Introducing the new SIR Foundation scientist position
Govindarajan Srimathveeravalli, PhD
Govindarajan Srimathveeravalli, PhD, has recently joined the SIR Foundation Board of Directors in a newly created position for Scientist Members of SIR. Dr. Srimathveeravalli is an assistant professor in the department of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He was previously faculty in the department of radiology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. His research has been supported by grants from SIR Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Defense, industrial contracts and various philanthropic foundations.
IR Quarterly sat down with Dr. Srimathveeravalli to discuss his research, his role in SIR and how scientists and physicians can be working collaborators.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and research interests?
I am trained as a mechanical engineer. I got my MS and PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of Buffalo in New York, and that’s where I was introduced to image-guided procedures and began working with physicians. My PhD thesis was on building an image-guided robot to manipulate catheters. I worked at a start-up for a year working on image-guided robotics projects, such as simulation-based training for performing laparoscopic surgery. When I chose to pursue more serious research, I accepted a postdoctoral position at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center, where I worked under the chief of interventional radiology, Stephen B. Solomon, MD, FSIR. I worked on an image-guided robot that performed biopsies, and from there I was exposed to interventional procedures and became interested in the biological response of tumors to the different energy modalities typically used for ablation.
How did you get involved with SIR?
I joined SIR in 2013 and have been a scientist member for several years. There are only a handful of us, and I’m very proud to be one of them. Because of the encouragement of my mentor and the support of others in the society, I have been engaged in doing workshops at SIR’s annual scientific meetings since 2015. In addition, I’ve been a member of the research, grants and education division, and helped revamp the grant application process into the two-phase strategy we use now.
The scientist position on the foundation Board of Directors is a new role. What’s your vision for it?
It’s still early days, and part of the work I’m doing now is to scope out what’s possible and how much we should attempt as part of this position. I have the opportunity to shape this position, not just for myself, but for those who follow me. It’s important because SIR—at various levels—has always tried to engage scientists. It is one of the few organizations that support grant applications from PhD members and provides recognition for their efforts. I’m sure members at different points have thought about how they can facilitate engagement with and improve collaboration with scientist members. One of my primary goals, right now, is to meet different members and listen to those who have been in the society for a while to understand what works, what doesn’t work and how we can make scientists more part of the work.
Why is improving communication between physicians and scientists important?
IR as a discipline was enabled by technology. Starting with Charles Dotter, physicians created tools so new procedures can be performed. In modern IR, technology is an integral part of clinical practice—more so than many other disciplines. The question is, what kind of relationship does IR want with the scientists developing this technology? Are they just technology consumers, or do they want to be partners in the science? Obviously, it’s the latter. But if there is a disconnect and scientists are separated from the end users—the physicians—then there is a lack of conversation which could unlock the maximum potential of where we can go together. We just need to be able to communicate and network better with each other.
What are some of the challenges facing this communication?
Part of it is a support system and network. Before my interview at Memorial Sloan Kettering, I had to go and look up what IR was. That was my total preparation on the field. It remains an unfamiliar discipline to a lot of scientists outside of medicine, and the breadth and scope of what is possible remains unclear and unexplored.
But IR needs partners. Partnerships and networking can increase exposure and help identify opportunities that both scientists and physicians should be looking at together. A lot of science doesn’t make it to the clinic because there’s a lack of knowledge as to what is required to perform translationally relevant research. Involving a physician from the start will substantially improve the chance that the discoveries in the lab will make it to the patient. Likewise, IRs are inventive. They have ideas and they know the problems we need to solve—but they need access to the right kind of people who can take their ideas further. With a support system, there will be a built-in network of knowledge on both sides that can be tapped into for maximum results.
How has your experience with NIH-sponsored grants informed your work with SIR?
Several years ago, I received the SIR Foundation Dr. Ernest J. Ring Academic Development Grant, and I cannot tell you how much the grant helped support me and led to NIH and other federal agency grants. Sometimes the very first step to personal success is someone else believing in you. That investment from SIR Foundation eventually paid off. And now, having been a reviewer on study sections and a recipient of grants and a member of the ecosystem, I see it as an opportunity to pay it back and share my experience.
Consider that the average grant application has three reviewers and it’s uncommon for more than one of them to be a physician. The other reviewers are scientists. I have the ability and perspective to look at a grant and see it differently from how a physician would. Likewise, the things that scientists find important doesn’t always overlap with what physicians would think is important. I’m able to act as a bridge and help share my perspective and hopefully help spread my experience around.
How do you think this new position will impact scientist membership in SIR?
There has been a lot of discourse on equity and inclusion in the last couple of years, and that comes at many levels. In a society that is predominantly focused on clinicians, recognizing that the contributions of scientists are important, as well as understanding that we all operate on different levels and different requirements, is crucial. SIR has always been very cognizant of that and has worked to create an inclusive environment.
Further recognizing the contributions and roles of scientists in IR is a positive signal to other scientists that there is a role for us in this specialty, and it’s a signal to undergraduate students who may be in engineering that they can go on to become physicians or physician partners. It’s a signal that we are a society that cares about all our members and believes that scientists bring specific value to the work.