A Conversation with Minerva Student Xiaotian

Meet Xiaotian, a student in the Class of 2019 | Nov, 30, 2017

Quick Facts

Xiaotian Liao

Chengdu, China


Majors & Concentrations
Natural Sciences: Cells and Organisms
Computer Science: Data Science and Statistics

Oncology Bioinformatics Summer Scholar, Novartis


Why did you choose Minerva?
While it was a difficult decision given I applied to other U.S. universities, I knew that deciding to not go to Minerva would mean possibly missing out on a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. Beyond that, I wasn’t interested in studying in the same place for four years; I would have gotten bored easily.

What are some of your passions and interests?
I like boxing. I think it’s a great way to stay in the best possible state. It has helped me focus on work and be more efficient. It also makes me feel stronger, more empowered, and more secure knowing I have some self-defense skills up my sleeve.

Share an experience you have had in one of the four cities you have studied in while at Minerva and how it has changed the way you think about the world.
One memory I really cherish from San Francisco was attending poetry slam nights at 16th Street and Mission. I remember taking the subway on Thursday at midnight, usually in the freezing cold. We would listen to people channeling their ideas and feelings about their lives and this world in such a poetic and romantic way. I never imagined myself interacting with people coming from such drastically different backgrounds. The people who participated in the poetry slams ranged from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and homeless people, to exchange students or veterans who had just come back from serving overseas. Their poems could be perceived as crazy from some people’s perspectives, but I was fascinated by how alive I felt in the moment and how much I appreciated the existence of life and its diversity.

You plan to pursue a medical degree one day. How are you preparing for that at Minerva?
Knowing my interest in medicine, some were surprised by my choice to attend Minerva, a liberal arts program. However, I knew that by living in cities around the world I would gain exposure to different medical systems, as well as people from various medical backgrounds, that would benefit me substantially in my quest to become a physician scientist. I’m currently researching at Hanyang University in Seoul, in immunology, where I am learning lab techniques and computational work that will help me when applying to medical programs. I feel fortunate to have this opportunity, and I want to make sure I can contribute as much as possible to the research team, while also gaining a meaningful experience.

You were a Oncology Bioinformatics Summer Scholar at Novartis over the summer. What drew your interest to the organization?
Novartis is a research institution that aims to find novel solutions to common diseases in our world. I had always wanted to gain more experience in the biomedical industry and I knew that working at a company like Novartis would give me insight into what it’s like to be a researcher in a professional laboratory. I also really like Novartis uses a “proof of concept” pedagogy when developing drugs. Drugs have to go through several clinical trials to make sure they are safe for patients but the population of patients for these trials is typically pretty general. Novartis’ proof of concept approach means that participants chosen are representative of populations that will benefit or be positively influenced by the drug or compound being developed. It’s a more focused and systematic way of tackling drug development.

Before Novartis, I had mostly done independent research projects and had never actually worked in a professional research setting. I had the opportunity to be on the bioinformatics team in the Oncology Department and I worked on two RNA data analysis projects. The goal was to find signals from the RNA data to help predict the quality of tissue samples. Right now, tissue samples for imunohistochemistry staining don’t test well because of quality issues, so the study aimed to optimize the sample selection process and increase testing efficiency.

What professional skills did you develop during your internship?
On my last day at Novartis, I finished my presentation and got a chance to sit down with Kenzie, one of the bioinformatic group leads, and pick his brain for a bit. He shared his take on skills needed to succeed in the bioinformatics industry, and what he felt were good ways for me to further develop in order to meet my career aspirations. One thing he mentioned was that, as someone in a hiring position, he would prefer a person who is smart, has a strong intellectual horsepower, is quick to learn, and scientifically curious, to someone who might have an extensive domain of knowledge but is less willing to learn and adapt to new trends. That’s something that really resonated with me and something that Minerva has enabled me to practice more throughout the years.

Which HC did you find most relevant and useful during your internship with Novartis and how did you apply it?
#audience Throughout the summer I had the opportunity to present my findings to multiple groups of people, and knowing how to effectively engage with my audience has been the most important HC that I’ve learned so far. For example, if I had to present my project to the bioinformatics team, which already understood the relevant information about software tools and techniques. So, I didn’t need to explain much of the technical details and instead spoke more specifically about how I implemented my research. On the other hand, when I presented to pathologists, who had a deeper understanding of biological mechanism and knew less about bioinformatics, I presented my hypothesis and explained the relevant terminology. This allowed them to focus on the work that I had done, and ensured they were not confused by technical jargon.

What are you most proud of regarding this experience?
An opportunity I appreciated was getting my hands dirty with cloud computing. I worked with Novartis’ high-performance computing system, and I was fascinated with its mind-blowing computational power. I didn’t really have prior experience in a similar environment, like Linux or genomic data analysis, so I was very proud that I was able to take on new challenges, like coding in the cluster, which is the infrastructure that provides faster processing speed and large storage capacity.

What has been the most important thing you’ve learned while at Minerva?
In high school, I was horrible at self-learning. And it wasn’t until Minerva that I was introduced to active learning. Now, not only am I continuously engaged, I have also become accustomed to learning and adapting quickly. I believe this is an important skill to acquire, regardless of your career path.

What do you enjoy most about being a part of the Minerva community?
Having options. At Minerva, we have so many options in terms of our personal lives and professional experiences, and there is a lot of freedom that comes with that. Personally, one of my biggest fears is being limited. I want to be able to have control over my life, and I believe that starts with having choices.

I also appreciate the student body here. After several semesters of living with the same group of people, it feels almost like a family. I know this sounds cliché to say but I don’t think it’s easy to form that kind of bond nowadays, or to find this amount of support from my classmates at a traditional university. Being able to talk to someone from a different culture knowing they embrace your background as well is something I really appreciate being at Minerva.

Why do you think it is important to be a global citizen?
It’s important to become a global citizen in order to understand the complexity of politics and societies. I’m learning how to be a global citizen by interacting with my international classmates and living in diverse and unfamiliar cities. Often, it’s easy for me to jump to conclusions when I see something I don’t agree with, especially if it doesn’t seem to align with my values. I would say that after two years being at Minerva, I’ve definitely become better at trying to be as empathetic as possible when it comes to people or concepts that I don’t initially understand. I feel that empathy and understanding are necessary for people who are in a global environment.

If you were inspired by Xiaotian’s story and are seeking a college experience that will teach you valuable pragmatic skills that will enable you to change the world, apply to join Minerva today.