Leading Educator-Researcher-Clinician Establishes the First Endowed Lectureship in the Department of Ophthalmology
By: Scot MacDonald
Dr. Narsing Rao, one of USC’s foremost educators, researchers, clinicians, and leaders, has ensured that his passion for teaching will impact generations to come by making a generous gift to establish the Narsing Rao, MD, Endowed Lectureship Fund at the USC Roski Eye Institute and the Department of Ophthalmology. The lectureship will bring together distinguished scholars and practitioners of ophthalmology with the field’s emerging minds at the Keck School of Medicine.
Dr. Rao shaped the field of ophthalmology and made critical scientific contributions that advanced understanding of eye disorders. As a former interim dean of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, previous chair of the Department of Ophthalmology, and co-director of the USC Roski Eye Institute, his leadership has had a tremendously positive ripple effect.
Now, through this remarkable philanthropic contribution, he is making a new and lasting mark on USC.
A Pioneering Lectureship to Attract Leaders in the Field
Until recently, the Department of Ophthalmology did not have a named lectureship.
“It is a big thing,” Dr. Rao said. “With a named lectureship, we can attract an inspirational leader who is an academician and a research-oriented clinician—an internationally recognized leader who can inspire our students, residents and fellows to pursue an academic career. Training the next generation of academicians is critical. Unless doctors are academically oriented, they cannot provide the best evidence-based care possible to their patients.”
Given their prestige, a named lectureship makes it far easier to attract the biggest names nationally and internationally in the field.
“Dr. Rao has been outstanding in every aspect of his career,” Martin Heur, MD, PhD, interim chair of ophthalmology said. “The named lectureship will cement his legacy by helping our department and school remain at the forefront of innovation and education in ophthalmology now and in the future.”
His Priority: Education
Dr. Rao stressed that he is an educator first, then a researcher and clinician. He has won numerous teaching awards at USC, Georgetown University and internationally. He has delivered named lectures at dozens of national and international venues from Harvard to UCLA, from Japan to Europe.
Education has always been Dr. Rao’s foremost mission. He was instrumental in establishing the USC senior resident rotation at the Srikiran Institute of Ophthalmology in Kakinada, India, which allows USC ophthalmology residents to complete a rotation in India and learn different approaches to eye care and treatments that are not taught in the United States.
“I enjoy teaching so much,” he said. “When I see patients, I always have residents and fellows with me. I like to share my knowledge, what the books cannot provide, based on my 40 years of experience.”
His educational mission has touched countless lives: 16 residents and four fellows each year for four decades, as well as hundreds of medical students on rotations in ophthalmology—and all of the patients they have seen.
An Exemplary 40-Year Career
Dr. Rao earned his medical degree from Osmania University, in Hyderabad, India. He moved to the U.S. in 1968 and completed residencies in pathology and ophthalmology at Georgetown University, and a fellowship in ophthalmic pathology at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, in Washington, D.C. He joined USC in 1983.
For the past 35 years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have supported his research into eye inflammatory and infectious diseases, and eye autoimmunity. He conducted research on infections related to AIDS during the height of the epidemic in the 1980s to help prevent patients from losing their sight. He has published more than 500 peer-reviewed articles, numerous book chapters, and seven books on ophthalmic diseases. He served as president of national and international ocular inflammation societies. He is the founder and the first Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Ophthalmic Inflammation and Infections, and past editorial board member of numerous ophthalmic journals.
A highlight of his time at USC was when he was appointed the Grace and Emery Beardsley Professor of Ophthalmology in 2019. A modest man, the appointment surprised him. “The chair is so prestigious, going back so many years, and it has been held by very famous ophthalmologists, including two of my mentors,” he said.
Answering the Call to Lead: Twice
When the Department of Ophthalmology needed a new chair in 2018, Dr. Rao’s colleagues put his name forward without his knowledge.
He was not an administrator, but given all that he felt USC had done for him and his career, he accepted. Under his guidance, in 2017 US News & World Report ranked the department as second in the country in NIH funding. Dr. Rao said, “Who you recruit is key. My proudest moments have been when we recruit top faculty who then get major grants. You know the young ones are going to be superstars.”
Three years into his tenure as chair, the Keck School of Medicine of USC needed a new dean. Unbeknownst to him again, other clinical chairs put forward his name.
“When the provost called and said the president wanted me to be interim chair, it was a big shock,” Dr. Rao said. “I was thinking about stepping down as chair of ophthalmology to return to my research, education, and patient care, but I couldn’t say no to the president. I am a crazy guy to have done all that so fast,” he said of his rapid transition from faculty to chair to interim dean, especially at the height of the pandemic and during a challenging time for USC.
“Dr. Rao is an exemplary leader and a joy to work with,” Steven Shapiro, MD, senior vice president for health affairs, said. “He was an inspirational and effective interim dean, ensuring the Keck School is well positioned to reach new heights under our new dean.”
He set a hard deadline for the end of his term as interim dean: June 30, 2021. He considered retiring to spend more time with his wonderful, ever-smiling wife, Saroja, to whom he has been happily married for 55 years, and their two sons and five grandchildren. That all changed when the provost established the Narsing Rao Research Fund in Ophthalmology to support his research.
“I did not expect that,” Dr. Rao said. “I wanted to retire. I am so fortunate. I have always enjoyed great support over my 40 years at USC. All I’ve achieved was made possible because of USC’s support.”
After stepping down as interim dean, Dr. Rao returned to researching eye infections. He is also studying circulation in the eye—a new field—which plays a critical role in maintaining sight, and investigating health disparities, particularly in relation to the diagnosis and treatment of diabetic eye conditions.
“Research is always exciting,” he said. “It stimulates me and keeps me young.”
Through his teaching, research, clinical care and leadership, Dr. Rao has impacted the lives of countless people around the world. Now, the Narsing Rao, MD, Endowed Lectureship Fund will sustain that impact in perpetuity.
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