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TL Scholar Gunasekaran Receives K99 Funding

Suvai Gunasekaran, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Radiology, has received a prestigious Pathway to Independence Award from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. 

The National Institutes of Health (K99/R00) grant helps outstanding postdoctoral researchers complete needed mentored training and transition in a timely manner to independent, tenure-track, or equivalent faculty positions

“It’s a very prestigious award to get, so I was elated to hear that my grant was funded, especially with my first submission,” says Gunasekaran, a TL1 Multidisciplinary Training Program in Child and Adolescent Health scholar. “More than the honor of receiving the grant, I'm very excited to have the opportunity to pursue the project I proposed. The mentors and research environment at Northwestern are very supportive and collaborative, so I'm looking forward to working with the team to develop useful cardiac imaging techniques for pediatric patients.”

Gunasekaran’s K99 project will explore "Non-contrast 3D T1ρ Mapping for Myocardial Fibrosis Quantification of Pediatric Cardiomyopathy Patients." T1ρ magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), also known as “spin lock” MRI, is a still-developing imaging technique.


What I learned most while being a TL1 scholar is that it takes patience and resilience to succeed as an academic researcher.”

Suvai Gunasekaran, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Radiology

Measuring myocardial fibrosis is important for evaluating numerous pediatric heart conditions, but current cardiac MRI techniques are not optimal as they require the use of a contrast agent, general anesthesia, and have limited spatial coverage. Gunasekaran will explore the development of a 3D T1ρ mapping approach as a non-contrast, free-breathing, whole-heart myocardial fibrosis imaging technique.

“This study will serve to establish 3D T1ρ mapping as a useful imaging test by using deep learning reconstruction and automated data analysis for rapid clinical translation and evaluation in a large, diverse pediatric patient population,” she says. 

Having joined the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences (NUCATS) Institute’s TL1 program in 2020, Gunasekaran was exposed to interactions among both mentors and trainees in pediatrics and engineering to encourage creative thinking and new approaches in child health research. Her TL1 mentors were Cynthia Rigsby, MD, FACR, FSCMR, FAAP, the Earl J. Frederick Distinguished Professor of Radiology, and Gregory Webster, MD, assistant professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Cardiology.

“What I learned most while being a TL1 scholar is that it takes patience and resilience to succeed as an academic researcher,” says Gunasekaran. “While my TL1 project moved forward slowly, Dr. Susanna McColley and Program Director Adam White were extremely supportive and helped me navigate different opportunities to make sure I was set up for success.”  

Gunasekaran grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and attended Harvard University where she received her bachelor's and master's degrees in biomedical engineering. She then completed her PhD in biomedical engineering at Northwestern. As a TL1 Scholar, Gunasekaran began work to develop an MRI test that can measure scarring in the heart without using potentially damaging contrast agents.

“I'm grateful to be at Northwestern where I've been able to take advantage of many opportunities to grow as a researcher,” says Gunasekaran. In addition, my PhD advisor and Principal Investigator Dr. Daniel Kim, has been an amazing mentor who has supported my efforts and was the one who encouraged me to apply for the K99.” 

Gunasekaran’s TL1 research was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, Grant Number TL1TR001423.

Written by Roger Anderson

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