the American dream.

“I am running for state Assembly District 76 in 2024 because I want to make sure that every person has the opportunity and resources to thrive,” Patel said. “I will invest in public education, work to keep our communities safe, protect our environment, address workforce and housing shortages, and improve and expand quality healthcare access for all Californians.”

Home Advantage

Her family has been a source of support and inspiration, she said.

“I have received financial investments for my campaign from family members outside California,” Patel said. “Their belief in me is a testament to their yearning to achieve the American dream. At community events, you will often find my family members at my side, taking pictures and working the room on my behalf. Civic life has many long and hard days. I am so grateful to have my family to come home to.”