Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Alaina Rajagopal of Esperto Medical On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience

Penny Bauder
Authority Magazine
Published in
17 min readMay 19, 2021

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Always persevere. My academic trajectory was basically a practice in perseverance. I was in college for four years, my PhD program for four years, medical school for four years, and medical residency for three years.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alaina Rajagopal.

Dr. Alaina Rajagopal is a board certified emergency medicine physician, scientist, actor, entrepreneur, and host of the Emergency Docs Podcast. Dr. Rajagopal obtained her bachelor’s degree in biology at Kalamazoo College. During her time at Kalamazoo College, she interned at Kennedy Space Center and at NASA Ames Research Center, studying controlled biological systems and astrobiology. Additionally, she worked at The University of Chicago in paleontology and Fairchild Tropical Garden in conservation biology. During her third year of college, she spent seven months studying abroad in Nairobi, Kenya and working in an HIV clinic. She then went on to study public health, virology, and space life sciences for her PhD at The University of Texas Medical Branch and NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Her dissertation focused on Epstein-Barr virus reactivation during spaceflight.

After finishing graduate school, she went to medical school and graduated with concentrations in aerospace medicine and global health. She also spent two months studying abroad in Brazil and one month working in a remote health outpost in The Philippines. After medical school, she completed residency in emergency medicine at The University of California, Irvine. She spent one month studying wilderness medicine in Nepal and trekking to Everest Base Camp as a part of her residency. She currently works in emergency medicine in Southern California and is the CMO of Esperto Medical, a medical diagnostics company. Dr. Rajagopal is passionate about education, thus, is host of The Emergency Docs podcast which focuses on educating medical professionals and the general public on topics in medicine. When Dr. Rajagopal is not practicing medicine, she enjoys acting (known as Alaina Raja), running, climbing mountains, and spending time with her family.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I had an early love for science and, particularly for spaceflight, which was largely inspired by what I saw in film and television. I remember watching Star Trek, Star Wars, Apollo 13, and Top Gun and thinking that I wanted to be able to go to space and explore the universe. My interest in spaceflight necessitated that I pursue science and math and the more I explored science, the more I loved it. Though I’ve dabbled in many scientific disciplines, I’ve always been interested in human spaceflight. While our current technology doesn’t allow us to hop from planet to planet at warp speed, it is improving to a point that spaceflight will likely become commonplace in my lifetime. Science fiction has always imagined our future, where we might be, and what tools we might have. Being a physician and scientist, I remember fictitious technology like the tricorder on Star Trek and found myself wishing to have real tools like those here on Earth…and in reality. I realized that I could use my diverse background in medicine, global health, and space science to create tools that can help clinicians on Earth and also maybe future astronauts on the surface of Mars. Once I realized how all of my work in austere environments, whether it be rural Kenya, the slopes of the tallest mountains in the world, and Mars are connected, it was easy to see that I needed to help doctors, nurses, and other medical providers make better medical decisions by giving them tools of the future today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

