Welcome Sijin Li

Sijin Li
  • New Faculty Year: 2019

Sijin Li has joined the Faculty of the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE) at Cornell University. Li, who is an assistant professor, started at Cornell in July, 2019. Li’s research combines advances in metabolic engineering, synthetic biology, and genomics in an effort to identify which genes may play a role in plant production of certain compounds. She then applies this knowledge to advance plant natural product-based drug discovery and development.

“Plants produce some amazing compounds,” says Li. “Humans have taken advantage of this for thousands of years. Nature is the best biochemist there is.” One limiting factor in studying how plants make what they make is that plant metabolism generally happens at a slow pace. Li and other researchers are taking advantage of the tools and technologies of the young field of synthetic biology to use yeast to produce the complex compounds plants make, but much more quickly.

Li grew up in northern China, not far from Beijing. Her mother is a mechanical engineer and her father is a philosopher. Li says that, with two professors for parents, she has always had the goal of “exploring and advancing human knowledge.” She earned a B.S. in chemistry and biology from Tsinghua University and then a Masters and Ph.D. in chemical and biomolecular engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Li then spent three years as a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University, working closely with Professor Christina Smolke. “My time at Stanford was a great marriage between my Ph.D. work and the work Professor Smolke was doing,” says Li. “Christina is a leader in the field of synthetic biology and her work overlapped so nicely with mine.”

The work Li did with Smolke is now the basis for her program of research in the Smith School at Cornell. “Our research goal is to develop metabolic engineering and synthetic biology platforms that enable the systematic discovery and production of plant natural products and their derivatives,” says Li. “Ultimately, we hope to transform our ability to understand how nature achieves complex compound biosynthesis.”

Li’s work, like much of the work done at Cornell Engineering, mixes fundamental science with useful applications. She uses computational tools to help identify which genes might play a role in the creation of certain compounds and then she uses yeast cells to test the genes. As more plant genomic information is collected and shared, computational tools will be better able to identify gene pathways involved in plant natural compound production.

“Cornell is the ideal place for me to do the work I do,” says Li. “The Smith School faculty is strong and the students here are amazing—they are so talented and have so much potential. Add to that the fact Cornell is world-famous for its work in plant biology and it makes this a great place for me. There are research collaboration possibilities everywhere I look."

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