UGA student recognized for service, scholarship with Teratology Society award

UGA graduate student Rahat Wadhwa Desai was awarded the 2015 Marie W. Taubeneck Award from the Teratology Society at their 55th annual meeting in Montreal, Canada.

The Taubeneck award is presented to a student or postdoctoral fellow in recognition of scholarship in teratology and service to the Teratology Society, one of the world’s leading interdisciplinary scientific organizations focused on birth defects research, education and prevention.

To be considered, nominations are invited from mentors, and student members also vote for their choice during the annual meeting. Final decision is made by the Society’s Student Affairs Committee based on the candidate’s quality of research, service to the Teratology Society, and, attendance and involvement at the Society’s annual meetings.

Desai is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary Toxicology Program and College of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Science. Her research focuses on developing methods to predict which pathogens are likely to affect pregnancy and newborn health, as well as generating therapies that may help prevent the adverse effects of infections during pregnancy.

Originally from New Delhi, India, Desai received a Bachelor in Dental Surgery from the Bangalore University in 2000, and Master of Public Health in leadership, management and policy from the University of Cincinnati in 2010.

“Growing up, my parents always emphasized natural living and water conservation,” said Desai. “During my dental school training in India, I learned about the synergistic effects of chemicals such as tobacco and alcohol in causing oral cancer.”

Upon arriving in the U.S. and witnessing the BP oil spill and later the nuclear reactor leak in Japan, Desai started to wonder about the impact of human-made toxicant exposure on human health.  “I became particularly interested in how the adverse effects from toxicants could be mitigated or prevented altogether,” she said.

“My overall objective is to understand pregnancy-related cases of listeriosis. Listeriosis is caused by a food borne bacterium, Listeria monocytogenes,” said Desai.These bacteria primarily affect the elderly, the immune-compromised and pregnant women. Pregnancy increases susceptibility to listeriosis, wherein the mother generally experiences mild flu-like symptoms but the consequences for the fetus can be severe, resulting in serious disease or death.”

Her current project compares the whole genome sequences of Listeria monocytogenes isolates known to cause stillbirths to isolates that have not caused stillbirths. Desai’s faculty mentor for this project is Mary Alice Smith, professor of environmental health science at UGA and Teratology Society past-president.

“By doing this comparison, we hope to identify bacterial virulence factors that may be associated with adverse effects during pregnancy,” said Desai. “In addition, we are also trying to investigate whether probiotic bacteria can reduce the invasion of pathogenic bacteria using in vitro techniques.”

In addition to being recognized for her work, Desai said becoming active in the Teratology Society has helped her in ways that go beyond career development.

“My initial involvement with the Teratology Society was serendipitous but after attending my first meeting in 2013, I was officially hooked,” she said. “Most activities are designed to encourage students to interact with Society members as well as other students. It has been an extremely enriching experience to be a part of this amalgam of science and kinship.”

The original announcement can be found at the Teratology Society website. Additional coverage via ASPPH Friday Letter.

Posted August 9, 2015.