The work of Patrick Zhao, Ph.D., has always been about keeping things on track. Before his time at the Noble Research Institute, he was a central player in the creation of computer networks that governed the pattern of trains moving along China's complex railroads. These days, the patterns he works with are more botanical than mechanical as he punches numbers and manipulates genetic data as the head of his bioinformatics laboratory. Zhao has come a long way from working on the railroad, but he has never lost touch with his affection for technology or his knack for numbers. In a personal interview, Zhao discussed the shifts, diversions and inspirations of his life's twisting track.
On the railroad
I was born in a small town near Shanghai called Huashi, and I studied electrical engineering at Tongji University in Shanghai. After graduating with a master's degree, I was hired by a company that supported China's railroad network. I worked with other engineers to create a computer dispatch system which would time the trains and keep them flowing smoothly. This was a complex system that involved mathematics, graphical models and a lot of data.
On transitioning to biology
In 1993, my father suffered from a stroke that nearly killed him. That inspired me to return to the university and pursue a doctorate degree in information science so I could learn to use my skills for medical purposes. After years of studying at Shanghai Jiaotong University and months of medical informatics-related work in China, I was invited by a professor to move with her laboratory to the University of Louisville in Kentucky. I spent four years there, working on microarray technology for age-related diseases. When the opportunity to work in bioinformatics at the Noble Research Institute came up, I decided to make a move. I made that decision largely because the Foundation is devoted to benefiting mankind, allowing me to apply my skills to help people.
Informatics empowers people to transfer raw data into knowledge, and then, perhaps, to wisdom. I enjoy my current work in bioinformatics, which is the use of computer science and mathematics to model and analyze biological systems. It is a relatively new field with an abundance of new technology, which I like, and it gives me the opportunity to manipulate large-scale data sets. Also, it supports other scientists and makes their work easier.
On coincidental similarities
In a way, my work with railways was similar to my current biological work. Just as our computers controlled the flow of trains along the railroads, biological operators control the flow of chemicals and proteins in living organisms. The graphs and statistics we worked with for the railroads were similar to the data analysis I do now at the Noble Research Institute. Although I work in a very different field now than I used to, certain elements of my work seem to have remained constant.
On his affection for technology
Bioinformatics is a field that requires a lot of technology and computing, and that is something I enjoy about it. I've always been interested in how things work and how all their components fit together. As a child, I would take apart my father's watches and then try to put them back together; but, of course, I was rarely successful. I also liked to build radios, computers and other electronic devices, and I enjoyed playing computer games.
On his inspiration
I am passionate about my family. I have a young son and a baby girl, and when I am not working, I am with my children. We play together and I read to them. My wife and my children are what inspire me.