Cancer Researcher Recalls First "NIH RO1" Experience

At 26, biomedical engineering alumna Nimmi Ramanujam wrote her first National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grant—a great achievement for a researcher so young in her career.  One of her more memorable experiences at The University of Texas at Austin, however, involved nearly missing the opportunity to submit that very important grant application altogether.

While completing her doctoral studies, Ramanujam studied under Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum (currently at Rice University), for whom she holds great admiration to this day.

"Texas attracts top talent, and I had the privilege to work with a really talented young faculty member and one of the few female role models in the department," says Ramanujam.

With Richards-Kortum’s support, Ramanujam confidently took on the task of writing the NIH grant. If awarded the grant, she planned to continue collaborating with Richards-Kortum while also conducting postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania. Richards-Kortum’s lab was working on developing optical methods for early cervical cancer screening, and the goal of the NIH grant was to develop a novel optical imaging strategy for this important clinical problem.

As any student can relate to, Ramanujam was under the pressures of an impending grant deadline. After a grueling week of sleepless nights preparing the grant, she was ready to send in her application. That is, until a winter ice storm hit Austin. It was the kind that wouldn’t have had much of an impact north of the Mason-Dixon, but in the Texas capital, the storm halted traffic. Ramanujam scrambled with five, two-inch thick copies of the grant application to the FedEx office just  as the business was closing its doors. Unfortunately it was too late.

Ramanujam’s application would only arrive on time if it was either personally flown to Bethesda or sent by same-day FedEx (6 am the next day). The anxiety and mother nature-induced stress turned out advantageous, however.  Ramanujam stayed up the whole night re-reviewing the application and thankfully, was able to remedy a glaring error—a repetition of content in two different sections of the grant. Ramanujam cleaned up the application just in time for same-day FedEx delivery,  and the story has a happy ending—the grant was funded, allowing Ramanujam to continue her collaborations with her former doctoral advisor while she was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam is currently an associate professor at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering. She has spent her independent career as a faculty member building on the skills she developed while at The University of Texas at Austin, to develop and apply optically based tools for non-invasive detection of breast, head, neck, and cervical cancers. Before joining the ranks at Duke in 2005, she taught and conducted research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the University of Pennsylvania.

Ramanujam credits her interest in biomedical engineering and her research in cancer detection to the time she spent working in Richards-Kortum lab as a graduate student while at Texas.

"She was a great mentor to her students, and a great role model to women interested in pursuing an academic career."

Read more about Ramanujam’s research and her work at Duke University on her website.