Wheaton magazine

Volume 21 // Issue 3
Wheaton magazine // Autumn 2018
Alumni News
Alumni Profiles

When Collaboration Changes the World

Rachel Rienstra Liao ’07

For Rachel Rienstra Liao ’07, facilitating data sharing in genomic research means seeing the future of medicine changed for the better.

When Rachel first set foot on Wheaton’s campus as a freshman, she knew she wanted to study biology. But it was an internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital offered through an alumnus of the College the summer after her sophomore year that cemented her current path. 

“I really got excited by cancer research and cancer biology,” Rachel says. 

That excitement landed her back at the same hospital after graduation and propelled her into researching how inherited genetic traits affect cancer. Eventually, Rachel went on to receive her doctorate at Harvard before landing at the Broad Institute, an independent nonprofit with strong ties to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Rachel has stepped into roles facilitating projects that help genomics researchers from all over the world share data and collaborate in unprecedented ways. She recently transitioned to become a Scientific Advisor for the Broad Institute’s director, Eric Lander, to help the Institute continue to expand its focus on these efforts.

“When we think about using genomic data, there are usually a lot of access constraints on it,” she notes, citing the sensitive nature of information about people’s DNA. But sharing that data means the possibility of understanding human genetics on a deeper level than ever before. 

For scientists looking to address genetic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, that’s good news indeed. The hope, as far as Liao is concerned, is that scientists will soon be able to go beyond just recognizing which genetic variants are associated with which diseases, to actually being able to change the ways those diseases are managed or treated.

“There’s been a translational piece missing for as long as the field has existed,” she says. “One of the goals of my work is to make the necessary connections so that effective medical treatments for genetic diseases can be developed.”