Faculty Interview: Ranji Rao, MD

A Conversation with Rajni Rao, Professor in the UCSF Health Division of Cardiology

Ranji Rao
Rajni Rao, MD

Rajni is a lovely name. What does it mean?

In Sanskrit, it means something like “the dark of night,” because I was born in the evening. It is properly pronounced with a hard “j.” I think that, having a name that can be hard to pronounce, helps give you character and you’re not confused with anyone else; people know who you are. Rajnigandha is the Indian name for tuberose, which opens up at night and possesses a lovely scent  these are the flowers my family gets me on my birthday. 

Where were you born and raised? Tell me about your family.

My father emigrated in the 60s during a wave of recruitment of engineers and medical professionals. He was one of nine children and was a determined self-starter who came to the U.S. for his master’s degree in engineering. After getting married, my parents moved to Tempe, Arizona. I treasure an old photograph from that time, one where the focus included the arid landscape, when my mom wore a sari and oversized sunglasses and my father looked so optimistic in front of their brand-new green Mustang, so proud to be Americans. They moved to Houston where I was born, and then to Dallas, where we lived until I was thirteen, before coming to Silicon Valley. I lost the Texas accent but, every so often, I still say, “Y’all.” I think we had a very grounded upbringing with strong ties to our culture, both in our communities in the U.S., as well as, abroad, by visiting relatives in India and Europe for long summers. I have two younger brothers, three children, and my husband is trained as a cardiologist and works in the medical technology field.

Were your parents physicians? What started you on your path to Medicine and Cardiology?

I tried quite hard not to be a pre-med, although I had an affinity for medicine. In college, I was passionate about art history and thought that I would pursue that as my major, but grade-wise, it wasn’t my strongest suit. It may have been a mistake to not stick with something I loved just because I wasn’t as good at it right off the bat. I did, however, become quite involved with the Student Friends of the Harvard Art Museums. We would arrange private nighttime events for students there, wandering in galleries with Blue Period Picassos and a tuxedoed Max Beckman self-portrait that stared intensely at us – it was quite magical, really, to roam the museum at night with such freedom. I also dabbled in the History of Science and Social Studies … but Biology was second nature and was my chosen major, with a minor in Women’s Studies. I finished college in three years and received a small grant from Radcliffe to support me for the following year while I conducted research in Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, lived in the Harvard Medical School dormitory, and enjoyed exploring Boston. Later upon arriving at UCSF for medical school, I thought I would pursue a career in obstetrics and gynecology, but I had a change of heart partly due to the influence of Dr. Kanu Chatterjee who was my small group leader. There was something very comforting about his demeanor when it came to teaching the cardiovascular physical exam. I also fell in love with the physiology of the field. I had an uncle in India who was a very similarly highly regarded cardiologist and who had a gift for sharing his expertise and making people feel cared for. I also sought out the mentorship of Dr. Joel Karliner in my first year of med school, and he was also a role model of a compassionate and thoughtful cardiologist.

As a cardiologist, do you sometimes feel that you are battling human nature? How do you help human beings help themselves?

I don’t necessarily see it as people creating their own health predicament. Take diet, for example: we once so ardently advocated a low-fat diet not predicting the unintended consequence, such as the low-fat but sugar-laden, high-calorie muffin that contributes to obesity and diabetes. We are learning more about the factors that are not in the patient’s direct control that may affect their health: the social determinants of health and how economics and policy affect our patients’ ability to access healthy food at a reasonable cost. We also don’t get very far in blaming people since almost everyone is self-aware of body type. What’s more important is how we can support their goals and encourage fitness, mental health, and healthy eating on a budget. It is said, “Let food be thy medicine,” and inspired by this, I have started a small plant-based nutrition program in my clinic, both for patient health as well as for environment stewardship, partnering with a dietician and other providers. I’d love to see this concept gain more traction at UCSF.  

Have you lived in many places or traveled much? What do you like to learn when you are outside of what is familiar at home?

As a family, we love to travel internationally for fun. We just returned from Thailand, and this past year or two, have traveled to China, Italy, India, Singapore, Mexico, and elsewhere in Europe. The kids try to learn bits of new languages, even just counting to ten, and our own interest in art means we see many museums. Travel is an education, too. In Thailand, there’s a café where students in a Buddhist monastery will hang out to speak with tourists in order to practice their English, so we were able to meet them and learn about a monk’s life directly. For our children, it is good for them to learn about other people’s stories, and it helps them understand their privilege and how they fit into the bigger world.  

I’ve been told that there is a correlation between science and cooking – have you found this to be so? Are you an experimental cook or do you prefer tried-and-true favorites?

I am very experimental to the point where I do not have a single recipe of my own. My cooking is continually tweaked or subjected to the whims of my mood. I find it dull to make the same thing over and over, though I do appreciate that my husband can consistently make a good dish with precision. It’s the process of food alchemy that’s interesting to me, although the end result of my experiments is not always successful. I think you need variety in everything in life, so I cook in the manner in which I was taught by my mother, who often starts cooking one way and then “doctors it up a bit” to get a different result.   

What longtime passion or pursuit do you make time for?

Once in a rare while, I sneak out to go to the De Young Museum by myself for lunch and just sit in front of a favorite work. Taking in something beautiful helps me feel connected with forces that are beyond the day to day aspects of my immediate world. I don’t have much natural artistic talent myself (although I did try working with charcoal), but I have so much admiration for artists and would love to try my hand at drawing once again.

Which sight or sound do you never tired of and what emotion does it elicit?

Between all my kids, they play piano, electric guitar, and drums and are also singers. I love hearing them play and sing – especially when they don’t think I’m listening. Their voices are so pure. 

Thank you,

Interviewed by Oralia Schatzman