Getting funded! Our team really believes in the work we are doing, but it is especially exciting when other people believe in your vision enough to put real dollars behind it. We started out with just my husband and me with an idea that we were going to build a tricorder (which, for those of you who are not fans of Star Trek, is a fictional medical device that a doctor waves over a patient and gets the results of medical tests instantly). While I was on a remote island in the Philippines working as a medical student, I thought that if I just had a CT scan, an ultrasound, or access to a medical lab, I could give patients much better care. I remember a patient who was having a stroke but, without the availability of CT scan, we didn’t know whether it was from bleeding in the brain or a blockage of the blood vessels in the brain. The two types of stroke have very different treatments and we weren’t equipped to give the patient any of them because we couldn’t diagnose what kind of stroke it was. This experience, combined with experiences I’ve had in Kenya, Brazil, and Nepal made me think that we could do better for these patients if we could create diagnostic tools that would help clinicians in remote locations. Similarly, astronauts have been undergoing long-duration missions on the International Space Station for over 20 years but as we return to the Moon and venture to Mars, better medical diagnostic equipment will be critical given the distance the crew will be from Earth. All of these factors really motivate our team. We want to make medical diagnostics and treatments better on Earth and wherever we go next.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Mistakes are part of the process and I have certainly made many. One mistake we have made repeatedly is to underestimate the technical difficulty associated with particular scientific or engineering problems. Often, we adopt really optimistic timelines and assume we’re going to accomplish a task by X date…then realize as we dig into the problem that we’d be lucky if we accomplish that task at all! I think a certain amount of optimism is always needed in science. You aren’t going to accomplish anything if you don’t believe in yourself and your team, but it is important to balance that optimism with a sense of realism to make sure your goals are attainable. That said, you also have to set goals and timelines because, if you don’t, you might wallow in R&D forever. When I approach a really big problem, I like to break it down into mini-goals…and I really like checklists. There are few things in life that give me more satisfaction than crossing things off of lists!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We’re a small but dedicated group of scientists, doctors, and engineers who are passionate about making the world a better place. The whole idea for Esperto Medical came from identifying a need and deciding that it was a need worth fixing. The fact that everyone on the team believes in the underlying mission, which is to improve medical care, makes us really hardworking, dedicated, and scrappy. Starting companies is hard so you have to be a bit of a risk-taker but also have a vision that others can believe in. My husband is a serial entrepreneur and, as the first engineer on our team, has defined a large amount of the underlying technology that makes our products possible. He is really comfortable with the start-up world and we have decided that the potential impact of the Esperto Medical technologies well outweighs the risk our family takes on by aligning our futures with a start-up. I have also started a company with my medical education company, The Emergency Docs, so we’ve both done things like this before. Esperto Medical is different in that the impact that it could potentially have on the way medicine is practiced in the future is immense. We hope that this company will create a lifelong opportunity for future invention and learning that result in better medical care for all people.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re working on developing several ultrasound-based technologies that have implications for non-invasive blood pressure measurement as well as diagnostic imaging. We also think we have figured out ways to reduce machinery size and consumables for molecular diagnostics and lab testing allowing for progress toward our goal of a tricorder but we definitely still have a long way to go.

With the Emergency Docs Podcast, we’re really excited to be starting our second season and have a number of very interesting people lined up. The podcast has a variety of different topics so whether you have a career in medicine, want updates on COVID, like exercise and the outdoors, or want to know what it’s really like to be an ER doctor, I’d recommend browsing the topics and finding an episode that you might like. There’s really something for everyone!

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I think that things are improving and I’ll always be a bit optimistic about the future. I feel strongly that when we help lift one another up, more women will join the STEM fields and then having women in STEM will be status quo. I can definitely say that I felt more accepted as a female physician than as a female scientist. In my medical school class, it was nearly a 50/50 split of men to women so the numbers have improved dramatically. That said, many fields in STEM aren’t quite as equal. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than a third of people in STEM worldwide are women and, according to the US Census Bureau, women in STEM make about 20% less money than men. I had one patient in residency who saw myself and two other female doctors working as a team (a total of three doctors) but insisted that he’d never seen a doctor. A lot has changed but it is hard to completely remove stereotypes in the short-term. On my podcast, The Emergency Docs, we did an episode about our innate biases, particularly related to race. There is ample evidence that these biases and stereotypes affect how we interact with one another and how we view the world. I think a critical first step is for everyone to recognize that we all have biases, no matter what our gender, race, religion, or job and that recognizing these biases is the first step toward fixing them.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I think the biggest challenge is just recognition that I am actually a scientist or a doctor. Historically, and stereotypically, scientists are the quirky people in tweed or mismatching prints that are largely white, older males. That stereotype has also been influenced by how scientists have been portrayed in popular culture, like film and television. There are so many incredible women who have contributed extraordinary scientific discoveries but until the last few decades, their discoveries were often outshined by those of their male counterparts. One of the first ways to address these challenges is to recognize that scientists don’t have to fit a particular mold or look a certain way. One way to combat this is to change how female scientists are represented in media, television, and film. Another way is for female scientists to be more present in the media discussing their work. Finally, we need more female science educators visible to the general public of the same caliber as Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson. When people in the non-science public see more female scientists/doctors/engineers, again it becomes more commonplace and widely accepted. Another challenge is the pay gap. Women shouldn’t make less than men for the same work.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

