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Dr. Sunil Rao Honored for Exceptional Contributions to the Department of Public Health Sciences

The Department of Public Health Sciences (DPHS) at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine held a commemorative event on May 10th, 2023, to honor the retirement of Sunil Rao, Ph.D., professor and director of the Division of Biostatistics at DPHS. In recognition of his exceptional contributions to the field, Dr. Rao was bestowed with the prestigious title of Professor Emeritus. The event was marked by a special ceremony where Dr. Rao was presented with a chair as a symbolic gift, representing his lasting impact and influence.

The gathering was warmly welcomed by David Lee, Ph.D., Chair of the department and professor in the Division of Epidemiology Population Health Sciences at DPHS. Dr. Lee acknowledged the significance of the occasion and paid tribute to Dr. Rao's remarkable career. Having been a valued member of the DPHS faculty since 2010, Dr. Rao dedicated an impressive 13 years of service to the department. Throughout his tenure, Dr. Rao established himself as an exceptional researcher, educator, and mentor, earning widespread respect and admiration from colleagues and students alike.

Chair gifted to Sunil
Chair presented to Dr. Rao.

During his tenure, Dr. Rao also served as the Interim Chair of the department from 2016 to 2019 and held the position of Program Co-Leader for the Cancer Control and Prevention Program at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center from 2016 to 2018. 

Dr. Lee highlighted the significant achievements that took place under Dr. Rao's leadership, stating, "Both the M.S. and Ph.D. programs in biostatistics were launched during Sunil's tenure. These programs have risen to national prominence, achieving a ranking of 46 in the nation according to the U.S. News and World Report." Dr. Lee further mentioned that the Ph.D. program has received recognition from the American Statistical Association and has been producing graduates at a pace that positions it among the top 20 programs in the country. Graduates from this program have made notable contributions by publishing their dissertation work in prestigious biostatistics journals and pursuing successful research careers. 

“Despite all the administrative and leadership roles, Dr. Rao has also maintained a distinguished research career. He has had uninterrupted funding as a Principal Investigator from both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation for the last 22 years,” he added. 

Colleagues and friends took the opportunity to express their deep appreciation for Dr. Rao's commitment and remarkable achievements. Shari Messinger, Ph.D., professor in the Division of Biostatistics at DPHS, and who will now be the director of the Division of Biostatistics, spoke fondly of Dr. Rao. 

Dr. Messinger credited him as a creative visionary, highlighting his role as a catalyst for the number of quantitative scientists of many disciplines that are now part of the department. She described Dr. Rao as an articulate and passionate individual who fostered an environment of collaboration and human connection. She expressed her gratitude for his mentorship, describing him as “the best mentor I could have wished for. Sunil’s guidance and support had been instrumental in helping me navigate my career path and providing me with the necessary tools for success.” 

Sunil Rao and Shari Messinger
Dr. Rao and Dr. Messinger.

Ahmed Alnajar, M.D., is not only an accomplished M.S.P.H. graduate from DPHS but also a current M.S. in Biostatistics student at the department. Having personally experienced the exceptional guidance and mentorship of Dr. Rao, he seized the opportunity to express his profound admiration for Dr. Rao's significant contributions and lasting legacy. 

“Thanks to Dr. Rao's guidance and support, I achieved one of my most significant milestones by publishing in The Journal of the American Medical Association, I cannot thank him enough,” he said. “Dr. Rao generously invests his time in his students, and I was truly impressed by his commitment to advising and mentoring. His exceptional communication skills and ability to uplift students are truly commendable.”

In reflecting upon their shared journey, Daniel Diaz, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the Division of Biostatistics at DPHS, expressed profound gratitude for the impact Dr. Rao had on his personal and professional growth. In an emotional moment, Daniel added, “From you, I have learned the true meaning of grace.” Recounting Dr. Rao's words, he continued, “I will never forget the words you spoke to me, saying, 'Daniel, if you ever find yourself in need of family, I will be there for you as much as I can.'” 

Those words held immense significance for Dr. Diaz, and he acknowledged Dr. Rao's commitment to that heartfelt promise throughout their shared journey.

Dr. Rao addressing the audience

In a warm address to the audience, Dr. Rao’s heartfelt response echoed with gratitude. “I am truly overwhelmed and deeply grateful for this tremendous honor. Thank you.” 

Dr. Rao praised the DPHS staff and faculty with special recognition for Margie Jimenez, Assistant Chair of the department, as the driving force behind the seamless functioning of operations. Recognizing the inherent challenges of daily tasks and complex scenarios, he emphasized the role played by Margie's meticulous work that enables a comprehensive understanding of the inner workings and facilitates well-informed decision-making. 

He also addressed the students present and expressed his gratitude for their decision to pursue studies at DPHS, emphasizing that the next generations are aspiring to reach greater heights. He acknowledged their time and dedication to making a meaningful impact on public health.

His future plans involve maintaining strong connections with the university and the department, utilizing every possible means available to stay engaged and involved.

Dr. Rao's retirement ceremony was a fitting tribute to his exceptional career and significant contributions to the department. His uninterrupted funding, active mentorship, and esteemed emeritus status are testaments to his dedication and expertise in the field. The event concluded with heartfelt thanks and well wishes from all attendees, acknowledging Dr. Rao's profound influence and his permanent mark on the department and its members.

Written by Deycha Torres Hernández
Published on May 30, 2023