The Winding Path to Success
Dr. Shalini Prasad
Dr. Shalini Prasad is a rising bioengineering star at The University of Texas at Dallas.
In her research she strives to create diagnostic tools and point-of-need devices affordable enough to impact worldwide health. As interim department head of bioengineering and the Cecil H. and Ida Green Professor in Systems Biology Science, she leads one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing research and academic areas at the University.
The director of the Biomedical Microdevices and Nanotechnology Lab, and an electrical engineer by training, Prasad is also a problem-solver, taking on the core elements of cellular and molecular diagnostics for a wide range of applications.
The road to her success, though, like that of most accomplished individuals, has been strewn with its share of setbacks. These struggles along the way, she believes, have made her achievements that much sweeter and serve as a reminder of the value of resolve.
“Our failures are as important to our development as — if not more important than — our successes,” Prasad said. “They help us reflect on what we want most. Without persistence, I would not be in academia.”
She considers her job “the fulcrum that holds and guides me” and beams about the successes of her students. But she could easily have entered another field.
“When I got my bachelor’s degree in engineering in India, I hadn’t applied to any American universities for graduate studies. I envisioned getting a business administration degree and staying there,” she said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t score well on the entrance exam, so I got into a second-tier school. My grandfather put up the money for my first semester, but two weeks before starting, I decided it wasn’t for me.”
Pressure from her family to choose a path — further academics or starting a family — “provoked me in the right way,” Prasad said.
“South India is very traditional. Being asked, ‘Is your daughter well-settled?’ means is she married with successful children,” she said. “At age 20, I had other things in mind.”
Prasad traveled to the U.S. to attend the University of California, Riverside, on a full scholarship and earned her PhD in three years.
“Two months of my graduate stipend was enough to pay back my grandfather,” she said, still relishing her accomplishment. “It was a check he never cashed.”
After three years at Portland State University, her first faculty appointment, she was hired by Arizona State University — a move partly motivated by the location of the acquaintance who would become her husband.
“The power of persistence and positivity is a story people from all walks need to know. I am very privileged to be able to work on something I am passionate about.”
Dr. Shalini Prasad
In another two years, a different sort of hurdle appeared.
“My green card was denied on a technicality, and I had to find a new employer to file a petition to extend my work visa,” she said. “I had to leave my job and my home. We moved a thousand miles away, upending the lives of my husband and infant son while an 18-month residency process played out.”
Moving from ASU to Wichita State University to UT Dallas in quick succession — a “red flag” of instability, Prasad explained — carried significant disadvantages: “It’s hard to get established as a researcher in academia when you’re moving constantly.”
Prasad admitted she considered leaving academia as the odds stacked against her.
“I was soul-searching: ‘Is this what I want to do? It’s getting harder and harder,’” she said. “I was in survival mode, just trying to stay afloat.”
Prasad fixated on what she could control — her lab. Her first full year at UT Dallas was one of her most fruitful years in terms of scientific publications, a key measure of academic success.
“I focused on my research and keeping negative thoughts at bay,” she said. “Eight years later, when you observe the successes we’re having, it’s due to all the work done in the interim.”
Having emerged from her obstacle course, Prasad hopes her message resonates with a generation of scientists for whom succeeding in academia is as tough as ever.
“For a young researcher, getting through the tenure process is increasingly difficult,” she said. “And during that stage of life, many of us are young parents. Academia can leave us without very good support systems — emotionally or physically.”
Her message is to build up that support, which may evolve over time, and to try to keep failures in perspective.
“We push it under the rug sometimes, but the power of persistence and positivity is a story people from all walks need to know,” she said. “I am very privileged to be able to work on something I am passionate about. How many people can say that?”
The University of Texas at Dallas
Wichita State University
Arizona State University
Oregon Health & Science University
Portland State University
Received Graduate Research Award from University of California, Riverside for work on microfabrication techniques.
Portland State University Lab2Market entrepreneur program selects her technology for sensing elements that trap specific biochemical agents.
Finalist for Association for Laboratory Automation Innovation Award.
Named Fellow of Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening.
Study on sweat-based diagnostics published in Nature Scientific Reports among 10 most-read chemistry papers of the year.
Dr. Shalini Prasad’s wearable sensor reads blood sugar without drawing blood, using only sweat.