10 Under 10: Dentistry beats biomedical engineering for Minnesota dentist

Photo of Dr. Rao with colleagues

Partners: Aruna Rao, D.D.S. (far right), is partners with Emma Zimmerman, D.M.D. (from left), and J. David Collier, D.D.S., in their Minnesota pediatric dental practice, which has three locations.

Aruna Rao, D.D.S., was on a far different career trajectory from dentistry when she finished her undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota. Long before her days specializing in pediatrics, she worked as a new engineer toiling to obtain Food and Drug Administration approval for penile implants.

"It is a conversation starter," she said of the memory. "My closest friends didn't know for a while. They were like, 'I can't believe you never told us this.' I was like, 'I guess you never asked.' It's a very large market, believe it or not, for men who have erectile dysfunction."

An interesting detour though it may have been, Dr. Rao, who currently lives in Minneapolis and practices in the region, had no intentions of staying there. She had studied biomedical engineering but decided before she graduated that she instead wanted to pursue dentistry. As is often the case, though, she didn't get into dental school on her first attempt. Turns out the delay was a disguised blessing, which is something she often tells pre-dental students today. The time was hardly wasted.

"I thought it was rewarding, and I learned a lot," Dr. Rao said. "I think I grew up quite a bit in that year off, just having some real-world experience versus going straight back into school, which I think is valuable for most professionals."

Perseverance led her to finally gain admission to dental school at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. She earned her dental degree from there in 2012 and later obtained her certificate in pediatric dentistry from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2014.

The pivot to dentistry proved an astute move, if her ensuing successes are any proof. These include recognition as an ADA 2022 10 Under 10 Award winner for her early career accomplishments, including exuberant service to others, teaching, a demonstrated commitment to organized dentistry and demonstrated leadership.

She's a 2019 graduate of the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership, and in 2012, she won both an American Student Dental Association Award of Excellence and the Eleanor Bushee Award. The Minnesota Dental Association named her its New Dentist of the Year in 2020.

Additionally, Dr. Rao was an ADA delegate in 2019, 2020 and 2021. She serves on the ADA Council on Membership and is chair of the Minnesota Dental Association Membership Committee. She is also a past chair of the Minnesota Dental Association New Dentist Committee.

Photo of Dr. Rao in dance outfit

Dancer: Aruna Rao, D.D.S., studied a South Indian form of classical dance for almost 20 years.

Born in India, Dr. Rao and her family immigrated to the United States when she was 18 months old. Her parents are scientists and researchers, who resettled their family in the American South.

"I grew up in North Carolina, in Chapel Hill," Dr. Rao said. "I lived there for about 12 years, and then I moved to the Midwest after that, to Omaha, Nebraska, and I've pretty much been in the Midwest ever since then. … I wanted to go somewhere else for college. It's what brought me up to the Minneapolis area."

Dr. Rao was a curious, "high-energy" child who did well academically. Her extracurricular interests were in the performing arts.

"I studied a South Indian form of classical dance for almost 20 years," she said. "I did a lot of singing and show choir. Things like that. I was kind of a music-heavy kiddo but also, over the years, a sort of nerdy kiddo. I definitely did well in school. I definitely enjoyed school. I was social and outgoing."

Before learning English, Dr. Rao spoke only Kannada as a toddler.

"I've since forgotten my mother tongue," she said. "Sadly, I only speak English. I only understand English and maybe some broken other parts of the language, but I can't actually formulate sentences or anything outside of English."

Yet, the experience left her with some residual abilities to relate to the bilingual patients and their parents, many still struggling to master English, who come through K.O.A.L.A. Dental Care in Saint Cloud, Minnesota, the private practice where she is a partner.

"I really appreciate and really love language," Dr. Rao said. "I find myself not having a lot of difficulty understanding people who come from different parts of the world when they speak English. I can a lot of times figure out what they're trying to say even if the English is broken because I come from a background of speaking more than one language. You know, knowing how to slow down and communicate and say things a little more simply, for example, with parents that I work with or who come into my office and maybe don't understand everything."

K.O.A.L.A. Dental Care (loosely an acronym for "kids of all ages" and featuring a koala bear logo) also has locations in the Minnesota towns of Brainerd and Buffalo. Dr. Rao and her partners split their time among the locations. Many of their patients are children with significant needs who are on Medicaid.

Photo of Dr. Rao with family

The best company: Aruna Rao, D.D.S., spends time with her husband and son. She says they like to enjoy each other‘s company however they can.

The decision to pursue pediatric dentistry came about organically during her dental school days. Previously, she had been seeking a career as a general dentist. But working with children while in school coupled with an experience as a summer camp volunteer during her adolescence influenced her trajectory.

"I was just surprised at how much I did enjoy working with kids," Dr. Rao said. "I was really not expecting to because I really had no experience with it as far as young children.

"When I was in high school, I volunteered all of my summers at a summer camp that was specifically meant for children and young adolescents with developmental and physical disabilities. It was super amazing."

Aside from working with children, Dr. Rao also enjoys teaching, which she does part time at her alma mater in the pre-doctoral division on the clinical adjunct faculty.

"That's been really fun," she said. "I really love interacting with the students. Some days it doesn't feel like work. But then some days it's so busy, where I'm managing ,12 students and it's like, 'Oh, gosh, this is kind of a lot.' But I love talking to them about the real world of dentistry, and I think a lot of them have really appreciated that. So that's been cool. I'm trying to encourage fellow grads to do the same because I think there's a lot of value in teaching and staying connected to the university and what they're doing in up-and-coming research."

Aside from considering teaching to be actual fun, Dr. Rao loves to travel. She was a newlywed when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and had previously traveled extensively with her significant other.

"We used to travel quite a bit pre-pandemic," she said. "We were in Dubai and South Africa right before lockdown, so like for our big honeymoon, and then we worked for two weeks, and then we were in quarantine."

Prior to those trips, they had taken a quick honeymoon jaunt to Japan, she said.

Dr. Rao and her husband now have a son and enjoy hanging out locally with their friends and enjoying Minnesota's natural amenities, especially the many lakes. The state also hosts farmers markets and summer festivals and fairs.

"We'll go to restaurants, and we go for walks," she said. "We live by the Mississippi River, and it's really beautiful right now. There's a little park and things like that. We don't have these intense hobbies of like jet skiing. I don't run marathons or things like that. We just want to enjoy each other's company however we can."

Learn more about the 10 Under 10 Awards program and read about the other winners at ADA.org/10under10.