Desai’s responsibilities will include continuing to grow the school’s research enterprise with a focus on pressing societal challenges, as well as deepening research and teaching collaboration within the school and across campus. A key priority will be continuing to diversify the school’s student body at all levels while recruiting and retaining more faculty from historically underrepresented groups.
Desai said she looks forward to leading a program that was formative in her own career as a researcher and educator.
“Brown engineers tend to be people with a very particular drive to improve the world around them,” she said. “Students come to Brown because they want to make a positive impact on society and they see engineering as a powerful way to do that. I am excited about coming back to Brown to create a vision of how the school as a whole can represent those ideals, and how it can continue to be a leader in this intersection between engineering and societal impact.”
Track record of innovative research and leadership
At UCSF, Desai has been a key leader in developing a new Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, for which she served as chair from 2014 to 2021. With a professor in residence appointment at the University of California Berkeley, she has led a National Institutes of Health training grant for the UCSF/UC Berkeley Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering since 2008. She also serves as founding director for UCSF’s HIVE initiative, which is aimed at enhancing engineering education and research across the university. Before her arrival at UCSF, she helped to launch new undergraduate and graduate curricula, as well as new teaching and technology labs, at Boston University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In her research, Desai leads the Therapeutic Microtechnology and Nanotechnology Laboratory at UCSF. She uses micro- and nanoscale techniques to develop ways of targeting and delivering therapeutics to specific places in the body. Along with her students and collaborators, she has developed material systems aimed at enhancing tissue regeneration, as well as platforms that work synergistically with human physiology to address autoimmune disorders and other conditions. Desai has published nearly 250 academic research papers that have been cited collectively over 22,000 times. Her work has generated 27 U.S. patents issued or pending.
Desai has earned recognition as one of MIT Technology Review’s Top 100 Young Innovators, one of Popular Science’s Brilliant 10, and as the winner of the 2012 Paul R. Dawson Biotechnology Award from the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. She is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Inventors, as well as president of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.
A staunch advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion in engineering and academia, Desai’s work to break down barriers to equity and cultivate a climate of inclusion was recognized with the Judith Poole Award from the Association for Women in Science and the UCSF Chancellors Award for the Advancement of Women. As president of AIMBE, Desai launched an anti-racism summit focusing on policy transformation in bioengineering, as well as an annual meeting to explore ways in which engineers can address racial and other disparities in health care.
“Having a diverse academic community enables us as engineers to bring our most creative and innovative ideas to the table,” Desai said. “It helps to ensure that we’re designing technologies that address needs across society and not just for those who can afford it or have frontline access.”
In joining Brown’s School of Engineering, Desai will lead an organization built to foster collaborative research and education. The school has no traditional departmental barriers, enabling unique connections across engineering disciplines as well as with other scholarly disciplines including biology, medicine, physics, chemistry, computer science, the humanities and the social sciences. Undergraduate education provides ample opportunities for hands-on, project-based learning alongside renowned faculty experts. Graduate education spans the engineering disciplines, and includes new master’s programs in technology leadership, design engineering and data-enabled computational engineering and science.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree at Brown in 1994, Desai earned her Ph.D. jointly from UCSF and UC Berkeley in 1998. That same year, she became the first faculty hire in University of Illinois at Chicago’s newly formed Department of Bioengineering. She joined the Boston University faculty in 2002 before moving to UCSF in 2005.
As dean of engineering, Desai will report directly to Locke and serve as a member of the Provost’s Senior Academic Deans committee and of the President’s Cabinet. Her appointment follows a comprehensive search process led by a committee that included faculty, staff and administrators as well as student representatives from Brown’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs