Alumni Profile: Suvai Gunasekaran, A.B./S.M. '13
Combining her passions for research and community organizing in Chicago
Science and service always went hand in hand for Suvai Gunasekaran, A.B./S.M. ‘13.
While in high school, she was already earning national recognition for her biomedical research, while simultaneously serving as president of her school’s youth community service club and volunteering with Optimists International, a worldwide volunteer organization.
“I got involved with scientific research starting in middle school,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to go into the sciences. Science was a big part of my life, and so were service activities and volunteering.”
Gunasekaran pursued both passions while studying biomedical engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). She studied cancer cells and developed injectable hydrogels in the lab of David Mooney, Robert P. Pinkas Family Professor of Bioengineering. Meanwhile, she spent time with organizations such as Harvard Engineers Without Borders, the Harvard College Social Innovation Collaborative and Phillips Brooks House Association, all of which work to tackle the social and environmental challenges faced by underserved communities. She even was a director for Harvard Ghungroo, a student-run celebration of South Asian and South Asian diaspora cultural and performing arts.
“I like being around people and planning events to bring people together,” Gunasekaran said. “There’s something special about getting people together and seeing the excitement they get from banding together around a cause. Hopefully it sparks something in them to make a change.”
Today, Gunasekaran still devotes most of her life to biomedical research and community organizations. As a postdoctoral fellow in bioengineering at Northwestern University, where she received her Ph.D. in 2020, she is developing novel cardiac MRI imaging that measures scarring without injecting potentially harmful contrasting agents into the heart.
She’s also Director of Community Engagement for Surge for Water, a Chicago-based non-profit that works to improve access to safe and sustainable water supplies around the world.
Water health and access has long interested Gunasekaran. At Harvard, she spent three years as Vice President of Engineering for SPOUTS of Water, a non-profit organization co-founded by SEAS alum Kathy Ku, A.B. ‘13, S.M. ‘14. With SPOUTS, Gunasekaran spent two summers in Uganda to help design a clay water filtration system that could be easily produced and installed in local communities.
After arriving at Northwestern, Gunasekaran joined the Chicago chapter of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women).
“I was seeking out a way to get more involved with the Chicago community,” she said. “Our chapter really tries to support women internationally through local advocacy, education and fundraising. We use our local network to discuss international issues and see how we in Chicago can empower women globally.”
Gunasekaran started as UN Women Chicago’s Director of Events & Activities, and during her six years with the organization has served terms as the chapter’s vice president and president. After her presidential term ended this year, Gunasekaran stepped away from the organization to focus on her research and Surge for Water.
During her time with UN Women Chicago, Gunasekaran helped organize multiple major events and fundraising initiatives, including the Gender Equality Awards and Women in Leadership forum for local businesses and leaders, as well as educational forums and panels.
“Our theme for the first year of the Women in Leadership Forum was ‘Women in STEM,’ which was a really cool crossroads for me,” she said. “We also have had panels on various topics including women’s economic empowerment, educating girls around the world, and improving women’s participation in politics.”
Gunasekaran recently received a K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health, a grant to help postdoctoral researchers transition into academic careers. She hopes to continue working in academia after completing her research, drawing on all the positive schooling experiences she had at Harvard and Northwestern.
“Harvard really provided me with the breadth of opportunities to explore different areas,” she said. “There’s not just science in the world. There are other ways to make an impact and connect with people, and I think that has propelled me a lot.”
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