At the dawn of a new information age, Cathy Wu’s star keeps rising
Cathy Wu, like a lot of college students, was having a hard time finding her way.
The year was 1982, and the young woman who would become UD’s data-science guru was facing a quandary familiar to female scholars: She was bright, and hard-working, but felt somehow that she was out of place and adrift, like an interloper in a mostly male world.
“Being a woman, I felt like I shouldn’t be a go-getter,” she says of those tradition-bound days.
Then, as she wavered on whether to pursue her PhD in the U.S. or relent to the emotional tug of her young family, a letter from her father arrived, from halfway around the world in Taiwan.
He loved her. He missed her. But he feared for her. “You are wasting your life,” he warned her sternly. “You are wasting your talent. You are not fulfilling your full potential.”
The words were harsh, but also infused with fatherly love. In a way, he was giving her permission to break free — away from the strict gender roles of her homeland, away from the world’s sometimes skewed gender expectations.
She was being shown the path to freedom, to the fulfillment of what she could be.
She never looked back.
Today, nearly 40 years later, she finds herself in a place that surely must exceed her late father Wu Long Wu’s hopes: As director of the fledgling Data Science Institute, the energetic and engaging 65-year-old is at yet another high point in an academic career that has bounced from plant pathology to bioinformatics and onward toward a new data-driven future for humanity.
She knows she might not be where she is if it hadn’t been for that letter from her dad. And she’s certain that despite her wide-ranging course through academia, being on the forefront of world-changing ideas is still where she needs to be.
“I think that’s my thing, from early on: Whenever I’m trying to pick a research project, I always think: In 5-10 years, what will be the most impactful applications we can think of?” says Wu, who is UD’s Edward G. Jefferson Chair of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and also directs its Center for Informatics & Computational Biology.
That’s certainly the way she thought when she arrived at Michigan State for her post-doctoral work in plant pathology, and got a chance to become involved with the then-nascent field of bioinformatics, which uses computers and statistics to uncover the secrets within living organisms. It appealed to her love of logic and life, and to her fascination at how patterns can emerge from seemingly meaningless information streams.
“I started looking into that, and saw how beautifully the protein sequences of DNA could be arranged. I saw how amazingly the sequences were preserved through evolution,” she says. Soon, she was honing her computer science skills with a second master’s degree, and envisioning that she might be able to somehow marry the computer and the genome together, using one to understand the other.
The results of her zeal thrive on UD’s campus today: The UniProt Consortium project that Wu co-founded in 2002 resides virtually in Newark, providing global access to vast troves of data about the protein sequences that serve as backbone to all life. Decades of research in bioinformatics and computational biology have established her as one of the preeminent scholars in her field, and established a firmer foundation for further discoveries — other researchers have cited her work more than 42,000 times.
Her early work would also put her at the forefront in developing the concept of “artificial neural networks” as a biological research tool, putting another twist on the connection between computers and life: Instead of using a standard computer to unravel life’s processes, why not give the computer some of life’s wondrous capabilities? Why not teach the computer to act like a brain, complete with electronic neurons and the ability to “think” its way through the problems posed by biology?
That idea would come to be known as artificial intelligence, and its capabilities are powering a next-generation change in how computers can serve human needs. At UD, those next-step applications of computer power are already underway at the Data Science Institute, headed up by Wu and filled with top innovators who came to Newark to be part of the world’s “Big Data” future.
The ultimate goal of all this high-tech sleuthing is very human and real: Within the data, scientists like Wu believe we will find the keys to curing diseases and finding revolutionary new pharmaceuticals. At UD, the next generation of bio-detectives is already emerging, ready to meet tomorrow’s challenges. Recently, her projects earned $10 million in federal grants, allowing her to start a new program for incorporating Big Data into materials science research, fund the UniProt Consortium for another five years, and energize her own research efforts.
Wu’s understandably stoked about the possibilities that now stand before UD and the world. But she’s also a bit cautious.
“The democratization of data science, the gap between the haves and the have nots — in the knowledge of how to analyze and interpret data — is getting bigger,” she says. As humans push forward into a new data-driven realm, she believes, they must also work to ensure its benefits reach more than the privileged few.
“How do we bridge that gap and also ensure we involve people who otherwise would be left out of the data and the decisions based on it?” she wonders. “How do we prepare people for future changes in their jobs as data science evolves? We have to ensure data science really provides a positive impact to society, which requires attention to ethics, policy and education.”
ERIC RUTH, AS93 | First appeared in https://www.udel.edu/udaily/2021/august/cathy-wu/