Hopkins senior a master of school, research, philanthropy and dance

Neha Deshpande is only 20 but has used her parents' immigration from India as inspiration to lead in many areas

May 26, 2010|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

There are at least four Neha Deshpandes.

There is Neha the scholar, who earned her first A in a college course as an eighth-grader and will graduate Thursday after finishing her pre-med track at the Johns Hopkins University in three years.

There is Neha the researcher, who nagged a Rutgers professor into letting her work in his genetics lab at age 13, and is attempting to publish research comparing 70 mother-child pairs in Baltimore and India. That Neha recently won a $30,000 Truman Scholarship, which she'll use to study transplant outcomes in the next year in medically underserved sections of Baltimore.

There is Neha the giver, whose heart broke the first time she entered a neo-natal intensive care unit and saw the haunted looks on parents' faces as they hovered over the incubators. That Neha became an international youth leader for March of Dimes, helping to spur offshoots of the organization in China, Brazil, Lebanon and the Philippines.

There is Neha the dancer, who performed an intricate three-hour routine before 500 guests to graduate from her New Jersey school of Indian dance and captained Hopkins' competitive fusion dance team.

The stupefying thing is that Deshpande, 20, has crammed all of these identities into one life without coming off as uptight or perpetually frazzled. She swears that she leaves time to sleep, shop for dresses at the mall and catch up on "Glee."

"My friends say they're intimidated by me," the New Jersey native says. "But I don't think I'm an intimidating person."

Her father, Anil, laughs about helping her with medical school applications (Neha would like to continue at Hopkins in fall 2011).

"They ask for 15 experiences," he says. "And many kids probably don't know how to fill out all 15. But she was running out of space. I said, 'Neha, this is amazing. You've done so much.' "

Kirsten Kirby, her pre-med adviser at Hopkins, remembers a recent night on which she and Deshpande were up until 1 a.m., buying centerpieces and setting up tables for a conference they had organized for the next morning. Deshpande had just come from a dance performance and that followed a full day at a university known for its academic rigor.

"She's just an amazing person," Kirby says. "One of the strongest all-around applicants I've ever worked with. The depth of her involvement in so many things, I think it blows people away."

Freshman Isabella Taylor, a member of Deshpande's dance team, agrees. "She's kind of like the person I wish I was," Taylor says.

Deshpande's parents grew up in Mumbai with dreams of the U.S. and its seemingly limitless freedoms and opportunities. When Neha was 3, her mother, Savita, responded to a printed advertisement for an occupational therapy job in New York. Much to the family's disbelief, she got it. They had to sell their house and car to afford the plane tickets.

Deshpande looks back with awe at her parents' courage in betting everything on an uncertain vision. With them as her model, she has instinctively reached for what she wants rather than waiting for it.

"I feel the reason I'm motivated is that they were so gutsy in coming here," she says. "I owe it to myself and them."

The Deshpandes moved to a section of Queens that teemed with new immigrants. After a difficult few months, they wanted to move back to India but hadn't saved enough for such a trip. So they stuck it out. Neha learned English from watching "Barney" and "Sesame Street." Her father encouraged her to read for an hour before bed every night and devised math problems for her to solve.

Neha's future plans took shape as she tagged along with her mother on home visits to elderly patients in Brooklyn. "I saw how much they loved her and trusted her," she says. "I know she always wanted to be a doctor, but the opportunity wasn't there in India. So part of me wants to do it for her."

Once her father completed his schooling in computer science and got a job with Lucent Technologies, the family moved to South Brunswick, N.J. There, Neha's eighth-grade science teacher encouraged her to seek the challenge of a college biology course at Rutgers.

She got an A but was frustrated when the university said she wasn't old enough to take a lab follow-up to the class. So she e-mailed professor after professor in search of one who would give her research experience. Finally, a genetics professor relented. He was surprised how young she looked but said she could hang around as long as she did the dirty work of caring for microscope slides and cleaning up after the fruit flies.

"Dad, why am I doing this?" she'd ask on their trips home from the lab. He replied with a Sanskrit saying that translates to, "Don't think about the outcome. Just keep doing what you're good at."

At the end of the summer, her professor told her she was welcome back as a paid researcher the following year. Neha investigated protein degradation in meiosis, or cell division, and how it leads to birth disorders.

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