With many fields in the sciences, there are perceptions of what a person should look like or that every person in science should fit a particular mold. One of the things that makes science so interesting to me is that it is so creative. The people in science and technology are truly innovators and that should be emphasized rather than a “type.” The term “science and technology” is so broad and includes innovators like Elon Musk, brilliant minds like Stephen Hawking, and Nobel Laureates like Marie Curie. It includes people who use science to change medicine and policy like Bill and Melinda Gates but it also includes the woman down the street who engineered a new way to attach her climbing boots to her backpack. It includes your grandpa who used to teach you about the different trees in your backyard and the child who just discovered that worms live in holes in the ground after a rain. Science is everywhere and everyone can be a scientist. It really just takes a pair of open eyes and a curiosity to learn more about the world around you.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Sometimes failure is an opportunity. I have failed. A lot. But sometimes, that failure leads you to discover something you wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. In graduate school, I expected my virus-infected cell cultures to die when exposed to different challenges like radiation and microgravity but found that they actually did better than expected in those environments. I recall sitting in my graduate advisor’s office admitting, “I was wrong. I don’t understand why this happened.” However, I then became super excited because now I had something to figure out — why weren’t these cells behaving as I had predicted? This led me to rethink my entire graduate dissertation plan of experiments. I think the research ended up a lot more interesting because it was very different than I expected.
  2. Expect the unexpected. You can carefully design and carry out an experiment only to have the power go out in your lab which causes the incubator to change temperature which results in all your carefully grown cell cultures to die. No matter how careful you are, you can’t predict everything. Learn to roll with the punches. When you expect a punch is coming, you might get lucky and be able to dodge it in the first place. Science is difficult. Don’t give up when things go wrong. Figure out the root cause of the problem and try again.
  3. Help others. I wouldn’t be where I am today without a lot of help. No one in my family was a scientist, mathematician, engineer, or working in anything even remotely related to technology. There is no way I would have found my way through the different schools, entry exams, applications, and internships without the help and guidance of amazing colleagues, professors, and mentors. Now that I’m out of school, I make a point to try to help students whenever I can. No matter what field you’re in, there is always a student who is thinking about going into the same field. One of the best things we can do is help inspire the next generation. I often find that students are pretty shy about reaching out to scientists they like and I always encourage them to do so. Scientists love their work and love talking about their work. You are more likely than not to encounter someone who is friendly and willing to help you in any way possible. And if you’re in a position to help a student or colleague out…help! There is a lot of competition out there but we can all accomplish a lot more when we work together.
  4. Be decisive. In the emergency department, we often make quick life and death decisions based on limited data; however, if we fail to make a decision, the results are almost universally bad for the patient. I think this holds true in business. One can become completely overwhelmed by options and wanting to weigh every bit of data and evidence to make a decision but I don’t know anyone who has that much time. Sometimes, you need to make the best decision you can with what information you have. It may not be perfect but indecision gets you nowhere. Making a decision, even if it isn’t perfect, is still progress.
  5. Always persevere. My academic trajectory was basically a practice in perseverance. I was in college for four years, my PhD program for four years, medical school for four years, and medical residency for three years. I can tell you there were many difficult days and many days when I felt like quitting. It is important to always refocus and then concentrate on the small tasks you can accomplish easily. Eventually, those small tasks add up to big tasks and, before you know it, you will have graduated after 15 years of higher education and, as my parents put it, “finally get a REAL paying job.”

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

In order to thrive, I really need to have an innate happiness and drive associated with what I’m doing. When I choose to pursue something whether that is medicine, science, acting, or mountain climbing, I carefully consider the risks and benefits and question if I think I will have any regret if I chose not to pursue a particular activity. I would recommend that women pursue things that matter to them. If you care a lot about the product, the message, or the service that you are providing, you will be much more likely to put more effort into what you’re doing. It is important to make sure that you and your team are aligned with your company’s goals. Without that alignment, you might go to work and do a job but never truly thrive. Pursue everything you do with passion. I’ve heard over and over that if you love what you do then you’ll never work a day in your life. This holds true with everything you do in life. Make sure your career and your hobbies are in fields that you’re passionate about. If this is the case, the work gets done more easily and the long hours don’t seem quite so long.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Most of my teams have been relatively small but I think the lessons hold true no matter what size team you have. Everyone on a team is an individual and has unique ideas and backgrounds that they contribute. I’ve worked on a lot of interdisciplinary teams where people come from different backgrounds and jargon can sometimes be confusing to anyone who doesn’t have a particular background. Sometimes, if you have too many meetings with all of these different perspectives, it can become overwhelming and little gets accomplished. Because of this, I’m not a huge fan of regular, go-around-the-table style meetings. I really like task-based work where people from different backgrounds can do what they do best and then reach out to other groups for supporting information as needed. I think that when you spend so much time in meetings updating one another about progress, little progress is made. Every meeting should result in a decision or action plan. That said, bringing groups of people together from different perspectives can be beneficial for innovating and solving problems. Ultimately, a leader needs to be versatile and recognize the strengths of the people they work with in order to effectively utilize those strengths. Only have meetings when necessary and with clear goals in mind.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

