When Moupali Das was 12 years old, her grandfather, a doctor, took her along on his rounds. She was visiting him in Kolkata, India, a world away from her home in Hopewell Junction, an upstate New York hamlet near the IBM microchip plant where her father worked as an engineer. Her grandfather, Krishna Das Das, had fled political persecution in Bangladesh and built a good life in Kolkata with his wife and nine children.
“It was really cool to watch him be a doctor and how he knew what was happening with people just by laying hands on patients,” remembers Das, now 38. “And when he’d leave the dispensary, we’d walk down tiny alleyways and people would recognize him and say hello. He was an important person to the community. That was a really big influence on me, and ever since I can remember I’ve basically wanted to be a doctor.”
Das followed in her grandfather’s footsteps, and today she is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). She also does noted HIV/AIDS research at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and one day a week she treats patients at San Francisco General Hospital.
All three institutions have done groundbreaking work on HIV/AIDS from the start of the epidemic, conducting world-class research and developing model programs for prevention, treatment, and care. “I wanted to go to the best place for learning about HIV,” Das says. “I really liked everything I’d heard and read about San Francisco’s HIV/AIDS program and infectious disease, and it seemed like the ideal place if I wanted to have a balance of policy activism in my clinical and research work.”
Das became interested in science, policy, and their intersection in high school. “I was on the Science Olympiad and all those geeky things, but I was in debate club and Model Congress,” Das explains. (Science Olympiad stages competitions between teams from different schools; Model Congress holds debates about mock legislation.) She then attended Harvard University, winning a National Science Scholar award for her freshman year in 1992. With friends from Harvard, she created ExperiMentors, a group that visits local high schools and presents science lessons. “We wanted to make science fun for kids, and my interest was to make sure women stayed in science,” says Das, who majored in biochemistry.
As she neared graduation, Das, like most college seniors, wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. “I felt like I’d be letting myself down not doing a Ph.D. in laboratory science, but at the same time I wanted to be clinician who did more than see individual patients,” she says. “I was having a difficult time trying to reconcile my passion for trying to save the world with loading gels and doing very interesting scientific experiments in the lab."
A Michael C. Rockefeller fellowship, which funds a year abroad so that Harvard graduates can study other cultures, gave her time to find the path she wanted to take. She spent the year in India, planning to make pilgrimages around the country to study gender equality. Instead, Das, who speaks Bengali, ended up doing HIV prevention work with commercial sex workers in Kolkata and focusing on women and children’s health. “HIV was a good match for my strengths and my passions,” she says.
While in India, she struck up an e-mail correspondence with Garance Franke-Ruta, a prominent AIDS activist who also attended Harvard. It was 1996 and new, potent cocktails of antiretrovirals were changing HIV infection from a death sentence into a chronic, manageable disease. Franke-Ruta’s “perspective was, she could stop doing the activism work on HIV because treatment had arrived,” Das says. “My perspective was, I can start my work on HIV because now we have treatment and we can bring it to the people.”
Upon returning to the United States, Das attended medical school at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. She completed her internship and residency at the New York Presbyterian Hospital. Then she left the clinic for a while: In 2004, she was hired to work as a special assistant to Thomas Frieden, New York City’s health commissioner at the time. “It was a crash course for me in learning about the domestic HIV situation,” says Das, who by then had been to Haiti twice to do HIV/AIDS work with Paul Farmer and his group Partners In Health. “I began to get a deeper understanding of the complex politics.” (Frieden went on to become head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009, a job he still holds.)
Das left New York in 2005 for an infectious disease fellowship at UCSF, and then earned a master's degree in public health, specializing in epidemiology, from the University of California, Berkeley. The San Francisco Department of Public Health hired her in 2007 as the director of research in their HIV prevention division. She ended up working with Grant Colfax, who was well known in Harvard circles for his unusual background: He and two brothers were admitted to the college after being homeschooled on a Northern California goat farm. In June 2010, Das and Colfax published a widely discussed paper in PLoS ONE about a new concept, “community viral load.”
California requires labs to report levels of HIV in all patients who receive viral load tests. Das, Colfax, and colleagues calculated the average and total viral loads in different neighborhoods and risk groups to determine which areas were being successfully treated and which weren’t. They showed how a drop in community viral load between 2004 and 2008 corresponded with a decline in new HIV diagnoses, suggesting that increasing treatment was slowing the spread of the virus in the city. (In March 2012, Colfax was tapped by President Barack Obama to become the director of the Office of National AIDS Policy, the White House’s point person for the response to the domestic epidemic.)
Lately, Das, whose current job title is director of implementation science and evaluation research, has been perseverating—doctorspeak for overthinking—about what’s next. “I’m at a crossroads,” she says. “I don’t have a clear vision for where I’m going, and the reason is I have a lot of opportunities. The things that will stay constant is, I’ll always be a clinician—I’m passionate about taking care of my patients—and I’m passionate about teaching. But I don’t think I know yet the best way for me to make the biggest contribution.”
Jon Cohen is a correspondent for Science.