HMS Postdoctoral Fellow Dies at 30

Tara A. Gianoulis will be remembered by friends and colleagues for her exceptional contributions to the field of bioinformatics, her impressive athletic achievements, and her altruistic approach to life. A postdoctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, Gianoulis died on Friday morning after a longtime battle with bipolar disorder, according to friends and colleagues. She was 30.

Gianoulis was a native of Staten Island, New York, where she graduated from CUNY College of Staten Island before completing her doctorate at Yale in computational biology and bioinformatics in 2009.

Her co-advisers at Yale—Michael P. Snyder, then-director of the Yale Center of Genomics and Proteomics, and Mark B. Gerstein ’89, professor of biomedical informatics—both recalled Gianoulis’ leadership and drive while working on her graduate degrees.

She made significant contributions to the field of bioinformatics, developing novel methods for studying genetics using mathematical models, according to Gerstein.

Her Yale mentors introduced her to George M. Church, professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School. She joined Church’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow in the fall of 2009.

“She was simply brilliant and energetic,” Church said.

Before her death, Gianoulis emphasized that her own struggle with mental illness should be communicated and used to educate the public, according to Church.

“She had the rare potential to change the face of science, and had a positive effect on everyone who came in contact with her,” A. Michael Sismour, a close friend who worked in Church’s lab, wrote in an email. “What I will miss most about Tara is inconsequential, it is the world that is at a loss today.”

Gianoulis was interested in how microbial life survived extreme environments and traveled to places with extraordinary weather conditions to collect samples to study. In December 2008, she visited the coast of Chile, and in January 2010, Gianoulis tackled Antarctica.

“Yes, Antarctica is mostly a blinding white, making good sunglasses a must, but the microbial world is busy painting the landscape other colors,” Gianoulis wrote in a January 2010 blog post about her experience.

Gianoulis had been planning a trip to the Malaysian side of Borneo this fall, Church said.

“I think it’s fair to say that on a sheer social level ... it’s quite impressive the interactions she had,” said Gerstein, reflecting on her numerous co-authored papers and collaboration with highly regarded researchers in the field. “She certainly wasn’t the student who hung out in the cubby hole.”

Outside of her academic work, Gianoulis was a dedicated athlete who participated in marathons and triathalons.

“I was quite taken by her energy and thirst for life, both in science and beyond,” Gerstein wrote in a letter to his lab upon hearing of Gianoulis’ death. “I fondly remember our discussions on cycling and sports, and I hope her signature vitality lives on in some fashion.”

Gianoulis’ compassion extended beyond her academics and research, recalled her lab colleague Sriram Kosuri. She repeatedly invited international students for Thanksgiving dinner, Kosuri said.

“She was so extremely positive about her attitude toward life and her attitude toward projects,” Kosuri said. “She was so nice, so giving, and it really was surprising how much she was going through during that time.”

A memorial service will be held for Gianoulis in New York on Oct. 15.

—Staff writer Xi Yu can be reached at xyu@college.harvard.edu

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