Get to know: Vani Nilakantan, PhD

Photo of Vani Nilakantan and three adults.

We are pleased to introduce you to Vani Nilakantan, System Vice President for Research with the CommonSpirit Health Research Institute. Vani joined the ministry in April of this year and is located in Minneapolis, Minn.

(Vani is pictured (second from left) with her family at Machu Picchu in Peru.)

How do you see your work within CommonSpirit Health helping to fulfill the organization's mission and vision?
Research is an imperative and a valued asset for CommonSpirit. Research provides opportunity: an opportunity to find a cure, an opportunity to improve quality of life, an opportunity to improve health care for the next generation, and an opportunity to provide access to care for all regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic status. At CommonsSpirit Health Research Institute, we are committed to these goals and pursuing innovation and discovery to find new ways for timely and appropriate treatments to patients is what we do.

In my role as the System Vice President for Research for the CommonSpirit Health Research Institute, I am privileged and honored to lead research initiatives for the system with the vision of CommonSpirit being a nationally recognized leader in clinical research that transforms health care for the communities we serve.

What does the Research Excellence Equity Fund (REEF) mean to you and why is it important to support it?
The Research Excellence Equity Fund (REEF) will support the intersectionality of research and health equity. Diversity and health equity is an important strategic priority for research. It is well known that there is inequity in health care across the country and this is reflected in research, too. In fact, the disparities in health care and research became much more apparent during COVID.

Traditionally clinical research has had gross underrepresentation from minority communities and the barriers to participation in clinical trials range from mistrust of the system, socio-cultural issues, access and burden of participation. Removing these barriers is critical to ensuring that people of all races have equal access to clinical research. This is important because if diverse groups are not part of the clinical studies, then we cannot be sure that the treatment will work for all populations and whether the side effects are different for various groups of people.

REEF has been created so that we can have an internal clinical research grant program to address these issues, engage in strategic initiatives to increase diversity in clinical trial participation and to increase diversity in the research workforce pipeline. It is exciting for me to see that we could set this fund up so quickly at CommonSpirit and I hope that everyone will support it.

Why do you give to the organization?
For me, growing up in India where health care access is a tremendous problem, giving to organizations that focus on innovation and research to ensure access for all has always been important. My passion for the last 30 years has been in research and innovation, focused on trying new and better ways to improve health care. CommonSpirit embodies my personal values and I feel a strong alignment with the organizational priorities. We have a tremendous opportunity to improve and transform care for all our patients through research and this is why I give to CommonSpirit Heath.

What does gratitude mean to you and does it play a role in why you give?
I have deep gratitude for all that I have been given in my life -my parents who placed such a high value on education and giving back to society are at the core of my value system, my family and friends who supported me throughout, my husband and children who are there for me no matter what.

I give to others because I have been given much and have the desire to help other people who lack the support structures I have had and who struggle to make it in life. In India, for example, you see poverty all around and this has made a huge impact on my life. I give whatever I can to help where I am able to make a positive impact.

What about your work gives you the greatest fulfillment and satisfaction?
I have been at CommonSpirit only for a brief period of time, but within this short time frame, I am amazed at the collaborative and dedicated teams spanning almost the entire country to come together to work on collective solutions to solve large health care problems. It is truly fulfilling for me to see that my work can directly have a positive impact on so many people.

What's one fun fact that others might not know about you?
When I was young, I used to spend my free time watching "nature" TV shows, primarily the expeditions that Jacques Cousteau led. This inspired me to want to be an oceanographer and marine biologist and I completed a Masters degree in this field from India. Over the years, my career path has changed but my love for marine life remains!