With A+ grades, great ambition, senior Vikram Rao is named 1999 University Medalist at UC Berkeley

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs

BERKELEY--The top-ranked senior in the University of California, Berkeley's 1999 graduating class doesn't have straight As. Instead, 21-year-old Vikram Ramnath Rao's transcript is a long list of A+s - 18 in all. His lowest grades are eight As.

The winner of this year's University Medal, since 1871 the campus's highest honor for a graduating senior, Rao, a molecular and cell biology major, said his success is mostly due to good old-fashioned hard work.

"You have to figure out what's important to you," he said. "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."

But letters and numbers are only the most obvious indicators of Rao's brilliance.

In a letter recommending Rao for the medal, Jeffery Winer, UC Berkeley professor of neurobiology, said the young man has an intellectual depth uncharacteristic of most people who get consistently high grades.

"He had a way of wanting to know what was underneath the floor or the foundation," Winer wrote. "There are very few students who want to understand nature in that way. Stimulated appropriately, he has the capacity, intellectual and professional, to make discoveries and insights that will sustain progress in biology or medicine."

"It feels really good," Rao said of winning the University Medal. "It's a tremendous honor because there are so many talented people in the graduating class."

Rao will be presented with the medal by Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl at the annual Commencement Convocation, an event for all graduating seniors, on Tuesday, May 11, at 4 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall. The tradition includes a speech by the medalist.

For the past two years, Rao has been working on an ambitious independent research project - an unusual undertaking for a biology major - in Professor Carolyn Bertozzi's organic chemistry lab.

He is attempting to develop a method for chemically synthesizing glycoproteins, which are proteins involved with the immune system, cell growth and cancer but that currently are inaccessible 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 finishing a paper, based on Rao's research, that 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 UC Berkeley environment 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 term from biology, Rao said that "by osmosis," a person exposed to the campus's

atmosphere is made more intense, driven. "You just want to take advantage of opportunities," he said.

Despite late nights in the lab and countless hours buried in books, Rao still has found time for fun. During his sophomore year, he and several friends formed a blues and jazz band that played at birthday parties, social events and a departmental dinner.

And Rao said the friendships he's developed at UC Berkeley have been priceless. "They're all doing different and amazing things," he said of his campus friends. "It's quite amazing."

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 UC Berkeley as a professor and said he'd 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."


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