There are at least four Neha Deshpandes.
There is Neha the scholar, who earned her first A in a college course as an eighth-grader and will graduate Thursday after finishing her pre-med track at the Johns Hopkins University in three years.
There is Neha the researcher, who nagged a Rutgers professor into letting her work in his genetics lab at age 13, and is attempting to publish research comparing 70 mother-child pairs in Baltimore and India. That Neha recently won a $30,000 Truman Scholarship, which she'll use to study transplant outcomes in the next year in medically underserved sections of Baltimore.
There is Neha the giver, whose heart broke the first time she entered a neo-natal intensive care unit and saw the haunted looks on parents' faces as they hovered over the incubators. That Neha became an international youth leader for March of Dimes, helping to spur offshoots of the organization in China, Brazil, Lebanon and the Philippines.
There is Neha the dancer, who performed an intricate three-hour routine before 500 guests to graduate from her New Jersey school of Indian dance and captained Hopkins' competitive fusion dance team.
The stupefying thing is that Deshpande, 20, has crammed all of these identities into one life without coming off as uptight or perpetually frazzled. She swears that she leaves time to sleep, shop for dresses at the mall and catch up on "Glee."
"My friends say they're intimidated by me," the New Jersey native says. "But I don't think I'm an intimidating person."
Her father, Anil, laughs about helping her with medical school applications (Neha would like to continue at Hopkins in fall 2011).
"They ask for 15 experiences," he says. "And many kids probably don't know how to fill out all 15. But she was running out of space. I said, 'Neha, this is amazing. You've done so much.' "
Kirsten Kirby, her pre-med adviser at Hopkins, remembers a recent night on which she and Deshpande were up until 1 a.m., buying centerpieces and setting up tables for a conference they had organized for the next morning. Deshpande had just come from a dance performance and that followed a full day at a university known for its academic rigor.
"She's just an amazing person," Kirby says. "One of the strongest all-around applicants I've ever worked with. The depth of her involvement in so many things, I think it blows people away."
Freshman Isabella Taylor, a member of Deshpande's dance team, agrees. "She's kind of like the person I wish I was," Taylor says.
Deshpande's parents grew up in Mumbai with dreams of the U.S. and its seemingly limitless freedoms and opportunities. When Neha was 3, her mother, Savita, responded to a printed advertisement for an occupational therapy job in New York. Much to the family's disbelief, she got it. They had to sell their house and car to afford the plane tickets.
Deshpande looks back with awe at her parents' courage in betting everything on an uncertain vision. With them as her model, she has instinctively reached for what she wants rather than waiting for it.
"I feel the reason I'm motivated is that they were so gutsy in coming here," she says. "I owe it to myself and them."
The Deshpandes moved to a section of Queens that teemed with new immigrants. After a difficult few months, they wanted to move back to India but hadn't saved enough for such a trip. So they stuck it out. Neha learned English from watching "Barney" and "Sesame Street." Her father encouraged her to read for an hour before bed every night and devised math problems for her to solve.
Neha's future plans took shape as she tagged along with her mother on home visits to elderly patients in Brooklyn. "I saw how much they loved her and trusted her," she says. "I know she always wanted to be a doctor, but the opportunity wasn't there in India. So part of me wants to do it for her."
Once her father completed his schooling in computer science and got a job with Lucent Technologies, the family moved to South Brunswick, N.J. There, Neha's eighth-grade science teacher encouraged her to seek the challenge of a college biology course at Rutgers.
She got an A but was frustrated when the university said she wasn't old enough to take a lab follow-up to the class. So she e-mailed professor after professor in search of one who would give her research experience. Finally, a genetics professor relented. He was surprised how young she looked but said she could hang around as long as she did the dirty work of caring for microscope slides and cleaning up after the fruit flies.
"Dad, why am I doing this?" she'd ask on their trips home from the lab. He replied with a Sanskrit saying that translates to, "Don't think about the outcome. Just keep doing what you're good at."
At the end of the summer, her professor told her she was welcome back as a paid researcher the following year. Neha investigated protein degradation in meiosis, or cell division, and how it leads to birth disorders.
The research tied into her emotional investment with expectant mothers and newborns. As a seventh-grader, she visited the NICU at a local hospital and watched a nurse hold a premature baby in her palm and a father slide his wedding ring all the way up a child's tiny arm. She contrasted those harrowing sights with the joy her family had just experienced at the healthy birth of her little brother. "It can go either way," she says. "And no family should have to go through that."
So Neha threw herself into the March of Dimes, helping to expand a multicultural festival in her neighborhood from a $60,000 fundraiser to a $150,000 event. She eventually rose to lead the organization's National Youth Council, which oversees activities at 50 chapters around the nation.
At Hopkins, she spent 15 hours a week on March of Dimes and traveled four or five times a semester to speak at events around the world. In October, she spoke in New Delhi about mobilizing youths to address public health programs.
Deshpande saw a lack of groups at Hopkins that could encourage young women to become health care leaders. So, she started one and coordinated the group's first conference, held earlier this month, just before finals.
When she wasn't planning that, she was probably working in the NICU at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, a job she sought shortly after arriving in Baltimore as a freshman. Her mentor at Bayview, Maureen Gilmore, praises her "great intellectual curiosity and a tremendous drive to broaden her horizons."
At the hospital, Deshpande saw a different set of harsh realities than she had at the NICU in New Jersey — teen mothers, babies born to addicts, incubators with no parents watching over them.
She wondered how a NICU in a poor part of India would compare. So for winter break, she set up a one-month internship at King Edward Memorial Hospital, two hours outside Mumbai. She commuted by rickshaw and saw emergency rooms jammed with people so poor that they wore rags and couldn't afford shoes. The hospital turned away patients who couldn't pay, and some families abandoned baby girls to die because the costs outweighed the potential benefits.
"I felt very helpless," she says.
In India, she found worse nutrition, greater rates of infection and few babies with a chance to survive if born before 27 weeks. But for all the disadvantages, she saw little of the addiction or single parenthood that were so common back home. Maybe it wasn't all about treating the babies, she decided. The mothers needed to be reached long before giving birth.
"If you ask me where I see myself practicing, it would be somewhere like Queens or Baltimore, where not a lot of people have health care and there's not a lot of access," she says. "I want to help mothers realize that their decisions will have an enormous impact on the health of their families down the line."
Dig a little deeper into Deshpande's resume and you'll find that she also taught French to third-graders at Margaret Brent Elementary in Baltimore (she speaks the language well enough to pass a medical exam in it) and the biology MCAT for the Princeton Review.
Her college friends teased her because every time she looked at her Blackberry, she seemed to have another two pages worth of e-mails from one group or another.
Deshpande even took a rigorous approach to fun. Many of her school friends found their Indian dance instructor too strict and dropped out of lessons. But not Deshpande. She stuck it out and executed her marathon graduation recital, backed by an orchestra flown in from India and judged by a panel of critics.
As captain of the nine-member fusion dance team at Hopkins, she edited music and choreographed moves for the squad's eight-minute competition pieces. The dancers, all pre-med majors, practiced from 9 p.m. to midnight three days a week because they couldn't find any other empty blocks in their schedules.
"It's my way of relaxing," Deshpande says.
She doesn't know if her medical school will have a dance program. "But if it doesn't," she says with a grin, "I'll start one."