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Priyanka Desirazu is Leading by Example

1 year ago / by Bindu Gopal Rao

Priyanka Desirazu always finds ways to give back to her Cincinnati community. A science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) mentor since 2008 with the Global STEM Alliance program, she also works with the New York Academy of Sciences, and Freedom Employability Academy (FEA), a non-governmental organization in India. For her work, she was invited to the TEDWomen 2021 Conference and is to receive the Cincinnati Area Network’s Generation Now Award this month.

Looking Back

Growing up and watching her father’s work as a scientist, the lab was always an exciting place for Desirazu. Her dad set up a small chemistry lab at home so she could practice experiments regularly and safely. Her mother, who had a PhD in history and archaeology and also taught French and German, ensured Desirazu marinated in a rich medley of influences.

“Dinner table conversations included quizzes on the capitals of the world and the elements of the periodic table,” Desirazu said. “I enjoyed mathematics, was intrigued by computer programming, had a keen interest in biology, and liked dismantling gadgets and re-building them – and so ended up doing my undergrad in biotechnology engineering at Sir MVIT in Bangalore, India. I supplemented my learning by doing various internships here in the U.S. every summer, narrowing my field of interest to biomedical engineering, which I found fascinating.”

Priyanka Desirazu at the TED conference
Priyanka Desirazu at the TED conference

The first year, she interned at the Harvard Medical School where she worked on the development of novel biomaterials as potential treatments for brain cancer. The following year, she interned at Washington University in St. Louis where she worked on G-protein signaling. Johns Hopkins was always her dream school, and that is where she went in 2014.

According to Desirazu, “Having been in the U.S. for eight years now, I truly believe that it has given me various opportunities in myriad fields for me to explore and assimilate in meaningful ways to my life, such as car racing, STEM mentoring, participating in cooking competitions and, most importantly, working at a world-renowned hospital with a team of brilliant scientists doing top notch research.”

Clinical Research

Desirazu works at the Center for Pulmonary Research and Imaging at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where she conducts clinical trials and research studies involving those with pulmonary disease.

According to her, this entails going through their medical history, making sure they satisfy inclusion and exclusion criteria, reaching out to the patient via phone, explaining the study to them (in this case, a modified MRI scan), answering any questions they might have, scheduling a study visit, conducting the study visit (that includes monitoring their vital signs among other things), following up with the patient the next day, analyzing these MRI images and then discussing the results with the physician team.

“I also train clinical research coordinators and oversee the regulatory aspect of clinical trials, responsible to make sure that the Institutional Review Board (IRB) is kept up to date with all the relevant research and protocol information,” she said. “As a project manager for a multi-site study, I assist with writing protocols, developing consent forms and case report forms, managing study start-up for all sites and being a resource for the nationwide team.”

Work with Young Professionals

Desirazu is the president of the Young Professionals Group at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where she connects, educates, and engages young professionals through professional development and community service. As a group, they participate in community service, fundraising, career development and networking events for all employees.

As she put it, “I am also part of a mentoring program … where I mentor employees in various fields including clinical research, nursing, and information technology. I tailor each mentoring experience (about 3-6 months) specific to the person since the fields are so varied, eventually keeping the core values of the hospital in mind.”

Many Hats

Desirazu also races for the Cincinnati Regionals, even though she learned to drive a car only when she was 27. She started racing in 2020 and has won consecutive championship trophies in both 2021 and 2022. The Cincinnati Sports Car Club of America has about 160 race car drivers in every tournament, around five of whom are women. She is the only woman of color.

Mentoring students in India
Mentoring students in India

“Of the 155 men, there are maybe two or three men of color. This has stood out to me since my first race,” Desirazu said. “I hope to increase the number of women participants. A personal goal is to inspire more women of color to participate in racing. I dislike the stereotype that women are bad drivers. If I can inspire more women and more women of color to just try racing, I believe it will be a step toward something big in the future.”

She rates her experience at the TEDWomen 2021 Conference as one of her finest experiences.

“Exceptional speakers, brilliant exchange of ideas, networking opportunities, inspiring talks, motivating experiences and an atmosphere that makes you feel nothing is impossible,” Desirazu said.

Her work has won her numerous awards and accolades. According to her, her biggest takeaway from every award is, “I need to do more, and I need to do better. I need to be able to reach more people and help make a difference in their life. I have learned that true happiness comes from helping other people, in whichever capacity I can. Being there for someone when it is convenient to you is not called being helpful. Being there for someone no matter what and at times they need you is what is called being helpful. I try to apply that in every sphere of my life. It is important to discover and play to our strengths, harness our fears, leverage uncertainty and maintain a moral authority.”

If pioneering women are your thing, you should check out Overcoming the Superficial!