Sana Desai, Health + Tech ’22 (Integrative Human Biology/English)

Sana Desai is a third-year pre-medical student at UC Berkeley studying Integrative Human Biology and English. Here, she shares how her experiences shaped the topics she chose to study and her current projects.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I am a student, a biologist, a writer, a singer, a gender equality advocate, a teacher, a sister, a daughter, and a friend.

I’m currently interning at UCSF in the Department of Population Health and Accountable Care, helping patients navigate their concerns around COVID-19 on the COVID Hotline, and triaging their symptoms to determine the appropriate routes of care.

At Berkeley, I founded BioethiCAL (Berkeley’s Undergraduate Bioethics and Medical Humanities Society) out of the strong belief that future STEM professionals need to learn ethics, as it is integral to their work but often overlooked.

In my free time, I like to write poetry and screenplays. I’m currently working on a Sci-Fi Horror script. I also like to write original songs and make covers of these and other popular songs on GarageBand.

What did you study and why did you choose it?

I am deeply interested in what makes us human, both on a physical level and a metaphysical level.

Biological form and function has interested me from a young age. Although I’ve lived all over the country (five different states, and 10 different schools), I mostly grew up alongside the frigid waters of the East Coast, where the shifting colors of the leaves mirrored my ever-transient nature. In elementary school, I won a local lottery opportunity to attend a NASA explorer school. There I was introduced to a new world of living wonders that captivated my curiosity and imagination: field observations of invasive crab species, raising river trout and following their life cycle, hatching baby chicks via incubator, and caring for a variety of lizards and insects in our life science lab.

“I fell in love with life: the various forms and functions of it, the intricacies of bodies and ecosystems.”

I later became interested in the human body. The fact that all of the same biological minutia I observed in the world existed within myself was a thrilling prospect. The body is a strong machine, it is resilient and adaptable to its environment. But there are still things that it struggles to endure. It struggles to move every few years, constantly leaving behind friends and memories. It struggles to be the only Indian kid in a predominantly white neighborhood. It struggles to live up to the expectations of a first-generation American child of immigrant parents. Sometimes it struggles to breathe.

During these times, my books comforted me. I would spend most of my weekends at the public library, checking out books ranging from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to the Secret Garden. Stories of characters overcoming the challenges of living gave me hope and deepened my understanding of myself and the world around me. Themes of loss, grief, loyalty, friendship, duty, and love were rich treasures to be uncovered with every turn of the page. I am still an avid reader and writer today, and my love of literature has taught me that there is more to being human than our bodies and brains.

“There are these intangible things that make us who we are, and trying to tease them out on the page can be just as rewarding and real as discovering something new under a microscope.”

What kind of impact do you want to have on the world?

I aspire to be a physician someday, where I can help people not only by finding and curing their physical ailments, but by listening to their unique stories and concerns, and helping them become the best versions of themselves inside and out.

Can you tell us a bit about Atrium, the life science literary magazine that you were a part of?

I believe that creative self-expression and reflection is extremely important, especially for students that are majoring in mathematical or scientific disciplines. So much of the time, we are expected to churn out precise results but aren’t given the opportunity to express ourselves abstractly or creatively. Especially as future doctors and engineers, we will eventually need to interact with and understand human experiences, and creative outlets give us a way to engage with that.

I got together with a group of friends and classmates who also had one foot in humanities and the other in biomedical science and we founded a literature and arts magazine that encourages students to submit creative stories, poems, and artwork related to their experiences in the life sciences. Our hope is that students studying the “hard sciences” can become more empathetic and creative individuals by practicing and sharing their self-expression.

Link to magazine and past issues: https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~atrium/

Is there anything that you’re currently working on that you’d like to share?

I am currently finalizing a project that has been a few years in the making and is very near and dear to my heart. I am the Student Manager for UC Berkeley’s Menstrual Equity Pilot Program, an initiative I drafted back when I was the first Director of the Department of Menstrual Equity in the ASUC. I am working directly with UC Berkeley’s Facilities Services Department to implement and maintain free menstrual product dispensers across campus bathrooms, so no menstruating student ever has to worry about getting their period on campus.

I was inspired to spearhead the Pilot Program after learning and experiencing firsthand the difficulties that menstruating students face. The bathrooms on UC Berkeley’s campus currently have no free pad and tampon dispensers, and students have to travel all the way to the Tang Center to obtain free products, which causes a disruption to instruction and adds a burden that non-menstruating students do not have to deal with.

“My department also launched a survey that showed that a majority of UC Berkeley students not only find menstrual products hard to access while on campus, but a significant proportion also have difficulty purchasing these pricey necessities.”

Through these efforts (and with the support of community work/advocacy done by students in the past), my team and I showed UC Berkeley administration and grant committees that proper access to period products on campus is not only a basic needs issue, but an equity issue, and was thus able to obtain funding and institutionalized support. We hope to have our first phase of dispensers installed in bathrooms this coming fall semester, so look out for those on campus and follow @asuc_me for updates!

How has the Fung Fellowship impacted you?

The Fung Fellowship has allowed me to further my passion for equity-centered public health innovation and improvements. I have had the opportunity to work with a tight-knit group of students and instructors that are also committed to changing the status quo of healthcare, and centering community needs and the needs of marginalized folks. The innovation and out-of-the-box thinking I have seen from my fellow classmates and group partners in our design challenges has been extremely humbling and inspiring. Through the fellowship’s design challenges, I’ve been able to work on combating healthcare misinformation in the era of COVID-19, increasing the accessibility of comprehensive care and community reintegration for Vietnam War veterans, and allowing elderly folks to share their life stories to increase intergenerational empathy through the Stories of Transition project (in partnership with the UC Berkeley Change Lab).

For me, speaking to affected individuals in all of these projects has been the most profound and rewarding part of my first year in the Fellowship. I’ll always remember speaking to the elderly Vietnam veterans on the phone, and hearing their grueling experiences of trying to reintegrate back into American life, and finding themselves to be deemed “disabled” after such a life-altering and traumatic event that they experienced as bright-eyed youth. It was a point of view I had not previously considered enough, as someone who opposes wars and Western intervention. Through these interviews, I saw how veterans are also victims of a broken system, and realized the ways in which we need to support their current needs for community connection and access to reintegrating care.

The Fung Fellowship has also taught me important practical skills, such as how to work with external stakeholders and manage various interests and concerns in these projects (including teaching me skills that helped me work with the UC Berkeley’s Facilities management team and employees). It has taught me the importance of team building and how to effectively orchestrate a team-based effort. Lastly, the fellowship re-ignited my love of storytelling in unexpected ways. I saw how stories and experiences could be used in pitches and presentations to garner support for our final prototypes. I hope to continue to tell important stories and use them to create important change in the Fung Honors Track next year.

Connect with Sana.

Edited by Dannie Valdez and Mary Tran

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