In Memoriam, Professor James Taylor

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It is with great sorrow that the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences shares that James Taylor, Ralph S. O’Connor Professor of Biology and Professor of Computer Science, died on Thursday, April 2, 2020. He was 40. The biology department has also created a memorial site.

Professor Taylor was a trailblazer in computational biology and genomics research. He had an enormous impact as a scientist, teacher, and colleague, and his loss is devastating to many – both here in our Hopkins community and around the globe.

As one of the original developers of the Galaxy platform for data analysis, Professor Taylor and his lab group focused on extending the Galaxy platform as well as on understanding genomic and epigenomic regulation of gene transcription through integrated analysis of functional genomic data. The ultimate goal is to achieve a complete understanding of the structure and function of genomes.

The Galaxy platform serves as software for the entire genomics community worldwide, giving a powerful boost to researchers’ ability to process data and make groundbreaking connections across organisms. But Professor Taylor was also involved with many other projects; for example, he developed a strategy to support the health of the Chesapeake Bay by detecting microorganisms in the Baltimore Harbor and monitoring their levels continuously using newly developed, portable, and rapid DNA sequencing technologies. 

Vince Hilser, chair of the biology department, describes Professor Taylor as a bedrock of the department. “He came in 2014, and it was transformational. He was this catalyst for change, with a huge positive impact.” His presence in the department opened up many areas for research, as he was able to help other faculty members uncover new insights by revealing similarities between the proteins they were studying and those in other organisms.

What Professor Taylor did for the department, he also did for the broader research community. In addition to his crucial involvement with Galaxy, he collaborated broadly, and was cited with great frequency.

A familiar figure on the Homewood campus, riding his skateboard, Professor Taylor was a beloved teacher and mentor who treated his students as equals. He approached his work with passion and energy, and was a friend and colleague to many in our community, who share in mourning his loss deeply.

Biology Assistant Professor Rajiv McCoy says he counted Professor Taylor as a mentor and friend. “He blazed a trail for computational research within the Department of Biology and is one of the main reasons that I came to Hopkins. James was a selfless advocate for trainees and junior faculty, working tirelessly in the background on our behalf. James was also an outspoken proponent of reproducibility in computational research. His work to highlight this issue and develop tools for addressing it has been invaluable to the scientific community. I am shocked and heartbroken by this loss and its impact on his family, friends, and colleagues.”

John Kim, associate professor in Biology, shared adjoining offices and labs with Professor Taylor in the UTL building. He wrote, “For the past five years, we had grown very close as colleagues with common scientific interests but more importantly, as friends. He was such a passionate advocate for collaborative research and his influence went well beyond the university to the broader scientific community. His is an incalculable loss. James was soft-spoken, kind, and compassionate. His office door was always wide open, inviting anyone to come in to talk. He furnished it sparsely, with just a small round table in the middle and speakers by the windows playing a broad and eclectic selection of music while he worked on his laptop. It was an open, inviting space where I and many others would stop in to talk about science or just to say hello. He was a great listener, so thoughtful and generous with his time. We have lost a brilliant scientist and a great friend to the many lives he touched and made better.”

Michael Schatz, Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Computer Science and Biology, spoke of Professor Taylor’s far-reaching scientific and personal impact. “James was an exceptional scientist, colleague, mentor, and community builder,” Professor Schatz wrote. “His life’s pursuit was to understand how genomic information is used in normal development and how changes in the genome can dysregulate this process in disease. Further, through co-leading the Galaxy project and the Anvil project, a major thrust of James’ career has been to support the work of other scientists, especially to empower those with limited resources. His impact is immeasurable, with thousands of scientists that have benefited from his leadership and contributions. On a personal level, James was always kind, friendly, and generous, and we will miss him dearly.”

Professor Taylor earned his BS in computer science from the University of Vermont in 2000, and his PhD in computer science in 2006 from Penn State University, where he was involved in several vertebrate genome projects and the ENCODE project. Before arriving at Johns Hopkins, he was an associate professor in the departments of biology and mathematics and computer science at Emory University from 2008 until 2013. At Hopkins, he also held an appointment in the Whiting School’s Department of Computer Science.

He was a member of the Science Gateways Institute Steering Committee, and had been a member of the National Center for Genome Analysis Scientific Advisory Board from 2014 to 2016; a member of the iPlant Scientific Advisory Board member from 2013 to 2016; a member of the XSEDE Project User Advisory Committee from 2012 to 2014; and co-chair of the International Arabadopsis Informatics Consortium: Engineering, Architecture and Infrastructure Working Group in 2011.

Professor Taylor is survived by his wife, Meredith Greif, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology. We send our deepest condolences to her as well as to his colleagues in the Department of Biology and far beyond.