Profile with Grace Tiao

Grace Tiao (Georgia & Merton 2010) is a computational biologist working on cancer genome analysis at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA. Grace has worked all over the worldfrom New Zealand to Antarcticaand she holds a bachelor’s degree jointly in English and History of Science from Harvard, as well as a BA in Mathematics and Statistics from Oxford.

Rhodes Project:  Where do you call home?

Grace Tiao: I’ve actually spent most of the last five years abroad, and I’ve only just moved back to the States this past September. I worked and lived in New Zealand after graduation and was in Oxford for the Rhodes stint. So I’ve been an ex-pat for the last few years, but I’m now currently living in Cambridge, MA, again.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Grace Tiao: Does an audio book count? When I was preparing to move to Cambridge and was packing all my things, I started the audio book recording of Robert A. Caro’s fourth instalment of his enormous biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Passage of Power. It took me about half the audiobook to finish packing—around 20 hours—but the time flew, it was so riveting. I’d picked up the audio book because I’d gotten a paper subscription to The New Yorker while I was still in Oxford so that I could read the magazine in the bath. (The rooms in Merton College didn’t have showers, only baths. It’s one of those English things…) One of the issues contained an excerpt from The Passage of Power covering the chapter dealing with JFK’s assassination and Johnson’s assumption of the situation and his mastery of a very fraught moment in history. I remember sitting in the tub for two hours reading that article, slowly turning into a raisin because I couldn’t put it down. I knew I had to pick up the book. I don’t usually read history for fun, but what I admired so much about the book was not only the astounding thoroughness of the research but also how novelistic the psychological portrayal of Johnson was.  It was like reading fiction. At the same time, the project seemed also to be something that had metastasised beyond just a simple portrayal of a single individual. Somehow while writing this enormous biography, Caro saw it as an opportunity to reflect on America, American history, and America’s place in the world in the 20th century.

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Grace Tiao: This is slightly embarrassing, but when I was a kid I wanted to be Cruella DeVil—the villain from Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. I was faintly aware that she was perhaps not someone to emulate, but the thing I liked about Cruella was that she was very glamorous and drove an amazing car and, most of all, that she was able to boss around two grown men. I had never seen that before in in fiction or in the movies, much less in real life. I liked the idea of her being able to have two grown men at her beck and call, doing her dirty work for her. I remember thinking, “I’d like to have that some day, too!”

Rhodes Project: What are you working on now?

Grace Tiao: I work as a computational biologist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA. It is an independent, non-profit genomic and biomedical research institute, and I focus on cancer genome analysis.

Rhodes Project: How did you get interested in medical research?

Grace Tiao: I took a very roundabout route to arrive where I am now.  After I graduated from Harvard with degrees in history of science and English, I wanted to try scientific fieldwork, so I ended up working for an environmental microbiologist in New Zealand running his fieldwork expeditions in Antarctica. (He studied microbes living in extreme environments.) That experience put me in contact with people who were doing very exciting science that involved a lot of computation and a lot of sophisticated mathematics. All of the exciting intellectual work—all the heavy lifting—was being done by people who were thinking and doing math and working on computers. I felt a little left out and wanted to get more intellectually involved with this work, which is what inspired me to apply for the Rhodes. 

At Oxford, I did a second undergraduate degree in statistics. That was a very rigorous and engaging course, and I discovered in the process that really I enjoyed doing the statistics—sitting down in front of a blank piece of paper and thinking.  After graduation, I wanted to know that the work I did had an impact and was meaningful and worthwhile. At the same time, I wanted to retain some of the purity and concentration of working on a problem that might be somewhat abstract.  My position now is a great combination of those things, because I do work on problems that have very practical effects—I work to understand how cancer occurs and what causes it. But on a day-to-day basis, I get to do the nitty-gritty work of statistical modelling and analysing sequences of DNA. It has a lot of the same satisfaction of working on my Oxford problem sets at two in the morning!

Rhodes Project:  What is your favourite memory of Oxford?

Grace Tiao: It’s an embarrassment of riches, but I’d say all the accumulated experiences of working in Mob Library, one of Merton’s two libraries. It’s in the oldest academic quad in the English-speaking world. It became home because I was there at all times of day, in all kinds of weather, in all kinds of emotional and intellectual phases.  It’s a sort of spiritual home, and I think of that place very fondly even now. In general, I found one of Oxford’s great strengths to be ceremony: ritual, pomp and circumstance… it was a refreshing counterpoint to the informality of American culture.

Rhodes Project:  Tell me a little bit about your research in Antarctica.

Grace Tiao: I was very lucky because I got the grand overview of the continent as I went down with two different scientists.  The summer after my graduation I had the world’s greatest summer job, which was working as a research assistant to a fish biologist who was going down to Antarctica with the U.S. Antarctic Program.  That trip involved getting on a boat from Chile that took four days to cross the Drake Passage, one of the world’s roughest ocean passageways. On the way, I discovered somewhat inconveniently that I get violently seasick!  So I spent the entire four days green about the gills, perched in one corner of the captain’s cabin trying not to get in the way, because that was the only place where I could constantly stare at the horizon.  On that first trip, I got to see the aquatic part of the Antarctic continent, the coastal part.  I did a lot of fishing in rubber dinghies and saw a lot of wildlife. That experience involved living in a station that was run by the U.S. Antarctic Program. 

When I travelled down with the Kiwis—the New Zealanders—I didn’t live in a station, but in the field in a tent camp, which was a much less supported environment. That was inland in an ice-free area of the continent known for its glacier-carved rock valleys.  The experience of being in a camp was completely different but even more fascinating. It was a nice contrast to being on the coast in a station. I felt like I had seen two of the major Antarctic landscapes and experienced two of the main modes of living there. I loved being in a camp; I loved the feeling that my campmates and I were the only people on the planet, and the complete silence around us was otherworldly to experience.

Rhodes Project:  What’s something interesting that you’ve done or that’s happened to you in the last year?

Grace Tiao: I signed a lease for an apartment that has a dishwasher and acquired a proper set of pots and pans! That was a great ambition of mine on leaving Oxford. It’s been very nice to finally have the paraphernalia of adult life for the first time at age 27!

Rhodes Project:  What would an ideal day look like?

Grace Tiao: I’ve been on the move so much in the last couple of years that it’s really nice to have place to call my own, so I love being at home, reading a good book, listening to music, talking to friends and family on the phone, cooking. I’m an introvert, so a quiet day like that sounds about perfect to me.  On a day when I feel like heading outdoors, the perfect day would involve an alpine walk with good snacks in my pack and a warm hut in the evening in which to sit around and do absolutely nothing.

Rhodes Project:  If you had unlimited resources to devote to any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Grace Tiao: Improving educational access universally, not just for children but also for adults. I feel that my own life was opened up by educational opportunities. Education is not just about training people for an occupation: it’s about giving people the tools to become more themselves, to be able to reflect, to be able to process their experience. Having that opportunity should be a basic human right for everyone.

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