Interview with Dr Venkat Rao

10 May 2011

Dr Venkat Rao is Chief Scientist, National and Defense Programs, CSC (Computer Science Corporation), Virginia USA

What does your current job involve?
I am a Senior Fellow of the CSC Defense Group ($3 billion business unit), and the Chief Scientist of its National and Defense Programs. I have been in this position since 2005. In my current role as the Chief Scientist, I have the responsibility to maintain technical oversight of projects and contracts we support for the US Defense Department to the tune of $70 million annually. Our business unit has 320 full-time staff and about 100 part-time employees in over 15 locations in the US, Europe and Asia. Our projects are primarily in support of the 'technology base development' and 'technology transition' programmes for the US Department of Defense. We are a team of scientists, engineers, information technology and arms control policy experts.

One of our business horizontals is involved in the R&D and commercialisation of biodefence-related vaccines and prophylatic products. I was formerly the Director for the biosafety for this programme, which is valued at nearly $1.5 billion over a decade. I am involved in hiring decisions, capital investment in pursuit of new technologies and teaming partners, outreach with academia, trade and industry groups and other R&D institutions with capabilities and expertise critical to our business success.

Did you have an interest in science from childhood?
I was interested in science from my elementary school days, when I found biology as fascinating. Some of the field trips I took as a middle school student and laboratory sessions with dissection got me hooked on to biology, which I have pursued as my career path. Most of our classroom sessions were blackboard and pencil sketch sort of stuff, and therefore, the primary credit for my interest in science goes to my teachers who made science classes the most interesting of all. I wish we had more of such teachers now.

How did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
My natural interest in science classes and laboratory sessions resulted in my consistently very good performance in class, which was a further positive motivation for me. As a result, after high school, I got into Pre-University with science majors, and got high scores to enroll into a professional school. I was admitted to all major tracks (medicine, engineering, dental and pharmacy); I chose pharmacy for its more extensive laboratory-oriented classes. Without modern computer-aided tools, much of the science training programmes were based on practical, hands-on laboratory centric classes.

What motivated you to pursue postgraduate studies?
I was enrolled into the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc) doctoral programme, which is highly competitive. Entry into IISc, the historic bedrock institution for science and research in India, was a big motivation. I was selected by Rotary International to receive their Graduate Scholarship to pursue graduate studies in the US. I was one among six people selected from India, which was a further motivation for me. I completed a masters degree in the USA and a PhD at IISc, and was awarded the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at the Rockefeller University (New York). This pretty much was the track that motivated me to pursue postgraduate and doctoral studies. I received several scholarships during those years.

What has your experience ascending the career ladder been like?
As a postdoctoral fellow, I decided that my career path would be in the private sector, as I found working in applied research and consulting a more rewarding path. As a result, I chose to enter the private sector and for about a decade I continued to work in R&D related projects, but since 1998 became director of a business unit with focus on health research and informatics, which I lead for about seven years, before becoming the chief scientist of the CSC/Defense Group National and Defense Program. My path therefore was sort of zig zag, moving from a tech-centric role to a mix of management and business roles, and now to an executive-level advisory and oversight role.

What are the most important things you've learned in your career so far?
I chose a path in the private sector, since I wanted to try application-oriented R&D and to have access to more than one type of project. As I result, I learnt that to succeed one has to have a broader view of one's own capability and apply skills to a variety of problem sets. In the current business climate, the 'one trick pony' approach would not have allowed me to succeed in the corporate environment. We also must be in a position to articulate the value of what we have to offer in the context of organisational priorities and customer environment demands.

What would you have done differently?
I would have stayed in my R&D phase of the current a bit longer, as I realised that some of the most exciting aspects of biotechnology appeared when I was no longer a bench scientist. I would have pursued a longer phase in the lab, and started in the corporate advisory and consulting role much later.

How have you set goals for yourself and managed to achieve them?
I had target goals. First, to complete my education all the way, which I did. Second, follow it up with a credible base of R&D experience, publications, fellowships, etc. I finally got on a corporate track towards personal growth and contributing expertise by way of papers, outreach, teaching, talks, and professional activities. This culminated in 2008 with my selection as the Senior Fellow of the CSC Defense Group.

What would you say have been the key milestones in your career?
PhD from IISc (1988); Rotary Foundation Fellowship (1985); Hanumantha Rao Gold Medal for Best Thesis (1989); American Association for Advancement of Science Fellowship (1992); US National Academy of Science Young Investigator Fellowship (1993); Certification by the American Board of Toxicology (1996); Director of DynCorp Health Research and Informatics Practice (1998); Chief Scientist of CSC Defense Group/NDP (2005); Senior Fellow CSC Defense Group (2008).

What key things would a young person need to do if they wanted to get to the position you've achieved thus far?
Get started early on the Science and Technology track; maintain active interest in current affairs; remain engaged, and have an open mind and willingness to learn and modulate your thinking and attitude about the world and challenges you face.

How do you achieve work/life balance?
This is the hardest question of all. 'Work/life balance' is a subtle aspect of how we understand the value of life and the role work and our professional career plays on the broader context of our life and the immediate society we belong to. If we cannot connect what we do at work with the broader scheme of things that define our lives, then both work and living lose meaning. I for one believe that life and work must be mutually reinforcing —that depends on how we understand and internalise both. To me, that is a very, very challenging balance to first understand, and then to attain.

What is your leadership style? How do you keep a team engaged and motivated?
I don't believe in micro management. As I work with of group of self-starters and smart individuals there is less need for close supervision. Once the tasks are set and well communicated, I like to follow up on a regular basis to assess progress, or if a problem arise, find a solution. Having more than one option for any given problem makes managing a task much easier than with a rigid set of command and control type approach.

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