Rao Fellowship

Reeta Rao in her lab in the WPI Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center, where she studies the biology of fungal infections

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Michael Dorsey
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Worcester Polytechnic Institute
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Reeta Rao Elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology

Her research focuses on the biology of fungal diseases, including the deadly hospital-acquired infections caused by the species Candida, and the search for more effective therapeutics to treat them

January 31, 2018
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Reeta Rao, left, and Asmaa Elkabti examine an image on a computer screen
Rao and PhD candidate Asmaa Elkabti look at an image of a
roundworm (C. elegans) used as a model system for studying
fungal infections in humans

Reeta Rao, PhD, associate professor of biology and biotechnology at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), has been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the honorific leadership group within the American Society for Microbiology. Fellows, all eminent leaders in the field of microbiology, are elected annually through a highly selective, peer-review process, based on their records of scientific achievement and exceptional contributions to the advancement of microbiology.

In her research, Rao studies the biology of fungal diseases, particularly those caused by Candida, a species of fungi prevalent in humans that are responsible for oral thrush, ear infections, and vaginitis. The microorganism can also cause systemic infections in immunocompromised individuals and is a leading cause of serious illnesses and death among hospitalized patients. These life-threatening infections have a 30–50 percent mortality rate, which is likely related to the growing antimicrobial resistance in fungal pathogens. Treating the infections costs more than $1 billion annually.

Studying the Biology of Fungal Infections in the Rao Lab

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Rao examines infected tissue samples under a microscope with PhD candidate Toni Delorey while PhD candidate Bo Yang works in the hood.
Rao examines infected tissue samples under a microscope with PhD candidate Toni Delorey; PhD candidate Bo Yang works in the hood

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PhD candidate Bo Yang and Rao discuss the latest round of testing with Candida variants in the Rao Lab.
PhD candidate Bo Yang and Rao discuss the latest round of testing with Candida variants in the Rao Lab

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Three Petri dishes with cultures of the fungus C. albicans growing in them
Colonies of Candida albicans display the fuzzy filaments that the fungus uses to infect tissue and cause a range of diseases
The team in the Rao Lab: from left, Asmaa Elkabti, Natalie
Fabrizio ’18, Erica Friel ’20, Rao, Toni Delorey, and Bo Yang.
Not pictured: Brittney Lambert ’18, Renee Leclaire ’19, and
Nina Murphy-Cook ‘19

Rao and her research team use biochemical, molecular-genetic, and genomic tools to study strategies the fungal pathogens use to infect their hosts, identify how the pathogens interact with the host’s immune system, and explore how fungal infections are transmitted in the clinic. They also use high-throughput screening, a drug-discovery process used in the pharmaceutical industry to quickly test the biological or biochemical activity of a large number of compounds, to search for new therapeutics for fungal diseases, which are notoriously difficult to treat.

Along with her appointment at WPI, Rao is a visiting scientist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and a member of the Institute for Drug Resistance at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Association of Inventors, the Genetic Society of America, the Medical Mycology Society of the Americas, and the Indus Entrepreneurs, in addition to the American Society for Microbiology. She is also an associate editor of the open access journal PLOS ONE.

Before joining WPI in 2004, she was a postdoctoral researchers at the Whitehead Institute, supported by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Ruth L. Kirschstein postdoctoral fellowship. She earned a BS in pharmacy at Birla Institute of Science and Technology in Pilani, India, an MS in bioscience and biotechnology and an MS in environmental sciences at Drexel University, and a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology at Pennsylvania State University Medical College.

Her research, which has been supported by the NIH-funded Genomic Center for Infectious Diseases, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Council, Immunexcite Inc., and Irving A. Backman & Associates, among other organizations, has resulted in more than 20 peer-reviewed journal articles and invited review articles. Two of her papers have been featured by the Faculty of 1000 (F1000) publishing service (one was rated a “must read”), and a 2015 paper in the open-access journal eLife, “The evolution of drug resistance in clinical isolates of Candida albicans,” was accompanied by an "Insight" article by two researchers from École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, who commented on the importance of the study.

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