Cui Tao’s love for both biology and computer science has led to more than an accomplished research and teaching career—it has earned her one of Barack Obama’s final awards before the former president left office in January.
Tao, a BYU alum, received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). There were 102 recipients this year. Established in 1996 by then President Bill Clinton, the award is the “highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers,” according to a press release by the University of Texas.
The honor surprised Tao, who is an associate professor in the Health School of Biomedical Informatics at the University of Texas.
“Earning this distinguished presidential award is an unexpected but incredible accomplishment,” Tao said. “I am very excited and honored.”
Former President Obama stated in a press release that recipients of this award are “innovators.” He added that these scientists and engineers “are working to help keep the United States on the cutting edge, showing that Federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand our knowledge of the world around us and contribute to our economy.”
At BYU, Tao earned an MS and a PhD in computer science. Before her time at BYU, she received her undergraduate degrees in biology and computer science from Beijing Normal University in China.
Tao has had a lifelong passion not only for life science but also for data, and those passions spurred her decision to study biology and computer science during her academic career.
“Instead of doing biological experiments in a wet lab, I am more interested in biomedical data analysis,” Tao said. “This was the reason I chose both biology and computer science.”
Along with knowing she wanted to study the combination of biology and computer science, or biomedical informatics, Tao always knew she wanted to both research and teach science.
“I always wanted to be a scientist since I was a little girl,” Tao said. “I learned a lot from my PhD advisor, Dr. David Embley, during graduate study. He was the inspiration for me to become a professor after graduation. In addition to research, I enjoy helping and mentoring students a lot now.”
Tao’s research in clinical informatics and computer science, including ontologies, semantic web, and information extraction and integration, have strengthened her desire to continue to study both biology and computer science. In fact, it was her love for studying ontology (the study of the nature of being) as well as her other research interests that led her to receive her graduate degrees at BYU.
“I was interested in database, data management, and data conceptualization,” Tao said. “My advisor, Dr. Embley, was one of the faculty members across the nation who was working on ontologies and conceptualization. BYU was my best choice.”
Receiving this award and being recognized by the White House has inspired Tao to keep working hard and keep researching the fields that she has loved all of her life. She also has been inspired to keep teaching and mentoring her students at Texas, and she hopes current BYU students stay inspired too.
“Stay focused and be persistent,” Tao said. “Your hard work today will pay back tomorrow one way or another.”