As I said before, there are so many people who helped me get where I am. While I would probably need another hour to tell you about every person who has helped me along the way, I think there is one story I can tell that might be relevant to this interview. I remember my advisor, Dr. Ann Fraser at Kalamazoo College, knew I was interested in space research and told me about an internship at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. I clearly remember sitting in her office, looking at her, and saying, “oh, thanks but I don’t think I could ever actually get an internship at NASA.” My immediate reaction had been to doubt myself. Dr. Fraser said, “Alaina, if you don’t apply, your chance of getting in is 0%.” I took that to heart and went home and submitted my application. That summer, I completed my first internship at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center which was one of the most formative experiences of my life. I will be forever grateful to Dr. Fraser for that encouragement. Every time I doubt myself I remember, if I don’t try, my chance of success is zero. If I try, my dreams might just come true.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try to always leave the world a little better tomorrow than it was today. I’m a big believer in little acts of kindness: holding a door for someone, secretly buying someone’s dinner/coffee, or just giving someone a compliment. As a physician, I have been very fortunate to be able to help people on a daily basis. I can actually watch a patient get better with the treatments I prescribe which can be very fulfilling. With The Emergency Docs podcast, I really hope that I can provide quality, research-based medical education for anyone interested. The medical field can be scary to those outside of it so I hope that by talking about some of the challenges we face, the medical field will become a bit more approachable. With Esperto Medical, I hope that we are creating devices that will be able to make medical diagnostics available to people in rural and remote areas. In acting, I hope that I’ll be able to tell stories that inspire, as I was inspired by the films and television I watched as a child. I’m always looking for opportunities to help others and give back because, ultimately, we all live on this planet together and every action one person takes affects others.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Over the last year, I’ve really seen a sort of criminalization of science and massive campaigns of misinformation with “fake news.” I would like to see a movement to stop misinformation and distortion of facts and events. I really would like to see people consider their words and actions carefully and consider fact versus opinion or fiction. Science is pretty rigorous in the methods we use to prove or disprove theories and I know that if someone hasn’t studied science, they aren’t necessarily privy to these methods. As doctors, we often have to make choices based on incomplete data sets, especially in the emergency department. That said, we always base decisions on facts based in data. Try to look for information that is reliable, no matter what the topic. Whether misinformation is associated with science, politics, the media, or social media, I would really like to encourage promoting facts and positivity. I wish that people would actively choose to lift each other up rather than tear each other down. No matter who someone is or what they believe in, I hope that they recognize that they have the power to make a positive difference in the lives of those around them. If something can potentially help others, and doesn’t cause harm to you or those around you, it should be easy to make the choice to do that thing. If we all thought about how we can help, and considered the impact our actions can make, the world would be a much better, more empathetic place.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Ad astra per aspera” which roughly translates to, “to the stars through difficulties.” This quote obviously has meaning because of my interest in spaceflight but its meaning also really resonates with me. As I said earlier, I’ve made a lot of mistakes and encountered a lot challenges on my path but I’ve continued to work hard in order to persevere through those challenges. This quote reminds me to have grit and determination because, if you care enough about your goal, you can get through anything.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

There are so many interesting, intelligent, and thoughtful people in the world — it is hard to pick just one person. I think I might like to speak with Jill Tiefenthaler, the CEO of National Geographic, because I think National Geographic is such a fascinating intersection between science, humanities, history, exploration, cinema, and education. She also went to college in my hometown (South Bend, Indiana)!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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Penny Bauder
Authority Magazine

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts