Usha Rao, PhD

Professor of Chemistry
Saint Joseph’s University
AWIS member since 2011

“Being the first is not important, but being the first of many is essential.”

What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned?

Being open, flexible, and communicative; embracing the good of the larger group; and being driven and resilient in the face of setbacks are all leadership lessons that have served me well in my career.

What do you consider to be your most important career achievement or milestone?

I have thoroughly enjoyed mentoring young people and creating opportunities for them in my roles as a professor, scientist, career coach, and speaker. A good mentor and coach can help you clarify your path in life, assist you in identifying opportunities, and help you build a long and rewarding career. Many of us, as women in STEM, did not receive this kind of hands-on mentoring while we were building our careers, but we now have the opportunity to create those missing support systems for future generations.

What do you aspire to accomplish in your career and why? What obstacles will you overcome?

Over the span of my career, I’ve had to be resilient in the face of professional and personal challenges, and I’ve broken more than one glass ceiling along the way. I often say about being a pioneer, “being the first is not important, but being the first of many is essential.” This is my hope, that young scientists will find a better welcome and experience greater success, because we were there first to remove unnecessary obstacles and help pave the way. I want to have a multiplier effect in bringing about systemic change to encourage all who want to thrive in STEM.

Describe an amazing opportunity in your STEM career.

An early and influential experience in my career was the opportunity to co-develop the John P. McNulty Program for Leadership in Science and Mathematics for undergraduate women in STEM, a leadership development and scholarship program at Saint Joseph’s University that has graduated over 130 outstanding students since its inception in 2009. This experience helped me to see myself as a capable leader who could work around obstacles and deliver on promises. A few years later, I was tapped to create the first faculty development office at the institution to centralize programming and resources for teaching and learning to reach hundreds of faculty members each year. In both roles, I found that the role of mentor came readily to me, and I particularly enjoyed the challenge of creating new initiatives and bringing them to fruition. It’s important to generate new ideas that solve problems, but equally important to bring in funding, collaborate with others, and bring these ideas to life.

How was AWIS helped you professionally and/or personally?

I have enjoyed the AWIS community, recognizing the common experiences that shape us and finding inspiration in the women scientists who make up the community. It has also given me a mentoring and coaching forum to bring my message to others.

What is your favorite word? (only one word)


How do you define it?

In my view, resilience is the single most important factor in building a successful life and career. It goes without saying that all of us feel experience setbacks, failures, and losses, on large and small scales throughout our lives. Are we able to accept that we are not perfect and view our mistakes as part of the journey and the learning process? Seen in this light, we can use our setbacks to rise up even stronger after each failure. Failure is not the opposite of success, it is a vital part of success.

Dr. Usha Rao has received the AWIS Zenith award for lifetime achievement and leadership, the Distinguished Research Lectureship from the Association for Women Geoscientists, the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Medal for Distinguished University Teaching, and the Bingham mentoring award from the Philadelphia chapter of AWIS. She serves as a writer and speaker on the environment, leadership, and mentoring. Dr. Rao’s research at Saint Joseph’s University, where she is a Professor of Chemistry, focuses on water chemistry.

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