The genomics entrepreneur credits her success to encouragement from her biochem professor.
As a biochemistry student in China looking to get her PhD, Guojuan (Amy) Liao ’93 was drawn to Stony Brook because Nobel Laureate C.N. Yang was teaching here at the time. Liao arrived on campus in 1989 with a full scholarship, something she said wasn’t easy to come by, and only a few hundred dollars in spending money.
Fast-forward to 2023, and Liao is an entrepreneur who has founded two genomics companies, with one successfully sold five years ago. Knowing how much she has achieved and how grateful she is for her time at Stony Brook, Liao is now giving back to doctoral students in the biochemistry department in the form of a fellowship named after her mentor and retired Stony Brook professor, Sanford R. Simon, PhD.
Liao said she was impressed with the beautiful campus, but it was really the laboratories that stood out during her PhD studies. “The biological research at Stony Brook was very much ahead of China back then,” explained Liao. “When I was a graduate student in China, there were no tools such as molecular biology. Learning the concept of genetic engineering with new technology was just so fascinating to me.”
Liao’s family was apprehensive about her moving to a new country and being thousands of miles from home, but they were also very excited for her. “It was an adventure for me,” she said. “It was a totally new setting and a new language.” But she took it all in stride, settling into her studies and research, exploring Long Island beaches and even becoming a tour guide for her friends visiting from China.
Liao quickly became interested in Simon’s lab. “His work was much closer to the commercialization applications,” she explained. “Professor Simon was more connected to further developing or translating research in the industry.”
The alumna speaks highly of Simon, a faculty member in the Department of Biochemistry for over 50 years who retired in 2022. “He is a brilliant man with a very sharp intellect,” she said. “He also gave us a lot of freedom and autonomy in the lab. He was very hands-off, only making a few comments here and there to guide us with our research. I was very thankful for that.”
Liao used her professor’s approach when she founded GENEWIZ in 1999 with a friend, a Columbia graduate student. “It was just the two of us when we started, and by the time it was acquired in 2018, we had more than 1,000 employees globally,” she said. “It was important for me not to micromanage. I believe that when people are allowed to think and act on their own, it can produce great results.”
GENEWIZ, now called GENEWIZ from Azenta Life Sciences, is a genomics service company that provides a suite of gene reading, writing and editing solutions. Liao said that starting her company with only an academic background was a tremendous learning opportunity. She’s most proud of the culture they built at GENEWIZ, which stemmed from four pillars: continuous learning, helping others and their customers, continuous improvement of the company, and being the best for the world. “We believed it was more important to be the best for the world than to be the best in the world.”
Liao credits her success to living by two important principles: “keep learning regardless of what stage of life you are in, and help others while you can.” Leaning into that philosophy, she recently established the Dr. Sanford R. Simon Endowed Fellowship in Biochemistry for the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology. She explained that by creating the fellowship, she is linking herself back to Stony Brook and her mentor.
Liao hopes that by supporting graduate students who want to work on translational research, she will be able to inspire others. In addition, she said she wants to show female and international students that hard work and dedication pay off. “I came with no money in my pocket as a female, foreign student,” she said. “I think that has the potential to let other international female students see that success is possible.”
Liao had not been back to the campus in 30 years, but she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return in October 2023 for the biochemistry graduate program retreat, where she met current graduate students and the inaugural fellowship recipient, Leonidas (Louie) Pierrakeas. “I am honored to be the first recipient of this fellowship. As a fellow student of Professor Simon, I admire him and all of his work. I’m proud to continue his legacy through this fellowship and grateful to Amy Liao for her generosity,” said Pierrakeas, a fourth-year graduate student in the Molecular and Cell Biology PhD Program.
During her visit, Liao toured the campus, saying it had changed dramatically since she was a student in the early ’90s. She also took the opportunity to visit with Professor Simon. “I always saw the entrepreneurial spirit in Guojuan,” he said. “I have followed her career over the past 30 years, and her journey to success is impressive. When I heard she was creating this fellowship in my name, I was honored and thrilled that she was supporting the department.”
Wali Karzai, PhD, chair of the Biochemistry Department, echoes Dr. Simon’s sentiments. “It is gratifying when alumni feel strongly enough about their experience in the department that they want to ensure the next generation can have the same opportunities for outstanding training,” he said. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, Karzai believes it is imperative to continue receiving the introduction to cutting-edge science and training that the next generation of biomedical researchers are getting so they can be prepared for the next challenge.
But what does the future hold for Liao? As genomics technology evolves, Liao’s new company, Couragene, is adapting and developing a sharper version of gene therapy and precision medicine. However, she acknowledged that they still have a long way to go. “If I could predict the future of genomics technology, I would say that 30 years from now, we won’t be able to imagine life without it.”