WPI Biologist Reeta Rao elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology

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Credit: Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI)

Worcester, Mass. – 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.

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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About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1865 in Worcester, Mass., WPI is one of the nation's first engineering and technology universities. Its 14 academic departments offer more than 50 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science, engineering, technology, business, the social sciences, and the humanities and arts, leading to bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. WPI's talented faculty work with students on interdisciplinary research that seeks solutions to important and socially relevant problems in fields as diverse as the life sciences and bioengineering, energy, information security, materials processing, and robotics. Students also have the opportunity to make a difference to communities and organizations around the world through the university's innovative Global Projects Program. There are more than 40 WPI project centers throughout the Americas, Africa, Asia-Pacific, and Europe.

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