Arts+ at Duke: Nimmi Ramanujam, Engineering Pianist

Nimmi Ramanujam, the Robert W. Carr, Jr., Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke, is an innovative and entrepreneurial engineer with a mission—practical and effective technologies for women’s health—and a busy lab to back it up. It is not at all the life she envisioned for herself. As a child growing up in Malaysia, her passion was music. Her mother taught her at a very young age to play the veena—a core instrument of South Indian origin that resembles its distant cousin from the north, the sitar.

“I was really good at this instrument,” Ramanujam says. “I was performing on the radio, I was performing on the road! I never read music, ever. I could listen and recreate pieces—that’s how I learned from my mother.”

Our Arts+ posters are on display across campus. Photo by Chris Hildreth, design by Lacey Chylack.

Although Ramanujam imagined a career in music, her mother insisted she take a different path—engineering. “As a woman who lived in a very patriarchal society, she wanted me to break the mold. And she wanted me to do what was regarded as a noble profession. So I channeled my creative energy into engineering,” explains Ramanujam.

Ramanujam left music-making behind when she started college, but came back to it a few years ago as a mother herself, when it was time for her children to take music lessons. She chose the piano, wanting them to share in the musical culture of their adopted country. More radically, she decided to take lessons herself.

“I learned Fur Elise, I learned Moonlight Sonata, performed in my kids recital, then I went back to easier pieces,” Ramanujam says. She has discovered that she prefers to work on her own most of the time, consulting a piano teacher only when she has an issue she needs to work out.

There’s no question that she is drawing on the well of musical skill and intuition she developed as a child, but in the beginning, piano was an alien landscape. The music of her childhood is a disciplined, richly melodic style full of subtle inflection, based on models that are learned by ear and then internalized so they can be woven into flowing, seamless improvisations.

As a piano student, Ramanujam’s task wasn’t to hear and imitate, it was to execute the instructions in the score. And it was a form of music she had never really connected with in the first place, but as she learned to read and play the music, she fell in love with the language. “Now, when I listen to something like a ballade by Chopin or an intermezzo by Brahms, I feel this emotional, sort of overwhelming sense, that I can’t even describe.”

“Music is a lifeblood for me, I can’t imagine life without it. It is a place of discomfort and growth that I think is very healthy and feeds other facets of my life.”—Nimmi Ramanujam

Photo by Chris Hildreth. The “background music” is from Brahms’ Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118, which includes the intermezzo Ramanujam was learning at the time.

Engineering and Melody

In her lab, Ramanujam develops technologies that increase access to screening and treatment of women’s cancers in low resource communities. An example is the “pocket colposcope,” a portable device designed to make cervical cancer screening available to the vast number of women without access to hospitals with the specialized staff and equipment currently required for the procedure.

“Women’s health is the passion that drives everything I do as an engineer,” says Ramanujam. It inspires her to take a more creative and collaborative approach to problem solving. Instead of starting with her expertise and trying to solve problems with the tools she knows, she starts by imagining what a solution would look like, then finds the tools that will get her there, and perhaps collaborators who know how to use them.

This arena of health care and technology may seem totally divorced from anything musical, but Ramanujam sees reflections of her approach to music in her engineering practice. Her purpose-driven approach to problem solving is analogous to the way she realizes a melody. “When I’m learning a difficult piece at the piano, like the Brahms intermezzo I’ve been working on,” she says, “I know what it should sound like, but I don’t have the skills to get there as quickly as a trained pianist. When trained pianists get to a tricky part, they’ll know different techniques to tackle it. I have to create the tools.”

“This is the same strategy I use in engineering innovation. The skill set is broadly applicable to other facets of life, as well. And there are other important linkages. One could be just training your mind to solve problems in different ways, another could be the meditative experience of focussing on the music and nothing else, another could be the joy and sense of fulfillment of listening to the music I’ve created.”

A Place of Discomfort and Growth

Behind the scenes of the Arts+ photo shoot in the Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE). Photo by Chris Hildreth.

“Music is a lifeblood for me, I can’t imagine life without it,” Ramanujam says. “It is a place of discomfort and growth that I think is very healthy and feeds other facets of my life.”

She also has a strong sense of the power of music to bring people together—a feeling rooted in her formative experience of learning music at home, in the warmth of the family circle, and then sharing it with her community. That is another aspect of music she has brought to her engineering.

“Music is an intrinsic part of human society and culture, pervasive and passed down through generations,” Ramanujam says. “It is an anchor that brings people together no matter what discipline they are in. I hope to do the same in my work–to build a community that shares a common vision of women’s health, and to innovate with passion and deliver with compassion.”