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Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Rajesh Rao

Rajesh RaoBrookfield East Class of 1997

Dr. Rajesh Rao is a BEHS Valedictorian and current ophthalmologist and retina surgeon whose work has been focused on repairing degenerative eye disease.

Rajesh's education took him from Burleigh Elementary to Elmbrook Middle School (now Pilgrim Park) and Brookfield East. While at East, he played tennis and was active in both debate and National Honor Society. "The preparation for college at Elmbrook was great," said Rao. "High school teachers were flexible in AP curriculum to the point that I could complete a year of college while in high school, allowing me to graduate from my undergrad program in 3 years." Rao thanked his teachers Mike Rose (Calculus), Earl Orlebeck (Chemistry), Christine Bustle (English), and Jim Treutlaar (Biology) for encouraging him to find answers to questions beyond what textbooks covered and for their passion for teaching.

Following his East graduation, Rajesh attended the University of Wisconsin - Madison where he majored in Molecular Biology. While attending school in Madison, Rao served as the Vice President of the Honors Student Organization and worked with Habitat for Humanity. During his sophomore year at the University he learned that a faculty member on campus had isolated human embryonic stem cells for the first time - a discovery that created the new field of regenerative medicine. The excitement of this discovery had Rao quickly join a major stem cell lab on campus and he knew he wanted to bring the power of stem cells to clinical care, paving a path for his career.

In 2000, Rao graduated from Madison and decided to spend a year in Washington DC at the National Institutes of Health before attending medical school at Yale. During his time at Yale, he founded the Yale Stem Cell Interest Group at the School of Medicine, a group that hosted the late actor Christopher Reeve in 2003, and he also became a Research Scholar at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Following medical school, he completed his Ophthalmology Residency at Harvard Medical School and his Vitreoretinal Surgery Fellowship at Washington University. In 2012, his proposal was selected out of 500 entries as an award winner in the National Eye Institute's Audacious Goals Competition.

Today, Rajesh is a faculty member at the University of Michigan where he takes care of patients and performs retinal repair surgeries. "I love being able to care for my patients' vision needs in every step of my work, from surgery and cutting edge treatments to research solutions to address unmet needs," reflected Rao. In his lab, he uses stem cells for regeneration of retinal tissue, to help prevent blindness, and to reduce scar and tumor formation in patients with blinding retinal diseases, among other applications.

In 2019, Rajesh was selected as the inaugural Leonard G. Miller Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Science at the University of Michigan's W.K. Kellogg Eye Center. He lives in Michigan with his wife and two children and has received numerous awards and grants for his work and research, including inductions into both the Macula and Retina Societies.

To learn more about Dr Rao and his work, visit his lab website here and his faculty profile here.


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