Mauna Dasari

Mauna Dasari

Biological Sciences: PhD

Tell us a bit about yourself. Degree, years studied, where you are now etc. Brief introduction to you and your research. 

I am a microbial ecologist interested in the complex evolutionary and ecological relationships between hosts and their microbiomes. Specifically, I investigate how the microbiomes in a host’s gut change in response to the host’s environment, as well as how these changes in the gut microbiome impact the host’s growth and development. I completed my PhD in Biological Sciences with Dr. Beth Archie from 2015–2021, during which I demonstrated that the gut microbiome exhibits predictable changes with age, and that these changes were predictive of important host developmental events using longitudinal data from the Amboseli Baboon Research Project. I also strive to integrate my research with my skills in scientific outreach and communication to engage broad audiences and thus jointly advance science and accessibility. Throughout my time at Notre Dame, I communicated my science to broad audiences and uplifted historically excluded communities through my scientific outreach and communication, leadership, and activism. 

In January 2022, I started as an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Biology at the University of Pittsburgh, where I work with Dr. Kevin Kohl’s lab to investigate how different species living together might change tadpole gut microbiomes such that they are buffered against the effects of environmental stressors. Excitingly, I recently accepted a job offer at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco as their first Government Grant Officer. Once I start this role in October 2022, I will be working with all the different departments at the Academy to find, write, and manage grants that support the science and science education programs. 

What major (internal or external) grants or fellowships did you win during your graduate studies?  

Most of my awards were fairly small (<$2000) until the postdoctoral cycles. However, all the skills I learned writing the <10 smaller grants and advising students in the Office of G&F paid off big during my postdoctoral cycles, when I was a finalist for the California Council on Science and Technology’s fellowship and won the NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Biology (PRFB). 

Tell us about a time that you applied to a grant/fellowship and you didn’t get the result that you hoped for. What did you learn from this process? 

My experience as a grant writing consultant gave me the skills to write successful applications, but this was sparked through my first “unsuccessful” federal application: the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP). I learned about the NSF-GRFP through my University’s Office of Grants and Fellowships (G&F) when I started graduate school in 2015. I began drafting an application with the help of my advisor and G&F’s grant writing consultants, meeting with them at least every other week over 2 months in order to prepare the application and submit the application through FastLane. While I was not successful the first round, I was offered the opportunity to help others with their grants as a G&F writing consultant. That next year as I was working with other students, I reflected on my own GRFP reviews, improved where possible, and applied again in 2016 for which I was awarded an honorable mention. This experience sparked my love of grant-writing and assisting others in their own applications. Further, this experience informed my approach to grant writing such that I have been successful on most grants I have applied for since, including my own NSF postdoctoral fellowship.  

How was your experience working with (and working for) the Office of Grants & Fellowships? What was a major takeaway from working with the team that you will try to convey to others in their grant writing journey? 

I loved working with and for the Office of Grants and Fellowships, working with other graduate students on their grants is one of the highlights of my time at Notre Dame! When I was applying for my GRFP as a first year student, I worked with literally every consultant in the Office and learned a lot about how different disciplines approach writing, as well as how to communicate my own science to really broad audiences. This also helped with my own accountability, since I’d have someone looking at my draft every other week or so. My major takeaway from that period was probably the way Dr. Claire Bowen worked — she would read grants aloud — which allowed us to take a step back from the internal dialogues we have with our own writing and focus on the flow of the writing. I still think it’s a great tactic whenever I’m stuck writing, or trying to clean up a final draft for submission. My favorite tactic, and one I constantly tell all my students, is to treat the first draft as “the garbage draft”: just get as many words on the page as possible and start editing and rearranging from there. Overall though, I want to emphasize that writing is hard, but there are a lot of different ways to approach this problem, and you’ll need to figure out what works best for you — some people like writing everyday, others like writing with accountability groups, and others prefer just brute-force tackling it all at once. As long as it gets done, it’s a great strategy. 

If you could go back in time and do your graduate studies again, what would you do differently? What would you keep the same? What resources on campus would you utilize more? 

I would probably try to get more integrated into the larger South Bend community earlier, I don’t think I really got involved with other community groups until 2019 or so. I would definitely stay involved with both the Office of Grants and Fellowships, as well as the other student groups I contributed to (BGSO, AWIS-ND, I4RH, GSARIND). As for resources I should have utilized more, probably keeping up with more of the teaching resources at the Kaneb Center, as well as the workshops offered by the Center for Digital Scholarship (CDS) and the Center for Research Computing (CRC). They all have a ton of great people that want to help you with whatever problem you have.

What did you learn about yourself as you were going through the grant writing process? What skills did you develop or hone? 

Through the grant writing process, I actually gained a lot of confidence in myself and my research. By focusing on how readers from different perspectives might approach my grants, I had to think about my science much more holistically than I might if I were only talking to other microbial ecologists. Through this process of breaking down my research, I [became] a lot more comfortable tackling my research from many different angles, and thus communicating my expertise in whatever context. Part of this is thanks to Dr. Gopen’s reader expectation approach, which is about writing with the reader in mind — what are all the different interpretations of a sentence? How can we use language to narrow those interpretations to a single conclusion? 

How has your experience with grant writing informed your career interests and/or goals? 

My experiences with grant writing, in retrospect, are my career interests. Since I knew I didn’t want an academic position, but I did want to be somewhat science adjacent, grant writing as a skill opened up a lot of different administrative or communication based positions that I would not have been as qualified for otherwise. Overall, I also know how to talk about myself and my research in a manner that conveys confidence and expertise, which was quite the boon on the job market and while interviewing for different positions. 

What piece of advice do you have for new grant writers? What should these students do to get started? 

Meet with the Office of Grants and Fellowships! Kayla, Michael, and the team are amazing and will set you up for success, whether you’re applying to your first internal grant or your big external postdoctoral fellowships, having people happy to read over drafts, or even just talk through ideas, is so useful! But remember, figure out what works for your writing/work style and get the support that benefits you, whether that be through G&F, the writing center’s resources, or writing accountability groups/writing bootcamps.

Note: Q&As may be lightly edited for clarity and brevity.