A forthright conversation with biomedical engineer Nimmi Ramanujam about her path to success and the lessons she learned along the way
Nimmi Ramanujam Ph.D. describes herself as an innovator, educator and entrepreneur. She is the Robert W. Carr Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke, and also a faculty member in the Duke Global Health Institute and Dept. Pharmacology and Cell Biology. Ramanujam and her students have developed point of care diagnostics and therapeutics for cancer prevention and control, specifically for use in low resource settings. She has more than 20 patents and 150 publications, and has raised over $30M of funding to pursue her innovations focused on tackling women’s health. As the founding director of the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies at Duke, she has developed partnerships with academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, ministries of health, and commercial partners globally to test and disseminate these technologies. One example is the Pocket colposcope, a technology that she and her team have developed for cervical cancer detection, which has been validated in clinical investigations in India, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala and the U.S.
Ramanujam has received numerous awards for her work including the MIT TR100 Young Innovator award, Anita B Social Impact award, WIMIN leadership award from the World Molecular Imaging Society, the Technology Innovation award from the International Society of Optics and Photonics and the Michael S. Feld Biophotonics Award from the Optical Society of America, She was recently appointed as the IEEE Distinguished Lecturer. She is also a Fulbright fellow and has been elected to the National Academy of Inventors.
“I was like every girl who says ‘I'm not good enough to be an engineer”
Emilia Chiscop-Head: What are the integrity challenges in global research today?
Nimmi Ramanujam: I come from a colonized country, India, and now I work in places that were colonized. It is so easy to exploit people that are vulnerable. I tell my students that we have to really think about the fact that when we develop something, when we create something, we should really strive for impact. We shouldn't just exploit them for the benefit of science. We have to make sure that we have the most rigorous evidence before we test our technology on people. Treating people as equal, treating them with integrity, is probably the first and foremost rule, because if you treat people with integrity, you will treat science with integrity.
ECH: What is your advice for young women scientists to reach success and overcome the stereotype that women are more skilled for humanities or soft sciences and not for hard sciences or engineering?
NR: Being professionally skilled as a humanist is one of the greatest assets. Much of my work in engineering would have never come to fruition if humanities and in particularly, music had not had an impact on my life. It is so important when working in a complex area of health to engage experts from the social sciences, art, history, anthropology to name just a few examples. I started incorporating humanities into my engineering courses and I purposely opened them up to students in both Trinity and Pratt. Now I have 50-50, half Trinity, half Pratt students in my classes. A number of them have now become post baccalaureate fellows in my lab doing engineering research regardless of whether they have a STEM background or a literature degree. The point that I'm making is that female students (at least the ones I know) are often intimidated by the word engineering. Instead, when I use words like sexual and reproductive health or women’s health disparities, they become excited and ready to roll up their sleeves to do the work. I want students to ask “what skills do I need in order to solve the problem” rather than say “can I do engineering?”
ECH: As you revealed for the article published in Magnify, your personal health problems led to what you do today. What do you think your career would have been without them?
NR: I was like every girl who says, “I'm not good enough to be an engineer.” Having those health issues made me think of engineering in a different way. I thought of it as a way to make engineering more personalized and more palatable. I found that having a real-life context when trying to solve a problem is really motivating. When I give lectures, I try to tell stories and provide context, because otherwise I feel that it's not personal or contextualized around a bigger issue, it can be dull. And, for me, engineering was frankly dull. But, if you say that the tools you are developing can actually detect cancer or help a woman get access to care that she would otherwise not get, it becomes more human. It’s about more than technology or a particular discipline. It is about people.
“If you want to accomplish things you have to take the risk to fail”
ECH: It is not dull anymore.
NR: And, while I was not in any way affected by any of my diagnosis, I was in my early 20s, trying to navigate my life with no adult around me! Now I look back and wonder how I ever got to this place of incredible privilege - to be at Duke. As an immigrant, I feel like I really understand the word resilience. The immigration experience teaches you that you can adapt, learn new things and have conviction that you will ultimately figure it out and be ok; that you are not just defined by who you were the day before. If you want to accomplish things, you have to take the risk to fail. Those lessons were taught to me early in my life.
ECH: The Immigration experience and your health challenges helped you be resilient and see science and engineering in a different way and reinvent yourself. How can people discover their paths and reinvent themselves in the absence of eye opening events?
NR: Focus on meeting people, particularly those who are really different from you, whether it be a different discipline or culture. I believe you learn the most from people who think differently than you. It makes us question our assumptions and grow as individuals. Today you are interviewing me. More importantly you're questioning me and forcing me to think about things I don't normally think about. This is very valuable. Thinking only of a transactional process can lead people down a rabbit hole.
ECH: I am curious to see if you felt that serendipity played a role in your success.
NR: You have to be in a place where you meet an opportunity but you had to make a certain set of decisions to get there in the first place. You have to be prepared and equipped. A lot of ingredients come together to lead to that apparent moment of serendipity.
“If you can imagine something, then you can create it”
ECH: What do you feel is the most important factor of your success and the impact of your research?
NR: If you can imagine something, then you can create it. Achieving health impact is a long road. I have an invention that I'm really proud of: my students and I took some technologies that are really sophisticated and dramatically drove down size and cost without compromising performance – you can get more for less. For me, this process is not different than creating a piece of art. Because we created something yet unimagined. But I would say that at the moment, the most enduring impact that has come from my work and the work of my collaborators. They are young, compassionate innovators who think about how they can use their talents and skills for social justice.
ECH: How difficult was for you to succeed as a woman in the male-dominated world of science?
NR: I had my share of experiences where you constantly doubt yourself and your ability to do things, and always need external validation. It's a very toxic kind of feedback loop. You might have a brilliant idea or do a really good thing, but you are always unsure, either because of the fact that you're not part of the majority or because of the constant criticism you feel when you climbing the academic ladder – it can be dehumanizing particularly when trying to make it through the grueling process of moving up from assistant professor to full professor. Ultimately, I did reach a stage where I was able to build a community of like-minded people. Being around people who you can trust and who have the same aspirations as you is really fulfilling. When I started the Center for Global Women Health Technologies, we ended up getting female students, female collaborators, and female partners across the world. So all of a sudden I realized that if I did not feel like I could identify a particular community to be a part of I could build one. I have also learned over the years that it is important to share your vulnerabilities. I used to be really stoic and would not dare to share anything that made me look weak. Now I think differently. I think being vulnerable is human and something that we should embrace and share as it will help others that being vulnerable is an important part of growth.