In this edition of Q&A, we sit down with Poornima Venkat, Scientific Program Manager on the Gilbert Family Foundation’s Curing NF Team. Poornima specializes in how neurofibromatosis affects the brain and is deeply involved with our Brain Tumor Initiative (BTI), which aims to identify and understand the aggressive tumors caused by NF1. Ultimately, the goal is to develop preclinical models that will lead to the development of viable treatments. Our conversation was especially fitting as May is NF Awareness Month, and Poornima feels strongly that the collaborative approach of the Curing NF team with the larger NF research community will help accelerate a cure.

Q: What inspired you to get into neuroscience?

A: I was drawn to biomedical research after witnessing the effects of stroke and cardiac disease within my family. I wanted to understand how the brain responds to injury and find novel ways to protect and repair the brain. With the guidance of incredible mentors, my research was focused on developing preclinical therapeutics for stroke. One of my key research contributions has been in advancing our understanding of the effects of brain–heart interaction after stroke.

Q: What interests you about NF work, specifically?

A: When I first heard of neurofibromatosis, I was surprised by how common it is for a rare disease, and how complex it is with so many different manifestations. Although brain tumors are rare in patients with NF1, they can have devastating outcomes depending on where they grow in the brain and whether they transform into a more aggressive tumor type. I’m specifically interested in better understanding and finding treatments for NF1-associated brain tumors outside of the optic pathway.

Poornima Venkat
Poornima Venkat, Scientific Program Manager on the Curing NF Team, was drawn to neuroscience after witnessing how stroke affected members of her family.

Q: What excites you most about the projects you’re working on?

A: The Brain Tumor Initiative (BTI) focuses on NF1-associated brain tumors outside the visual pathway, particularly on aggressive tumor types known as high-grade glioma and high-grade astrocytoma with piloid features (HGAPs). The projects supported by the BTI aim to characterize these tumors, understand clinical patterns and treatment outcomes in patients, and develop preclinical models to facilitate drug development and testing. These projects will take us a step closer towards improving the lives of NF1 patients, which is exciting.

Q: You’re a big fan of collaboration, which is also a core part of how we operate at GFF. Why do you feel this way – especially in the competitive space of scientific/medical research?

A:  When collaboration is facilitated in an intentional and systematic way, it can us reach our goals faster. We also need routine interaction and cooperation between clinicians and basic science researchers to bridge translational gaps effectively. By assembling teams with diverse expertise and perspectives, we can learn from each other’s successes and failures while also closing gaps in knowledge and techniques. Our team is committed to this approach by actively engaging with the NF research community to identify their needs and thoughtfully facilitating avenues for us to work together.

Q: While working at GFF, what is one thing you’ve learned that has surprised you?

A: I was surprised by how well the teams support each other and lift each other up. It’s truly inspiring to see openness and collaboration all around and the collective impact on our communities.

Q: The word on the street is that you’re a passionate Liverpool fan – tell us more about that!

A: I just love the team’s fighting spirit and their inspiring comeback stories. It was so exciting to see Liverpool play at Michigan Stadium few years back and I hope to see them play at Anfield someday!

Learn more about our efforts to raise awareness and accelerate a cure for neurofibromatosis by visiting our sister organization, NF Forward.