It’s been eight years since Linda Kao’s untimely death from liver cancer, yet people still mention her dimpled sunny smile, how it pulled you in and warmed you up. Her thoughtfulness and keen intellect touched so many people — not just family and friends, but students, mentees, and colleagues.
Turning toward the sun, new life thrives, eagerly throwing out shoots and leaves. That’s exactly how the Linda Kao Memorial Fund has been working since 2015, when the first pair of awards — one for a scholar and one for a collaborator — was made, nurturing a new generation of epidemiology researchers. Established by Kao’s husband, Warren Goda, her family in Taiwan, and many colleagues and friends, the fund has provided financial support — like a dose of Linda’s sunshine — to 10 epidemiology doctoral students and junior faculty. We caught up with some of them to understand how the funding has fostered their work and how Kao’s memory continues to inspire them.
Maruthur received the first Kao junior faculty scholar award in 2015, which helped her establish her diabetes and genetic susceptibility research program. One of Kao’s mentees, Maruthur is now a School of Medicine faculty member with a joint appointment at the Bloomberg School, and is core faculty at the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology, and Clinical Research.
Maruthur speaks about Kao’s ability to focus on data analysis while foregrounding the work’s impact on patients’ lives: “Linda was unique because she took a holistic approach. She could work with very specialized people as well as generalists, carefully balancing data and quality-of-life issues, because frequently one can drown out the other.” She misses talking over her projects with her friend, who had a talent for seeing connections and making inferences. When asked how Kao would have contributed to COVID-19 research, Maruthur chuckles. “She would have had an absolute heyday with all the data sets.”
Tin, another Kao mentee, received the first Kao collaborator award in 2015 as a postdoctoral fellow and is now an associate professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. At the time of the award, Tin focused on the genetics of kidney disease, as did Kao, and used the funding to support her 2016 trip to Jackson, Mississippi, to attend the Cohort for Heart and Aging Research in Genomic Epidemiology (CHARGE) meeting. This critical conference for the field of genetic epidemiology includes a kidney working group originally co-convened by Kao. Tin spent time connecting and networking — fundamental to any researcher’s or scientist’s success — with others in CHARGE’s kidney working group.
“Linda was such a terrific mentor,” Tin recalls. “She was good at listening and helping with next steps.” Tin also remembers Kao as a natural advocate for clinical studies and how she readily recruited patients to participate in them.
The Kao collaborator award truly set up Rebholz, now associate professor and core faculty at the Welch Center, for success. She joined the Epidemiology faculty in May 2016, but the K01 NIH grant funding for her kidney disease research wouldn’t be available until months later, in September. The Kao award enabled her to use the interregnum to travel to Frieburg, Germany, where she worked with scientist and genetic epidemiologist Anna Köttgen, MD, SPH ’06 (MPH). While collaborating with Köttgen, Rebholz was able to think through her project and prime her research program. She also visited a metabolomics laboratory in Munich, Germany, and attended critical workshops at a metabolomics research conference in Ireland.
“That summer really opened doors for me, exposing me to new ideas at a pivotal time in my career,” Rebholz recalls, adding that although she never met Kao, she appreciates what an impact she had on the field.
As a former graduate student in the Welch Center, where Kao served as a core faculty member, Purnell was honored to receive the Kao junior faculty award in 2020. She remembers Kao’s intellect and how she prioritized relationships with her mentees: “She showed up fully for her students and her peers, and that kind of committed presence reveals a person’s values and priorities.”
Kao’s reputation as a giant in the field of genetic epidemiology, Purnell says, can be traced to her laser focus on setting her own research agenda — she unapologetically blazed her own trail. “To see Linda asking risky questions provided me with validation to ask my own questions,” she says. Today, the award supports Purnell’s quantitative and qualitative work in developing novel programs that address long-standing disparities in the burden of kidney failure and access to kidney transplants.
Dean Emeritus Mike Klag, SPH ’87 (MPH), Med ’87 (PGF), mentored Kao and remembers her simply as an incredible person. A smart, altruistic scholar, Kao was also a dedicated educator, Klag says, “not to mention a passionate foodie who loved to prepare gourmet Chinese dishes with Warren.” Klag describes how Kao leveraged her “constellation of talents” to lead interdisciplinary collaborations and develop innovative research studies. Klag says that in working with her on 18 publications, he appreciated Kao’s use of “very quantitative methods, such as genotyping, that led to landmark research studies, as well as qualitative approaches that led to meaningful community and policy innovations.” He added that her absence is still felt keenly at the Welch Center.
Joe Coresh, MD, SPH ’92 (MHS/PhD), Med ’92 (MD), Kao’s thesis adviser and friend, also mentored her. He appreciates the way the Kao Awards give people visibility. “As much as Linda loved science, she recognized that it wasn’t always easy to pursue science, particularly at Johns Hopkins, where it also requires a certain amount of grit,” Coresh says. “She truly valued people and I am impressed that Warren and the Kao family understood that and dedicated the award to people who give selflessly. The flexibility of the Kao Award enables us to recognize that service-centered person, letting them know they are seen, valued, and appreciated.” Coresh says that the award gives its recipients the strength to persevere in their research and to dream big to make the world a better place.
With her wholehearted spirit and superb scientific acumen, Kao fiercely loved the field of epidemiology. She appreciated its wide reach and its focus on propagating better health for all. It is heartening to know that while she is no longer here, her legacy endures, powerfully delivering encouragement and support.
Just like sunshine.
Topics: Alumni, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Support Scholars
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