By Brian Liu
Mr. Randy “Siqi” Zhao is an international student in the class of 2016. Recently here he turned quite a number of heads when he entered a PHD program with the well reputed Washington University in St. Louis. PHD programs in this field are very competitive, having space for only 5 or 6 candidates a year. Mr. Zhao was selected among very bright minds and students who graduated from top schools. The program in question is titled “Computational and Systems Biology Program“, or in other places, it is called “Bioinformatics“.
What is bioinformatics? Simply put, it is the mathematization of biological processes and systems. Mr. Zhao believes that this the next inevitable step of the sciences. We have already systems of mathematized chemistry, and we have also made remarkable bounds in understanding the universe with applied physics, or mathematized physics.
The thought of mathematizing natural phenomena is not a new one. Galileo once said:
“Philosophy [nature] is written in that great book which ever is before our eyes — I mean the universe — but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. The book is written in mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.”
For Mr. Zhao his choice to pursue bioinformatics was not one that came to simply preference or interest. He saw it as his part for the wider development of increasing human knowledge.
“Human Knowledge is a big circle…I want to be the one to poke the edge…”
To him, people are occupied by two questions, questions whom he associates with the distinct thoughts of Descarte and Heidegger. For Descarte: “What are the expanses of human knowledge?” and Heidegger: “What does it mean to be an individual?” In a way both questions can be reformulated to the age old question of the relation between man and the world he inhabits. To Mr. Zhao, both are important questions, and for him he decided to pursue the Cartesian one.
The desire to know things, through the sciences, that are clear and distinct comes from a more soulful longing to connect with phenomena. There is a special experience of assurance that one feels when he learns about the world.
St. John’s was vital to helping Mr. Zhao pursue his dreams. In our interview he told me that St. John’s provided both financially and intellectually for this journey. Mr. Zhao was a recipient of both the Hodson Internship Program and the Pathways Fellowship Grant. Both, he says, helped him to get the training he needed prior to entering the doctorate. More importantly, St. John’s was a place that taught him to be brave.
“More importantly, I’m not afraid that…I need to know something that is unknown using a method I do not know. That’s what scientific discovery is: if I’m blind I need to figure something out that I can’t see…”
It seemed that during his time here, Mr. Zhao was able to capture the scientific spirit. “How do I try to understand this problem?” is a philosophical question to him.
Mr. Zhao says that St. John’s College graduates have a valued voice in the academic community. He recalled that during his summers training he would make friends with professors and doctors forming friendships over discussions on Kant’s philosophy.
“Don’t feel unqualified.”
Those were encouraging words to me. His advice to undergraduates was to never give up and to be patient and humble. “My path is repeatable” he says; its very doable and you too can achieve the same accomplishments.
At the root of it all, Mr. Zhao said that he felt that his academic pursuit was a moral choice. In his research he found a way to be a good person. It brought him a “worthiness to be happy.”
“[It’s] My categorical imperative – it’s a moral choice, it’s the right thing to do. If it’s about the outcome it’s always fear. If what I am doing is for the sake of itself then there is no fear…That’s why I can sit down and do something for a couple hours because I know that I’m touching the edge and touching on happiness. Be patient and persevering.”
Thanks Mr. Zhao. We are proud of you and we wish you the best in your future endeavors.