Ag Research Spotlight:
Weiguo Andy Tao
“I would consider this the best path for me. I love my job; there is a lot of freedom for me to engage with students and do the research I’m interested in.” –Weiguo Andy Tao, Professor of Biochemistry
The Ag Research Spotlight shines each month on an individual whose work reflects our commitment to the six strategic themes that guide Agricultural Research at Purdue. Our spotlight for June 2015 underscores the theme, “Utilizing molecular approaches to expand the frontiers of agriculture and life sciences.”
In 1988, when W. Andy Tao was admitted to undergraduate study in his home country of China, students might not get the chance to choose their major. Tao wanted economics but was placed into chemistry. “It is not the case today but back then, once you got into college, you could not switch between departments,” he adds. So he graduated in chemistry, chose Purdue for doctoral work with Professor R. Graham Cooks, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. He returned to Purdue as a faculty member in 2005. In addition to his position in Agriculture, he has courtesy appointments in the Department of Medicinal Chemistry & Molecular Pharmacology and Department of Chemistry and is a member of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research. One of his mentors, a renowned scientist in the field, recently asked Tao what career he would choose if he were given a do-over. “I thought about it,” Tao says. “And I would consider this the best path for me. I love my job; there is a lot of freedom for me to engage with students and do the research I’m interested in.”
Tao’s lab is unique at Purdue because it houses one of the best biological mass spectrometers at the university. His team uses the instrument to develop technologies and strategies to analyze proteins and protein modifications. Mass spectrometry-based proteomics brings together biology, chemistry, instrumentation, statistics, and bioinformatics. Tao cites two potential applications of his research, in medicine and in agriculture. It could help medical researchers better understand cancer processes to treat the disease; and could inform scientists how to manipulate certain plants’ response to environmental stress.
Tao says his first five years of research had little to do with agriculture. As his lab developed technologies with agricultural applications, however, he began collaborating with other faculty in the college. Biological mass spectrometry is used increasingly in many fields, but especially in agriculture and the sciences, he explains. “My lab must be capable of collaborating, because other researchers need our approach and the instrument to assist in their work. Quite a few faculty on and off campus work with me. I feel I’m needed.”
Tao is the chief scientific officer of a company that he and a former student co-founded in 2010. Tymora Analytical Operations – the Greek name translates loosely to “good fortune” – provides biochemical tools for research and motivates Tao in his own lab. “I feel the research we are doing is important and inspires my continued work,” he says.
ON THE RUN
Academic collaboration takes Tao to China once or twice a year, and he enjoys work-related travel: “The nature of the job is to interact with a lot of colleagues at conferences,” he explains. In his leisure time Tao is a main contributor to an informal running club among his research group members and University Farm friends and neighbors, whom he inspired to compete in the Chicago Marathon.