Undergraduate Alumni Spotlight: Interview with Vishwas Rao

Vishwas Rao is an undergraduate alumni who graduated from NC State University in 2017 with a B.S. in Chemistry. His passion for chemistry and exposure to medical research while in the Williams group, triggered his willingness to pursue a combined MD/PhD dual-degree at Duke University.

Here is what Vishwas Rao has to say about his journey at NC State University:

Vishwas Rao Headshot

Name: Vishwas Rao

Current Position: I’m in my 2nd year as an MD/PhD candidate at Duke University

Degrees Earned/Fellowships & dates: Chemistry, B.S. (2017), Fulbright Fellowship (2017-2018)

Why did you choose Chemistry?

One of my favorite classes growing up was my high school chemistry class. I was very fascinated by molecules and their infinite bonding patterns and combinations. I found that the concepts we learned really stuck with me, and I would continue reading up about them. When I came to NC State, I was mesmerized by the different types of chemistry and its applications. I found every discipline (bio-organic/synthetic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry and analytical chemistry) incredibly fascinating. Even to this day, I still reflect on those classes and remember different topics from each class.

What were you involved in outside of the classroom?

I was involved with undergraduate research with Dr. Gavin Williams, studying and manipulating the biosynthetic pathways in bacteria that produce different antibiotics. I am a musician and played flute in the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra throughout my undergrad. I participated in Alternative Service Break (ASB) trips for two years and led an ASB trip during my senior year of undergrad. I was also a College of Science Student Ambassador. 

How did undergraduate research influence your decision to pursue an MD/PhD? 

My research experiences in the Williams Lab  allowed me to use my curiosity to learn about different fields and research topics. It showed me how to apply whatever questions I had towards expanding my understanding of those research topics. I also felt like the lab experience gave me an appreciation for the scientific method. During classes, I would conduct experiments with known or expected outcomes. In the research lab, I did not necessarily know whether my experiments would work or not. Furthermore, I would also need to interpret my experiments’ results to guide every subsequent experiment. That gave me a great appreciation for the trial-and-error backbone of scientific research. 

My work in the Williams Lab allowed me to conduct summer projects at Stanford University and the Mayo Clinic, where I was surrounded by physicians working on problems with direct clinical applications. This gave me a lot of exposure to medical research, which established my interest to pursue a combined MD/PhD dual-degree, so I may still have that rigorous scientific research training with a robust medical knowledge, so I may come up with unique questions to advance medicine and medical therapies. 

How did your experience at NC State prepare you for the future?

I feel like my education at NC State gave me a good foundation for medicine and basic science research. Besides getting a great training in chemistry, I had flexibility to take classes outside of chemistry that broadened my knowledge. I also received great training in soft skills. I remember honing my scientific writing skills in Dr. Ana Ison’s Synthesis Lab classes. I had many opportunities to present my work in the Williams Lab at local and national conferences, which helped me improve my science communication skills. I believe that my experience at NC State has made me very well-rounded and feel prepared as I continue my training towards being a physician-scientist. 

What advice would you give to current students?

Every time I would consider a potential career or career-track, I would ask myself: what is the good, the bad and the ugly? In other words, what are the authentic aspects of this career. What are the positive attributes/the exciting aspects? What will be the anticipated struggles? I believe this helped me recognize difficult aspects of different career-tracks, paying close attention to expected limitations I could face. I feel this has tempered my expectations and build resiliency to get through the highs and lows of the training and future career. 

Fill in the blanks:

In one word my experience at NC State was ...

transformative. I feel like I grew a lot during my undergrad as a person and as a budding researcher.

My favorite rotation in med school so far has been ...

Internal Medicine. I spent two months working with internal medicine teams and absolutely fell in love with this type of medicine. I felt like I could focus on every aspect about the patient’s care and got to spend time really getting to know patients.

The biggest challenge facing scientists today is ...

effective scientific communication. I think in an age of increasing access to scientific information and popular discourse, we are dealing with the evolving threat of misinformation plaguing scientific progress and communication. I think we, as scientists and researchers, need to take charge in adequately and accurately communicating science topics, research outcomes and the importance of holding every question/assumption to the rigor of the scientific method.