Drs. Usha and S. Rao Varanasi are longtime supporters of SAFS and also benefactors to many other academic units across the UW. After meeting at Caltech while pursuing graduate studies, they moved to Seattle and earned their PhDs at UW—Usha in Chemistry and Rao in Aeronautics and Astronautics (AA).
Usha entered the world of fisheries when she joined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) in Seattle. She started there as a visiting scientist before becoming a research chemist and eventually rising to become the first woman to lead one of NOAA’s nine major fisheries field stations as Science and Research Director of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC). Usha served as Director from 1994 until her retirement in 2010. Currently, she is an Affiliate Faculty member in SAFS and recently served on the College of the Environment’s Advisory Board. Rao retired in 2010 as a Chief Engineer from the Boeing company and currently is an Affiliate Faculty in UW’s AA department.
In 2009, the Varanasis established the Usha and S. Rao Varanasi Faculty Endowment for Student Support in SAFS and the Department of Mathematics to provide financial assistance to undergraduates to be exposed to Fishery science questions under SAFS mentorship. Partnership with NWFSC in the Varanasi MATH-SAFS student support under André’s leadership has been highly successful. In 2014, the Varanasis generously increased their philanthropy within the College of the Environment and established the Usha and S. Rao Varanasi Endowed Fellowship in Environmental and Marine Stewardship. This unique fellowship benefits graduate students in SAFS and the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs who are working at the intersection of policy development and the assessment of environmental impacts on natural resources caused by anthropogenic factors. The endowment also funds the annual Usha and S. Rao Varanasi Research Derby, which involves graduate students collaborating to devise and implement a novel research project in 48 hours.
Usha chatted with Andrew Storms (Advancement, College of the Environment) about her and Rao’s commitment to the education of students at SAFS and the UW.
What is your SAFS story?
Usha Varanasis (UV): After finishing our PhDs, Rao stayed in engineering, but I ventured into fisheries at NOAA. Once I became Director of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, I realized we did not have enough experts in applied mathematics, knowledge that is needed for stock assessments. The Center then developed a deeper relationship with SAFS, and I got to know David Armstrong (then SAFS Director) quite well and worked with him to establish NWFSC-sponsored faculty position(s) in quantitative science.
After David stepped down from the directorship, I worked with André Punt who applies quantitative methods to resource management. Our combined goal was to create a cohort of students who could be trained in collaboration with NOAA scientists on these matters and, in turn, increase expertise in stock assessments within NOAA. The partnership turned out to be successful and fruitful beyond our imagination, strengthening the relationship between the Center and SAFS. André is a wonderful teacher—he is not only a world-renowned stock assessment expert, but he also is a dedicated mentor to students. He was just the person we needed to grow talent in the field of quantitative fisheries. Recently, I have enjoyed working with Ray Hilborn on the membership committee of the Washington State Academy of Sciences and exploring opportunities to collaborate in India to assess coastal and ocean fisheries and support student training. Over the years, I’ve become more involved with the School personally as an Affiliate Faculty member and donor.
When did you start thinking about philanthropy?
UV: Around the early 2000s, we decided we wanted to give back to the community—to the academic institutions and the country that gave us so many opportunities. One of the best ways we thought we could do that is to provide the kind of resources to students that we had benefited from. We started by establishing endowments in the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences, and our interests have evolved since then to include the College of the Environment and other academic areas. We have an endowment in Mathematics that encourages math students to think about their studies as applied to environmental resource and fishery issues. We also have an abiding interest in supporting and promoting diversity and inclusivity across the University.
Do you have a favorite memory, experience, or event related to your giving in SAFS?
UV: We love to meet the students who have been helped by our funds and to stay connected to their work and careers. We invite all our student beneficiaries from across the University to our home so that they’ll get to know about each other and learn about what they are doing in their different fields. Interdisciplinary thinking is so critical. We also hope that they learn about how important philanthropy is in case they are in the position to give back one day.
One of my most memorable experiences in recent years was serving as a judge for the annual College of the Environment Research Derby. The experience encourages interdisciplinary thinking, which is at the core of our interests and philosophy. Rao and I also look forward to our annual meetings hosted by André with our Math undergraduates who interned at SAFS and NWFSC.
How has your philanthropy evolved and how does SAFS fit in?
UV: More recently, Rao and I have become interested in supporting environmental policy development, and our SAFS and SMEA endowment reflects that. What I’ve learned is that you can do great science—fantastic science—but it needs to effectively reach our community, policymakers, and leaders to make a bigger impact. Young scientists may not want to attend meetings such as fishery management councils, but André and the SAFS faculty understand how critical a scientific presence is in the public sphere. The students we have met confirm for us that SAFS is a fantastic training ground for producing the next generation of quantitative fisheries scientists Their research and interests are everything we could have hoped for as donors. We’re grateful to André, all the faculty and the staff we’ve interacted with in supporting these outstanding students, and we look forward to supporting more students in the future.