Mauna Dasari in June 2022 in Pennsylvania holding a female bull frog as part of her postdoctoral research. (Animals were handled with proper scientific collection permits from the state of Pennsylvania and under IACUC protocols filed with the University of Pittsburgh.)
Alumna Mauna Dasari ‘21 Ph.D. knows a little something about guts. Literally. During her time as a graduate student in the biological sciences program at Notre Dame, she focused her time and energy on researching the vital give-and-take happening deep inside a host organism’s gut; investigating how the microbiome — i.e., all the “good” bacteria and microorganisms inside a body — partner with their host and adapt over time.
And like her miniature test subjects, at Notre Dame Dr. Dasari learned firsthand the delicate dance of partnering with resources on campus, including the Graduate School’s Office of Grants and Fellowships. Through her many interactions with the office — first as a fellowship applicant and then later as a consultant to other students — she slowly began to see her interests shift, a journey that would eventually lead her to explore a new and unexpected career directly connected to the skills she had honed while working with the Grants and Fellowships team.
Learning at the school of hard knocks
Dasari arrived at Notre Dame in 2015 and soon after learned about the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP). Knowing she needed guidance with her application, she turned to the Office of Grants and Fellowships, a team dedicated to helping ND graduate students and postdoctoral fellows apply for both internal and external funding — to the tune of $33 million awarded in external funding since 2015.
Dasari met regularly with consultants from the office for two solid months, fine-tuning and eventually submitting her completed application. She didn’t win. But instead of becoming frustrated, Dasari learned from the process. She absorbed the feedback she received from the fellowship panel and vowed to come back even more prepared the next year. She did — this time winning honorable mention on her second attempt, a significant academic achievement for a federally funded program of this caliber.
From that point on, she was hooked. The Office of Grants and Fellowships noticed her passion and skill and offered her a part-time role as a consultant helping other graduate students craft their own grant applications. Dasari jumped at the chance.
“Mauna brought out the best in everyone she worked with as a fellowship consultant,” says Kayla Hurd, analyst and consultant with Grants and Fellowships. “She approached consultations with confidence and poise, allowing students to feel comfortable with her, and ultimately making them confident in their own writing. She was one of the first consultants I worked with as a first-year graduate student, and she helped me communicate and think about my research in ways that were applicable to others outside my own field.”
Indeed, it was that laser focus on communication that defined Dasari’s time with the Grants and Fellowships team; teaching other graduate students how to make complex research concepts accessible to a broader audience in their grant applications. And she had a number of go-to techniques for helping them do just that.
"My favorite tactic,” says Dasari, “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.”
It didn’t take long for Dasari’s Notre Dame faculty research advisor, Professor Elizabeth Archie, to notice that becoming involved with the Grants and Fellowships office played to Dasari’s strengths and interests. “Mauna has always been passionate about sharing her science with others and teaching her fellow scientists how to share their science,” she says. “Her work consulting and collaborating with the Office of Grants and Fellowships was instrumental in honing her passion into a powerful skill set.”
The hard work pays off
By the end of her Ph.D. program, Dasari was a seasoned and confident grant writer, comfortable describing her research in ways that resonated with those reading her applications.
“By focusing on how readers from different perspectives might approach my grants,” recalls Dasari, “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.”
The hard work began to pay dividends. When it came time to apply for postdoctoral fellowships, Dasari was named a finalist for the California Council on Science and Technology fellowship. She then followed up that impressive feat by winning a highly coveted spot in the NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Biology (PRFB) program, a tremendous honor.
After graduating with her Ph.D. from Notre Dame, the NSF-PRFB program took Dasari to the University of Pittsburgh, where she is currently conducting research on tadpole gut microbiomes as a part of Dr. Kevin Kohl’s lab. The research looks at how different species living together can act as a buffer against the effects of environmental stressors.
An exciting new career direction
In spite of her significant promise as a researcher, Dasari began to realize that a traditional career in academia was not necessarily her long-term goal. She thought back to her time writing and consulting on grants at Notre Dame and decided that she wanted to put those skills directly to use in her career, helping push scientific boundaries forward by removing logistical barriers and identifying sources of funding.
To that end, she applied for — and was ultimately offered — a newly created position as government grant officer at the California Academy of Sciences, a research institute and natural history museum in San Francisco, California. She begins this exciting new role in October 2022 and will be working across all departments of the Academy to find, write, and manage grants supporting the science and science education programs housed there.
Dasari views the new position as a crucial bridge between science and the public: “It allows me to combine my affinity for biology with my love of public service to increase equity in science,” she says. “I will get to use my skills as a grant writer, collaborator, and scientist to further the Academy’s mission by assisting its researchers and science educators to support existing programming and develop exciting new opportunities.”
Prof. Archie was thrilled when she heard about Dasari’s big career move: “Having worked with Mauna for many years,” she says, “I know she will bring thoughtfulness, professionalism, and creativity to her new role. She will be missed at ND, but the California Academy of Sciences is lucky to have her, and we're excited to see what she accomplishes there.”
Looking back at the way her experience with the Grants and Fellowships team helped prepare her for this next chapter, Dasari points beyond just the obvious connections to grant writing, identifying some of the more intangible “transferable” skills she gained along the way.
“Overall,” she says, “I 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.”
When asked what advice she has for new grant writers at Notre Dame, Dasari doesn’t hesitate: “Meet with the Office of Grants and Fellowships!” she says. “Whether you’re applying to your first internal grant or your big external postdoctoral fellowships, having people…read over drafts, or even just talk through ideas, is so useful.”
Read a full Q&A with Dr. Mauna Dasari, including more of her tips for successful grant writing.
Learn more about the Graduate School’s Office of Grants and Fellowships.