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Rong Li on Cell Dynamics and Cellular Evolution

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Rong Li on Cell Dynamics and Cellular Evolution

Interviewed by Catherine Gara

Rong Li on Cell Dynamics and Cellular Evolution

Rong Li is a professor of cell biology and of chemical and biomolecular engineering. She uses microscopy to see how cells work. 

Tell me about what you want to accomplish as director of the Center for Cell Dynamics.

LI: The future of biomedical research is in interdisciplinary teams, and one of the things that drew me to Johns Hopkins is how collaborative it is. I have dual appointments* in the departments of Cell Biology (at the School of Medicine) and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (at Whiting School of Engineering). And being a member of both communities allows me to bring people together from vastly different disciplines. I enjoy thinking about the different scientific problems that other people study and connecting them with those who can offer some expertise or equipment or ideas.

What kinds of services does the center provide?

LI: The Center for Cell Dynamics is, first of all, a group of people working on complementary topics that all have fundamental cell biology at their heart. We have affiliated members throughout the school of medicine and we are expanding to the Homewood campus now, too. We have monthly gatherings with research presentations that bring people together from different parts of the campus so that relationships can form and ideas can be shared.

I also hope to organize week-long technology workshops for trainees interested in learning new techniques, like mathematical modeling or cutting-edge microscopy. Workshops can be great catalysts for new research ideas by exposing scientists to techniques that were too much of a foreign language to delve into on one’s own. They are also one more way to form these cross-disciplinary networks that inspire innovative ideas.

What kind of research do you do?

LI: I’m a cell biologist who uses theories and techniques from other disciplines to drive my research forward, but everything always boils up or down to how the cell works. When we study molecules, we want to know how they influence the behavior of the cell. When we study cells, we study them individually and as members of “communities,” asking how they behave within tissues, during development and disease. To get at these questions, we use microscopy techniques to observe live cells, measure parameters that describe the dynamics of cells and molecules, and build qualitative or quantitative models using these parameters to explain or predict cell behavior.  We also use some highly engineered tools, like tiny chambers for single cells, where we can control the environment they are in by changing the fluid surrounding them.

Rong Li in southern California Li discovers an informative sign after climbing down a hill in the wilderness of southern California.

What’s one problem you are tackling now?

LI: We are trying to learn more about cancer by looking at it as an issue of cellular evolution gone wrong. All cells evolve in response to genetic changes and environmental stress, but the degree to which they can evolve is under stringent control. Cancer cells are ultimately disobedient cells that evade that control over and over again. They are moving targets in terms of their genetic makeup and properties. We want to build computational models to predict their next behavioral change so that we can ambush their evolution. But we need to figure out the fundamentals of cellular evolution first so that our models will be robust and accurate.

What do you like to do at home?

LI: Lots! I enjoy spending time with my family, and playing and watching sports. I came to Hopkins from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri, so I was quite happy with the turnout of the World Series this year! In Missouri, we had a farm where we raised chickens and had a garden, and I had begun learning to make wine since some friends of ours owned vineyards. We just found out that chickens are allowed in Mt. Washington, and I’m looking forward to adding them to our backyard so we can collect fresh eggs again. I also love art, especially painting and sculpture, and hope to pick that up again someday…after I retire.

*Li is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and a member of the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

From Dysfunctional Cells to Disease

Dr. Li and her team investigate how cells consolidate their damaged proteins and prevent them from spreading freely, in order to understand how to better treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s and ALS. Another of their interests is how chromosomes are divided up when one cell becomes two. Learning more about how the process can go wrong could lend insight into cancer development.