The Social Impact Abie Award recognizes a woman whose work is making a positive impact on women, technology, and society. This year’s winner is Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam, the Robert J. Carr Professor of Biomedical Engineering and the founding director of the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies at Duke University.
Nimmi has a mission to develop technology to have wide reaching impact in women’s health. Her research on women’s cancers focuses on designing innovations that enable complex services to be accessible at the primary care level for cancer prevention. Her research also helps with the development of tools that will make cancer treatment more effective and efficient.
We spoke with Nimmi about her work, the importance of diversity in tech, and the inspiration that she and her mentees provide one another.
Tell us about how the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies came to exist.
When I started my research career in graduate school, I worked on a women’s health tool for cervical cancer detection. At that time, I had a diagnosis of early stage cervical cancer. I simply thought, “I have a problem and I need to go see the doctor.” Luckily, I had access to healthcare and the means to pay for it. But in the country that I am from (India), there are accessibility issues and cultural differences that make it difficult for women to get the help they need.
My center started with the idea that if we can develop low cost technologies for health disparities, we could really close the gap in the inequities that women in low resource communities face. We’re using technology to actually impact women’s health, particularly cancers that are unjustifiably prevalent in many parts of the world.
I believe that if you really want to solve a problem, you have to have a sense of belonging and a sense of solidarity with the community you’re working for. So now when I look for people to join my center, I try to determine who will be there for the long term, and who has the same, strong foundation and common passion to solve these sorts of problems. I seek out collaborators from every different field. My most recent collaborator is a historian who focuses on oral history and story telling. Why is this important? It is not enough to provide innovative technologies. We need the women in the most vulnerable communities to be empowered to see the value of the technologies on their own terms and share that experience with others and story telling is a powerful way to achieve that.
What inspired you to enter the academic world and become a professor?
There’s something really fulfilling about mentoring students to be their best selves. I also love creating. For example, I can play notes on a piano or paint something on a piece of paper, and nobody can tell me it’s wrong because it’s my composition. I believe education and innovation are similar. You can create your own models of education, especially when you’re tenured. I was able to create IGNITE, a cascading model of education where students teach students, and implement it at Duke University and then across the globe.
I feel there’s no better place than an academic setting — with bright, talented, passionate students — to ask, “How can we make the world a better place?”
You’ve mentored plenty of students throughout your career. What are some of the achievements they’ve made?
I had created a STEM program that we were going to implement in Guatemala. It used design thinking to develop flashlights for energy poverty. One student, who was studying literature and spoke Spanish, said, “I want to help with that.” She had not previously done anything related to engineering, but the sheer fact that she could empower girls in another community and speak to them in their own language inspired her to join our project. Now, she actually is doing engineering research in my lab as a post-doctorate student. She also went on to curate an art exhibit based on the studies that we did on our cervical cancer screening program.
Five years ago, I interviewed another student named Mercy for my graduate program. She had come to the U.S. from Ghana thanks to a scholarship. I had tasked her with working on an innovative piece of technology that would allow a woman to see her cervix without a speculum (which is used in a traditional gynecological exam) and potentially help women self-test for cervical cancer. Mercy developed this technology and informed me, “Women in my country don’t have access to technology like this, but I’d love to go back and implement it.” Today, she’s a month away from graduating and is implementing the very technology she developed in Ghana. She has received numerous awards in recognition of her work including the MIT-Lemelson graduate student prize.
I draw my energy from the young women that are my mentees. I cannot tell you how energizing it is to actually have a collaborative experience with them.
Why do you feel having diverse teams is so crucial when creating technology?
Right now in the tech industry, the people who are designing technology to solve problems usually aren’t the people who have these problems. If you’re trying to solve an issue, it’s best to be or work with someone to whom the individuals you’re serving can relate. The gender lens is very important when thinking about community needs, especially women’s health reproductive needs. Technology can be a powerful tool for health, but in order for it to be designed in a way that impacts women, you need more women at the table.
What do you think is the best way to increase diversity in tech?
I ask myself, “How can we make education accessible so that we can have women from any part of the world be able to do the kinds of things Mercy has done?” Mercy had to come to the U.S. to get a higher education and to get the mentoring needed to help her succeed, but I want to find a way that doesn’t require every student to come to Duke. If we can let all women like Mercy have access to the same educational and mentoring resources she had, imagine what they could do for their communities. IGNITE, a peer-led program on STEM, design thinking, and the sustainable development goals, strives to achieve just that.
This will be your first Grace Hopper Celebration. Why do you think events like these are important?
I think you need events like Grace Hopper Celebration to provide people a platform to share and learn about what is happening in the realm of social impact. Really great things can come from big meetings like these, so long as you take advantage of it. Go to these meetings. You’ll find a group of kindred spirits who are all there for very similar reasons. Make new connections, take a few cards home, and follow up with them afterward and ultimately, build communities outside of your own.
What final piece of advice do you want to leave our readers with?
When starting a project, set clear expectations and understand who the beneficiaries are. Make it personal, and really try to understand where people are coming from when you hire them. I often don’t look at skill sets because I think they can be learned. What I look for is fundamentally, “What would you like to do to change the world?” I want people to be thinking about how dissatisfied they are with status quo. Then I want them to have the opportunity to tackle that in a productive way, within the constraints of what we can offer in our center. Most importantly, I want to acknowledge that each and every individual we touch has tremendous potential. Identifying what they care about and setting them free to do that will pay dividends. It has for me.
Meet Nimmi at GHC 19 during our Speaker’s Corner session, Friday, October 4, 12—12:45 p.m., AnitaB.org booth.
See Nimmi’s session “Empowering Women to Improve Women’s Health Through Tech, Education, & Engagement” on Thursday, October 3, 11:15 a.m.—12:15 p.m., OCCC W300.
Watch our GHC 19 videos of Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam.