Spring 2024 grad: Dev Desai discovers bacteria are “awesome,” pursues PhD to study them further

Dev Desai, who grew up in Nashik, India, will be graduating this spring with two bachelor’s degrees – one in biochemistry and one in microbiology. In this Q&A, he talks about his experiences doing research and being a TA, his appreciation for bacteria, and his next step to get a PhD in molecular and cell biology.

Why did you choose your major – and what did you learn, in a nutshell?
I am majoring in microbiology and biochemistry. I didn’t know specifically what I wanted to do coming into college, but the introductory classes were really helpful in narrowing down the scope of what I wanted to pursue. 

My biggest takeaway from my studies at UW-Madison is that bacteria are awesome! It’s easy to oversimplify bacteria as just sacks of enzymes, but they play such crucial roles in our world. Among so many other things, they help plants grow my fixing nitrogen in soil, they do some amazing chemistry which helps us discover new therapeutics and, importantly, they help make cheese! I hadn’t fully appreciated this before my studies but now I find this really exciting!

What activities were you involved in during college?
I work in Dr. David Hershey’s lab in the Department of Bacteriology where I study how bacteria sense surfaces. Bacteria often behave differently after they sense surfaces which can lead them to attach and grow on surfaces where they’re not wanted, including within our bodies where they can cause infections. I specifically study how some bacteria use their flagellum, which is a propeller-like appendage used by bacteria to swim, to sense these surfaces.

I also participated in the Summer Cambridge and Oxford Research Experience (SCORE), which is a research abroad program in the Department of Biochemistry. Through the program, I worked with Dr. Peter Rosenthal at the Francis Crick Institute in London where I learned to use some structural biology techniques, like cryo-electron microscopy, to study how influenza hemagglutinin changes its conformation during virus entry into cells. This experience also showed me what it was like to work at a research institute, which was very useful as I considered what I wanted to do in the future. 

I was also a teaching assistant for the organic chemistry lab. I feel that very little of an academic’s training is dedicated to making them a good teacher even though it is such an important part of their work. This experience was incredibly rewarding and provided me with valuable practice in explaining scientific concepts more clearly.

What are your future academic and/or career plans – short-term and long-term?
After graduation, I will be pursuing a PhD in molecular and cell biology at University of California-Berkeley. Long-term, I hope to continue doing research and teaching, though I am not yet sure how I will do these things.

What were the most valuable/meaningful college experiences you had?
I think it is really the combination of all my experiences – I am really grateful to be at a place where I could explore and do all these things and I think all of it together makes it a really meaningful experience.

When you think about your time here as student, what are you proud of?
I am proud of the work I did as a TA for organic chemistry lab. Having been a student in the same class myself, I could genuinely understand and help address the challenges that current students faced. It was rewarding to use my own experience to make a positive difference in their learning.

Do you have any advice you’d like to share with CALS students?
Don’t hesitate to try something new or different. The wide range of opportunities available to us as CALS students really supports this kind of exploration. I’m glad I took advantage of some of these opportunities during my time here, and I encourage you to do the same.