Doris Tsao

I was born in Changzhou, China, and immigrated to the US with my family at the age of four. I grew up in College Park, Maryland, and attended Springbrook High School. In high school, I loved to read books, but was not so fond of science. In particular, I loved to read biographies, and was most touched by the ones about scientists and composers. So, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. One day, my father went on a trip to California and took a tour of Caltech with a friend. He came back and told me about a monastery for science, located under the mountains amidst flowers and orange trees, where all the students looked very skinny and super smart, like little monkeys.

I was intrigued. I went to a presentation about Caltech by a visiting admissions officer, who showed slides of students taking tests under olive trees, swimming in the Pacific, huddled in a dorm room working on a problem set… I decided: this is where I want to go to college! I dreamed every day about being accepted to Caltech. After I got my acceptance letter, I began to worry that I would fall behind in the first year, since I had heard about how hard the course load is. So I went to the library and started reading the Feynman Lectures. This was another world…where one could see beneath the surface of things, ask why, why, why, why? And the results of one’s mental deliberations actually could be tested by experiments and reveal completely unexpected yet real phenomena, like magnetism as a consequence of the invariance of the speed of light. I was enthralled. At the same time, I tried to read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and even though I didn’t understand everything, I found the idea that our spatial perception is due to our mental representation, absolutely wonderful.

Fast forward 15 years: I’m a professor of biology and biological engineering at Caltech, trying to understand the physical laws encoded in our brains that give rise to an inexorable perception of objects in space whenever we open our eyes. I feel genuinely lucky. Outside of work, I love to play the violin and to listen to classical music. It is a miracle how composers who lived hundreds of years ago could write things that still touch us to our core, even provide a reason for living. Midori tries to explain this, “Even though we are very different now, due to so many technological advancements, we haven’t changed at all as human beings.”