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Staff Snapshot: Aparupa Sengupta, musician and scientist

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Aparupa (second from right) with (left from right) her husband, Saurabh; mother, Tanusree; and father, Dilip, during her 2019 engagement ceremony.

As a biosafety-focused scientist, Indian immigrant and natural networker, Aparupa Sengupta brings a global perspective and professional passion to her role as assistant director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety and director of high containment research laboratories at UC Merced. She’s also a passionate, professionally trained musician.

A career-defining moment

When the coronavirus pandemic struck at the beginning of 2020, Aparupa Sengupta, Ph.D., was among the thousands of UC employees who rose to the challenge it presented.

Then UC Merced’s biosafety and biosecurity officer, Aparupa’s responsibilities shifted dramatically within a few days; in addition to her office-based role focused on biosafety-related policy development, she became the campus’ expert, and lead staff trainer, for reducing employee’s risk of COVID-19 infection. The experience harkened back to her research days — her doctoral degree is in environmental microbiology and her thesis focused on antibiotic-resistant bacteria and its remediation. Aparupa, who has always been passionate about applied science, was energized and inspired by her new role.

“I had a chance to move beyond my comfort zone in research,” she recalls. “I was able to put into use all the knowledge I had to navigate the new information that came in daily from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” Her leadership led to a promotion and gave her new insights into the value and possibilities of her field, which she shared in a co-authored commentary published by Johns Hopkins University.

“Growing up in India, I was disturbed by disparities between the poor and rich; I always thought that I could do something to serve those in need,” Aparupa says. “As I watched global inequities play out during the COVID-19 pandemic, this desire resurfaced. I realized that my expertise, and that of my colleagues, could be leveraged to play a much more impactful role if we had the opportunity. Through our commentary, we wanted to make the point that biosafety professionals can play a critical role in supporting and informing communities — especially those with limited resources — around pandemic planning and response.”

Making her own way

To pursue a second master’s degree and her doctorate, Aparupa moved from Bangalore, India, to Houghton, Michigan, alone, when she was 25. Though she came from a cosmopolitan city and the media had primed her for most aspects of American culture, she felt unprepared for the degree of independence required by her new life. As a middle-class Indian citizen, she had never done laundry or driven a car; she was used to dropping by friends’ and family members’ houses without planning or an invitation. “I had to learn how to do everything myself and it was lonely,” she recalls.

Though Aparupa has since built a global network of colleagues, mentees and friends, she has sometimes felt “like a unicorn” as a woman of color in her field. “Especially in the past, there have been very few women and people of color in the sciences in general; they are even rarer in biosecurity and biotechnology fields. When I attended my first American Biological Safety Association (ABSA) conference in 2014, there were almost no people of color, let alone women of color. Today, more women and people of color are joining my field, but as my career advances, I’m often the only one in the room.”

This might intimidate some people, but Aparupa believes that her presence is an important one. “I am doing something different; I hope that in a few years, other women who look like me will see me and think ‘If she can do it, so can I.” When she needs inspiration, she pulls out her phone: Its case bears an image of recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the quote, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”

A global impact

The experiences of defining her own path, and the resilience they inspired, have instilled in Aparupa a deep appreciation for knowledge sharing, community-building and giving back. “A lot of people have helped me since the day I got to this country, and I try to do the same,” she says. A natural networker, she spends her evenings and weekends donating her time and skills through ABSA, where she chairs two committees and is a member of four others. She is also an enthusiastic mentor: In addition to advising three colleagues at UC Merced, she mentors through ABSA and makes time for others who contact her through LinkedIn.

One of her favorite roles has been participating in the Biosafety Twinning program through Sandia National Laboratories. Mentees from underresourced countries are paired with scientists from Western countries for help with resolving problems related to biosecurity or biotechnology planning. In September 2019, she helped a scientist at the University Clinical Research Center in Mali to develop a lab audit and inspection program. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck just a few months later, this location became the country’s central lab for COVID-19 testing and vaccination. “It’s a miracle how the timing worked out,” she says.

The pandemic was especially difficult for Aparupa because her father, to whom she was deeply devoted, was among the hundreds of thousands of people who died in India when vaccinations were unavailable and the medical system collapsed. “My personal loss is irreparable, but I never want any country, let alone India, to experience what took place. So much damage and loss of human life could have been avoided,” she says. “As I look to the future, it is so important for me to make a difference, in my own way, to help mitigate biological catastrophe and save lives.”

Meet Aparupa

Name: Aparupa Sengupta

Title: Assistant Director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety; Campus Biosafety and Biosecurity Officer; Director of High Containment Research Laboratories

Department/Unit: Environmental Health & Safety

Location: UC Merced

When did you start working for UC? May 2018

In five words or less, how would you describe your work at UC? Thrilling, exciting, fun, intellectually stimulating and challenging

Why do you love working for UC? Of all the places I’ve worked, UC has the best system in how all 10 campuses come together with support from the Office of the President. For a campus like Merced that’s very new, with some infrastructural resources that are still logistically limited, being part of UC provides invaluable structure and stability. UC Merced’s pandemic response is just one example of how critical these resources can be. It’s an amazing system and a prestigious place to work.

What’s something people don’t know about you? There’s a conception that people are left-brained or right-brained, but I think I’m both. As much as I love being a scientist — and I am completely in love with my job — I’m also a lead singer and musician. Music is my passion. In my previous life, I trained in Rabindra Sangeet — a Bengali music style developed by Nobel Prize-winner Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, which mixes Indian classical music with folk-music traditions.

Who’s your dream dinner guest and why? My father, who I lost unexpectedly last year due to COVID-19. I would do anything to have one more dinner with him.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? That came from my mother, in 2001 or 2002. I wanted to be a doctor but didn’t quite get the marks for med school, though I could have gone to dental school. My mom said, ‘I really think you should go for biotechnology — it’s a booming field and I think you’ll go far.’ My mom is a woman of great foresight and is extremely sharp. She sees things that take longer to come into focus for other people. Her advice has gotten me where I am today.

Read more about Aparupa’s role in leading UC Merced’s biosafety response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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