University Medalist Vikram Rao
18 A+s Are Only the Most Obvious Indicators of His Brilliance
By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
But letters and numbers are only the most obvious indicators of Rao's brilliance. The 21-year-old molecular and cell biology major has an intellectual depth uncharacteristic of most people who get consistently high grades, said Neurobiology Professor Jeffery Winer in a letter recommending Rao for the University Medal. "He had a way of wanting to know what was underneath the floor or the foundation. There are very few students who want to understand nature in that way.
"Stimulated appropriately," Winer continued, "he has the capacity, intellectual and professional, to make discoveries and insights that will sustain progress in biology or medicine."
Rao is this year's recipient of the University Medal, since 1871 the campus' top honor for a graduating senior. As the new medalist, Rao will be giving a speech at the all-class Commencement Convocation on Tuesday, May 11, at 4 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall (see "Commencements Are Coming").
"It feels really good," said Rao. "It's a tremendous honor because there are so many talented people in the graduating class."
In addition to earning a 4.0 GPA, Rao has spent the past two years working on an ambitious independent research project in Professor Carolyn Bertozzi's organic chemistry lab -- an unusual undertaking for a biology major.
Rao is attempting to develop a method for chemically synthesizing glycoproteins -- proteins that are involved with the immune system, cell growth and cancer but are currently virtually impossible to gain access to for research.
"The ultimate goal of my project," said Rao, "is that people will have access to glycoproteins in an unprecedented way and will be able to develop glycoprotein therapeutic drugs for human use."
He and Bertozzi are currently finishing up a paper, based on Rao's research, which they expect to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Biochemistry. Another report should be completed this summer.
"When these papers are published, it's going to attract a lot of attention in the field, " said Bertozzi. "Hopefully it will transform the way people think about glycoproteins."
According to Bertozzi, Rao has spent scores of late nights in the lab, showing up at 10 p.m., after finishing his homework, and staying until 2 or 3 in the morning.
"You only get one or two students like him in a lifetime," she said. "He's someone who strives to excel at everything he does." She described Rao as "destined to succeed" because "he does not accept mediocrity in any part of his life."
Rao says the Berkeley environment has inspired him to be an excellent student.
"I think Cal engenders a sort of intensity that I pick up on -- not just academic intensity," he said. "You see people who are doing important social work or are very involved with politics on campus." Using a metaphor from biology, Rao says that "by osmosis," Berkeley's campus atmosphere makes one a "more intense," "more driven" person. "You just want to take advantage of opportunities," he said.
Getting perfect grades at Berkeley involves an element of luck, Rao admits, but mostly he attributes his success to good old-fashioned hard work.
"You have to figure out what's important to you," he says. "If it's important to you to get good grades, then it takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice. You have to pass up a lot of parties on Friday nights and study. That's the formula; there's no secret."
Despite late nights in lab and countless hours buried in books, Rao still has found time to have fun as an undergrad. During sophomore year, he and several friends formed a jazz and blues band that played at birthday parties, social events and a departmental dinner.
And the friendships he's developed at Berkeley have been priceless, Rao says. "They're all doing different and amazing things," he says of his campus friends. "It's quite inspiring."
As the next step in his plans for a career in biology and medicine, Rao will begin a MD/PhD program at UC San Francisco in the fall. He hopes someday to come back to Berkeley, as a professor, and says he would love to retire in the Berkeley hills.
"Hopefully my biggest contributions to Cal are still to come," he said. "When people go on to do great things, it always reflects back on their training -- and that has been these four years."