Finding her calling at ‘dream school’

When Tao Junyi was in elementary school, her teacher asked the class what they aspired to be in life. While her fellow students answered by listing professions like scientist or astronaut, Tao’s response reflected an early self-awareness that has continued to guide her throughout her young life.

“I was somehow stubborn, saying that I wanted to be a generalist and learn all there was to know,” Tao says of her answer to the teacher’s query. “However, some people say that if you are knowledgeable but not masterful, you will get nowhere.”

Well, that aphorism has not proven true for the young and bright high school student from China. After graduating from DKU in 2023, Tao today is enrolled in the Digital Humanities Fellows Program at Stanford University, where she is continuing with research that she started while an undergraduate.

“I wish to contribute something useful to the spiritual legacy of humanity,” Tao says.

Tao’s path to self-discovery and fulfillment has been an unconventional one. It includes overcoming a childhood illness, leaving public school to study on her own and, despite being interested in science, becoming a prolific writer of essays and reflections.

Tao says she eventually found her calling at DKU, her “dream school.”

Once at DKU, the school’s policy of giving students two years before declaring a major gave Tao the time to explore different interests. When choosing courses and independent study, Tao tried to strike a balance between liberal arts and sciences.

“Every semester, I took at least one math/statistics/computer course and one humanities/social science course. It seems that I need an intriguing balance in my life.”

It wasn’t until she attended a lecture at DKU about Data Science + Humanities, in which the speaker shared the idea of combining literature with artificial intelligence, that she realized what area she might want to pursue. After the lecture, Tao invited the speaker to coffee, where they spent the next four hours discussing their passions, ambitions and innovative ideas. This led Tao to join a start-up team that designed and improved an online product, which is an interactive novel that uses virtual characters to guide users into a “stream of consciousness” conversation, which was well-received during internal testing.

uses virtual characters to guide users into a “stream of consciousness”

“When I just entered college from high school, I was just a learner who passively accepted others’ ideas. I absorbed knowledge and developed myself. At that time, satisfying curiosity was all that mattered.

“At DKU, I got some great opportunities and resources for me to start a business project, do research, and communicate with my classmates and teachers, through which I gained many different understandings.”

By her own admission, Tao’s path to graduate school has been far from traditional. As a child she suffered from poor health, which required frequent trips to the hospital. In junior high school, she learned that her knee bones were congenitally dislocated and susceptible to wear, which led to frequent internal bleeding. In her sophomore year of high school, her condition worsened, forcing her to skip class to receive physical therapy.

Once her doctor told her that she possibly had cancer. While that prognosis eventually proved to be false, she felt overwhelmed by a fear of death and worried that she might not have much time left.
After taking a leave due to her poor health, she spent time alone in bookstores. During these solitary moments, she read, studied, thought and created. In the end, she wrote essays and reflections totaling more than 300,000 words.

At first, she just posted short paragraphs of reflections, and was surprised when others sent her private messages expressing gratitude. For the first time, she felt others might find value in her thoughts.

“Since high school, I was getting the best grades in mathematics and physics among students majoring in liberal arts – and the best in Chinese among those majoring in sciences. But science students think I am inexplicably sensitive, while liberal arts students find my words too logical and cold.”

Eventually she chose to study science instead of math, saying she wanted to pursue truth and knowledge rather than rote memorization. At the same time, she kept writing, wondering what would happen if she insisted on both paths.

In her senior year of high school, Tao submitted an application to DKU. In one essay, she wrote, “It is important to keep an open mind, avoid being stubborn, and see the world from a developmental perspective.” In another, she discussed “absolute truth and relative truth” and argued that “one should renew himself through internal and external criticism.”

She thought her application — which had not been polished by an agency, contained no anecdotes and even included incorrect punctuation — would be quickly rejected.

When she learned that DKU wanted her to become a member of its second class of undergraduates, she felt “I had found my perfect match. Other universities would judge me based on my college entrance examination scores, but DKU comprehended what I thought and recognized me.”

This represented a far different outcome than in high school, when she told her teacher that she was not accustomed to the teaching style and pace in school and that she preferred to study at home instead of attending classes. Her parents were worried, so to ease their concerns she wrote a “letter of guarantee” in which she promised to follow her parents’ wishes if her grades dropped. They did not.

