Professor Reeta Rao, a researcher of fungal pathogens and award-winning teacher, has been appointed interim head of the Department of Biology and Biotechnology in the School of Arts and Sciences. The two-year appointment took effect July 1.
Rao will lead a department of 15 full-time faculty at a time that she describes as exciting for the field of biology.
“The pandemic has raised public interest in biology, and biologists are having an impact on scholarship through their collaborations with researchers in fields such as computer science, physics, mathematics, and business,” Rao says. “I’m excited to lead this department at a time when there are so many opportunities for faculty to work with colleagues in other departments at WPI and with researchers at other institutions.”
Rao succeeds Joseph Duffy, who was department head for 10 years. During his term, the department hired five tenure-track faculty members, doubled the size of its doctoral program, significantly increased its research portfolio, and implemented inquiry-based teaching labs. He is returning to full-time teaching and research at WPI in the fields of cell signaling and cancer biology.
“This is an extremely exciting time for biology, and the department is in excellent hands with Reeta’s leadership,” Duffy says. “I look forward to joining our faculty in helping achieve her vision for the department.”
A member of the faculty since 2004, Rao recently completed a two-year term as WPI’s inaugural associate dean of graduate studies. She also is a visiting scientist at the Broad Institute, a collaboration of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Rao’s research focuses on fungal pathogens of the Candida species, and her work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Nature Communications, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Genetics. She has received grant funding from federal and private sources, and her work on Candida has been supported by the National Institutes of Health since 2013. She holds two patents.
In 2018, Rao was named a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, an honorific leadership group within the American Society for Microbiology. She also received the Waksman Outstanding Teaching Award from the Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology in 2018.
Rao has been involved in revising WPI requirements for graduate students and championed a blended MS degree program focused on skills and coursework applicable to the biotechnology industry. She also spearheaded Next-in-BIO, an annual career expo and research symposium that aims to attract Massachusetts undergraduate students to graduate studies and retain trained workers in the greater Boston area by exposing participants to opportunities in the life sciences.
Rao earned her PhD at Pennsylvania State University.
“Reeta is a remarkable leader in teaching, research, and service,” says Jean King, Peterson Family Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. “She has steadily risen to the rank of full professor with tenure, which not only makes her a relative rarity in the academic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, but also establishes her as a role model for younger female faculty members at WPI.”
–By Lisa Eckelbecker