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Woman of the Year: researcher, mentor and role model

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Mrinalini Rao
Vice provost and professor Mrinalini Rao mentors women in the sciences.

Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

When Mrinalini Rao, professor of physiology and biophysics, began her career, there weren’t many women in her field.

Twenty years later there still aren’t, but Rao believes things are getting better.

“Look around at the campus leadership,” she said, referring to the large number of women in high positions, including many deans, department heads and the chancellor.

“We have good role models,” she said.

Rao herself is one of those role models, said Amy Levant, associate dean for administration.

“In my career, there have only been a handful of women that I believe contribute on a daily basis to the advancement of women in general and at UIC in particular,” Levant said.

“Meena is one of them.”

For her work in promoting women’s issues on campus, Rao will be honored Oct. 6 as the 2004 Woman of the Year, an award presented by the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women.

The campus community is invited to a reception in her honor from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Chicago Illini Union.

Rao said she has always been intrigued by science and math; originally, she wanted to be an engineer.

“When I went to college there were very few women in engineering and my mother, liberal as she was in a number of aspects, had the notion that engineers scaled electric poles or were in road and rail construction,” Rao said. “So that idea got nixed.”

As a researcher, Rao studies molecular mechanisms of the body that are related to diseases associated with the gastrointestinal tract.

She teaches special topic seminars and mentors graduate students in her lab.

Her mentoring skills make Rao a natural for her other position at UIC, vice provost for faculty affairs.

She helped begin the support program UIC Women in Science and Engineering.

“She is a superb teacher and a mentor capable of both enormous caring and capacity to evoke excellence in those she inspires,” said Mark Rasenick, professor of physiology and biophysics, who nominated Rao for Woman of the Year.

“I have an open door policy for faculty to come see me – sometimes people just need an outlet,” Rao said.

The best advice she ever received was from a colleague many years ago: always have a solution to the problem before bringing it to a superior.

“It’s really been very good advice,” she said.

Rao was born in Bangalore, India. Her mother’s physician was a woman, “a rarity in those days in India,” she said.

“Therein lies a great story about women but that is for another time,” she added.

She lived in Bangalore until she was 13, then moved to Delhi. She came to the United States to complete her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan.

Rao is guided by the many positive role models she has had in her life, beginning with her mother, who died after a long battle with illness when Rao was 15.

“She fought to go to college. She was fiercely independent,” Rao said of her mother, who earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in English literature, minoring in Sanskrit.

“To quote her, she was ‘cut off in the prime of her life’ to get married and raise two daughters,” Rao said, but later worked as a tutor.

Rao admires her older sister, a historian of medicine, her aunt and her mother-in-law, who she describes as “a voracious reader.”

Many others have helped her to grow personally and professionally, from her first professional mentor (“he introduced me to the complexities of issues in women and science”) to the colleague who offered his office for Rao to nurse her child as she combined motherhood with postdoctoral research.

Her husband, Ralph Strohl, is “the humanities branch of our duo.” He has a Ph.D. in comparative religion from the University of Chicago and works in academic administration at Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center.

Their two children are now adults: her son, Rahula Strohl, is a sportswriter with Chicagosports.com and her daughter, Kathya Strohl, is a freshman at Scripps College in California.

“We’re team players,” she said, smiling.

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