Forging a career through interdisciplinarity

KAUST Professor of computer science Xin Gao—lead of the Structural and Functional Bioinformatics Group, Associate Director of Computational Bioscience Research Center, and Deputy Director of the newly established Smart-Health Initiative.

​The foundation of building a successful academic career is generally thought to be the pursuit of excellence through specialization. Of course, the cross-disciplinary quest has its important place, but it's often thought of primarily as the fruitful collaboration between specialized entities or experts in particular fields.

KAUST professor of computer science Xin Gao—lead of the Structural and Functional Bioinformatics Group, Associate Director of Computational Bioscience Research Center, and Deputy Director of the newly established Smart-Health Initiative—brings a unique perspective. His field of research, which is AI and bioinformatics, certainly embodies interdisciplinarity in its name. Merging biology and computer science, this field uses computation to better understand biology and life.

Gao was formally trained as a computer scientist, earning a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Waterloo. He was fortunate that his dissertation advisor was world-renowned for advances in computational complexity and algorithm development. Gao chose to pursue a specific focus in the application area of biology—basically bioinformatics.

The interdisciplinary journey

Interestingly, "I don't even have one day of biological training," he shared. He learned all about biology and biomedicine independently while studying at Waterloo.

When he later moved to Carnegie Mellon University as a postdoctoral fellow, he was able to sharpen his knowledge thanks to significant investments made by a family of donors into the Lane Center for Computational Biology, under the School of Computer Science, to improve cancer research. "I got access to a lot of biological data, but more importantly, artificial intelligence," Gao described.

"In order to make a big impact and make scientific advances on this entire interdisciplinary field, I knew I had to be strong in both fields," he said. "If you consider these two fields as two spheres, then I have to conduct my research at the interface."

Professor Xin Gao takes part in the Pioneers Lecture Series

Most bioinformaticians or computational biologists focus on one side of the problem. So Gao has been trying to establish a balance between principled computer science research, which is basically machine learning, as well as the application of a problem-driven type of research, which is bioinformatics or biomedical informatics.

Fully realizing that anyone's time and energy is limited and that dividing his research efforts between two disciplines is a daunting endeavor—fraught with the risk of being perceived as lacking sufficient depth in either discipline—he was nonetheless determined to pursue his objective.

"I believed that in the future, this would bring me long-term benefits, which I am seeing now," he pointed out.

Building history and collaborations at KAUST

Once he joined KAUST, Xin was able to bring a wealth of learnings and experience in bioinformatics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. "I decided to synchronize all these background pieces together," he said. "This is very difficult, especially for a new researcher on a new career, as an assistant professor at that time. I have to admit that I spent a huge amount of effort to expend time and energy toward this multidisciplinary pursuit."

"Basically, if you do this right, you might make a big impact and set a path for new discoveries in science. KAUST is a very multidisciplinary institution, which, I think, makes it an ideal place for you to be and to do this," added the recently promoted full professor.

Listen to Professor Xin Gao talk about putting AI to work during the COVID-19 pandemic

Gao joined KAUST in October 2010 after being recruited by Professor David Keyes directly from his postdoctoral fellowship at Carnegie Mellon. Fresh on the job market, he received several job offers and ultimately chose KAUST. "At that time, I was very much impressed by the campus as well as the infrastructure; but most importantly, the future of the university," he said.

Keyes told him how, instead of learning about the history, it would be much more gratifying to help create and be a part of KAUST history. "I could clearly see the vision of King Abdullah at the time," said Xin. "It was exciting to see the leadership running this brand new university as a top-level research university of global standards. So I decided to take the risk and join KAUST to be part of that history."

As a member of the Computer, Electrical and Mathematical Science and Engineering Division (CEMSE) and the KAUST Computational Bioscience Research Center, Gao is proud to be one of the University's faculty members with the most collaborations. He's currently collaborating with ten professors in the Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering Division (BESE), five groups in his own CEMSE division and two groups in the Physical Science and Engineering Division (PSE). His group is also working with three different KAUST Core Labs, and he is one of the heaviest users of the Supercomputing Core Lab and the Bioscience Core Lab.

Making an impact

Describing himself as a super-multidisciplinarian researcher, Xin has passed on his philosophy to his students over the years. He has the largest group in computer science, with around 30 people. His alumni are placed really well, having trained ten professors, including four full professors, as well as several industry scientists who went on to work for companies such as Google Brain, Tencent AI Lab, Alibaba and Huawei.

He credits the success of the Structural and Functional Bioinformatics Group to its two-pronged approach of combining curiosity-driven research, which is pure machine learning where the focus is proving and developing theories, methods and algorithms on the one hand, and data-driven or mission-driven research (bioinformatics and biomedical informatics) on the other front.

"I request the research coming out from this group to have both computational novelty and contribution, as well as biological significance and impact," Gao explained. "If you count bioinformatics groups all over the world, then there is only a handful of groups that are capable of doing so."

Gao started this group immediately after joining KAUST and continues to be very proud of its productivity, both in terms of publications and collaborations.

Taking on new roles

Gao is always interested in taking on the challenge of finding innovative solutions to compelling problems. "Frankly speaking, I do not care much about the background of the problem as long as the problem is interesting," he shared.

Last year, he was appointed associate director of the Computational Bioscience Research Center (CBRC), led by Distinguished Professor Takashi Gojobori, as well as being appointed as the deputy director of the new KAUST Smart-Health Initiative, led by Distinguished Professor Pierre Magistretti.

Taking on administrative roles and organizational duties have allowed Xin to broaden his scientific experience to a broader academic perspective. "I'm very much interested in learning and in making such a contribution to the university," he said.

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