On Being American


Moving to a new country on a new continent was a familiar feeling for Pradeep Ramesh (BS ’11). After spending his early childhood in India, he and his family moved to Singapore, where they lived for five years before moving to the United States when Ramesh was 12. So after finishing his bachelor’s degree in applied physics in 2011, it seemed natural to keep exploring the world.

Luckily for him, upon graduation Ramesh was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to live and study in Denmark, studying biophysics at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. At the time he began the fellowship, he had been a U.S. citizen for just under three years.

“I was totally surprised when I got to Denmark, because suddenly I was ‘The American’” Ramesh says. “I didn’t really even think of myself as an American until recently. And suddenly here I was in Denmark—a country of five million people, 90 percent of whom are ethnically Danish—and there was some sort of expectation that I represent and ‘defend’ my country’s ideology and policies.”

Adding to that pressure, each year the Fulbright committee selects one student studying in each participating European Union country and brings them to Brussels, the capital of the EU, for a week of visiting parliament and NATO headquarters—and Ramesh was selected as the Denmark representative, a task that included conversations with EU justices, members of parliament, and ambassadors.

“I felt very lucky to be selected,” he says. “You meet some very high profile political figures. And here we were, talking to them face to face, off the record, and they really opened up. They’re not just political ‘figures’—they’re other human beings.”

One particular experience stuck with Ramesh. “We were having dinner with the commanding general of NATO, around the time that the military campaign against Libyan leader Qaddafi began,” he remembers.“The general said that one of the biggest challenges was the unit system—American fighter pilots would report the target distance in miles, and here are the British and French and Danish who are actively flying planes and trying to quickly do conversions to meters. It was so funny. We’re on the same side but we can’t seem to come to agreement on something like units or language.

“I got to learn about the nuances of diplomacy, the complicated times when there really is no right or wrong answer—it kind of banishes that subconscious idea you might have that ‘America is always right,’” he says.

When not meeting with ambassadors or traveling throughout the EU, Ramesh did have a job to do—his Fulbright research straddled the intersection of physics and biology, examining the basic compartments of life: membranes. “All forms of life on Earth are compartmentalized,” he says. “You rarely get naked DNA or RNA just floating around. I wanted to better understand the physical forces that drive compartmentalization and affect the shape of lipid membranes, which form the boundaries of cells. How did these forces then shape the evolution of life on Earth?”

Though the fellowship is intended to provide a stipend for scientific research, another big takeaway, Ramesh says, was the global perspective he gained. “Cellular life may be compartmentalized, but there’s not such distinct delineations between science, culture, people, and policies,” he says. “Science is not a pure little bubble—you can’t separate it from cultural, political, and geographical contexts.”

Ramesh’s winding journey through the world has also been a winding journey through biology. After his work on membrane biophysics, he went on to graduate studies at UC Berkeley, where he wanted to model cancer dynamics using the principles of evolutionary game theory. While there, he met Mikhail Shapiro, with whom he moved back to Caltech—where Shapiro is now an assistant professor of chemical engineering—in order to start a new lab in molecular imaging. Ramesh is currently working to advance the nascent field of magnetogenetics by trying to engineer mammalian cells to be magnetic. This would allow researchers to control cellular function noninvasively using magnetic fields.


Photo: Courtesy of Celso Flores