Following her start-up experience at DKU, Tao kept thinking about how to better combine computing with humanities, so she enrolled in the course Introduction to Information Science, taught by Charles Chang, Assistant Professor of Environment and Urban Studies. Through the course, Tao learned about research on digital humanities, which for her validated the feasibility of combining two seemingly disparate areas of study.

Tao soon discovered that she and her professor shared similar interests, and their first conversation lasted from midday until night. Later, Chang became Tao’s mentor, giving her invaluable support in her work.

“I was fascinated by the possibilities presented by digital humanities. I felt my heart so touched for the first time,” she says.

In her sophomore year, Tao joined the DKU Interdisciplinary Knowledge Network Lab, a newly established laboratory composed of more than a dozen professors and students from different disciplines. Tao read, discussed, and brainstormed with other Lab members every week – about what is interdisciplinary knowledge, how to study it using the method of “close reading + distant reading,” and how to structure them in the form of a network, with the aim of assisting innovation and communication.

She also, on her own, studied machine-learning fundamentals, natural language processing and deep learning.

“Being at DKU, which advocates interdisciplinary education, and as an undergraduate student in the school’s second class who has directly participated in campus construction, I was also considering what kind of environment should be built and how to design interdisciplinary courses and research projects to foster interdisciplinary talent from the school’s perspective.”

Tao and her fellow researchers studied the underlying logic of interdisciplinarity and decided to work on the idea of creating a multi-level knowledge graph that would help fellow students choose courses, find suitable mentors, and collaborate on interdisciplinary research. A follow-up project was selected into the Jiangsu 2021 College Student Innovation and Entrepreneurship Training Program and was rated as a national-level project.

Simultaneously, Tao pursued her research interest in philosophy. Her activities included participating in Project Vox as part of Duke University’s 2022 Story+ summer research program, in which an interdisciplinary team studied the use of data visualization to reveal how female philosophers were neglected and marginalized in the history of philosophy.

With such experience, she was approached by James Miller, her academic advisor and Professor of Humanities, after she was back at DKU. He asked if she would like to apply the knowledge graph that her group created to the study of Chinese philosophy.

She was indeed interested. She says she not only wanted to create something helpful, but also hoped to tell others: “If you’re afraid what you are doing is weird, it doesn’t matter; as long as you insist on it, there will always be a way out.”

With the support of Chang and Miller, Tao wrote a proposal and received funding from the DKU Data Science Research Center’s Data+ Program. Following that, she formed an interdisciplinary research team by recruiting four DKU students majoring in philosophy and data science.

They examined passages in classics from several dynasties and sects (Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism and Legalism) to, among other things, compare the semantic variations of the same word in different times. For example, the word “nature” in Taoism is often related to heaven and earth and represents cosmology; in Confucianism, it is mainly about human relations and a moral outlook.

“Although I was the project manager, what I wanted to do was more than setting goals, assigning tasks, and completing targets. I believe that real growth happens when all the team members with varied backgrounds and perspectives understand, communicate and work with each other and share responsibilities.”

“We (also) had a lot of fun during our research. … Our meetings were always full of laughter.”

Such experience was new to Tao as well. Before college, she had never felt like she belonged to any one group. She believed that classmates were just physically allocated to the same class at random, rather than community members sharing the same set of values and interests. That changed at DKU.

“I truly agree with DKU’s philosophy. It is chosen by me. Here, I have met many friends who share similar ideas with me. We seek common ground while reserving differences. We are all pursuing our respective ambitions and making every effort to realize them, so I am attached to the entire DKU community.”

Now at Stanford, she and her classmates study the relationship between human thoughts and man-made machines, how they represent and process symbols, and how these abilities together make up intelligence. “Such abstract and broad topics need to be approached from multidisciplinary perspectives, followed by integration and innovation,” Tao explains.

These perspectives include computer science, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, and statistics.

In addition to her studies, Tao is taking ballet classes and has also joined Stanford Baipu Chinese Music Ensemble, where she continues to learn and play the guzheng, which is similar to a zither. She has met a group of friends who love traditional folk music and culture, which was a surprise for her.

As to her ultimate hope “to contribute something useful to the spiritual legacy of humanity,” Tao says “I’m prepared to put everything on the line and push the boundary – even by one inch. I’ve finally found the reason and motivation that I cannot easily deconstruct.”

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Senior Editor/Writer

Gareth McPherson

Email: gareth.mcpherson@dukekunshan.edu.cn

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