Qi-Jing Li: The hallway immunologist

By Megan Scudellari Qi-Jing Li: The hallway immunologist © Bryan Regan Photography Entering the lab on his first day as a PhD student, Qi-Jing Li "looked like a kid in a candy store,"

By | June 1, 2009

Qi-Jing Li: The hallway immunologist

© Bryan Regan Photography

Entering the lab on his first day as a PhD student, Qi-Jing Li "looked like a kid in a candy store," recalls Manuela Martins-Green, Li's doctoral advisor at the University of California, Riverside. Twelve years later, his expression hasn't changed much. Li strolls into his brand-new lab at Duke University Medical Center and shows off his new microscope, equipped with two cameras and a controlled environment chamber for real-time imaging of T-cells. Li is an up-and-coming star in the study of microRNAs and T-cell response, but his path to success was anything but straightforward.

As a child, Li—whose parents were engineers—had no intention of pursuing life science. But a high school teacher changed his mind, and after finishing an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, Li left China for Martins-Green's chemokine laboratory, eager to study cell-to-cell interactions. Li became Martins-Green's most prolific student, publishing over 10 papers in 4 years.

"If you give him an idea that you can fit on the tip of a finger, he comes back a week later imagining the whole arm," says Martins-Green. In 2001, Li detailed the previously unknown mechanism of how thrombin, a coagulation protein, activates chemokine gene expression.1

Near the end of his PhD, Li met Vladimir Parpura, a newly hired Riverside faculty member studying glia-neuron signaling. A hallway conversation with Parpura convinced Li to use live-cell imaging to study cell-to-cell interactions. Three months of experiments convinced him: "I found the tool I always needed."

In 2002, Li joined Mark Davis's world-renowned imaging immunology lab at Stanford University. With his usual enthusiasm, "Li immediately took advantage of the resources in the lab," says Davis. Li collaborated with Arup Chakraborty, a chemical and biological engineer then at UC Berkeley and now at MIT. The two published a detailed model of T-cell sensitivity relating to CD4 coreceptors and local concentrations of tyrosine kinase Lck.2

After his initial success, Li floundered until another serendipitous meeting altered his course. In another hallway, Li bumped into Chang-Zheng Chen, a new faculty member at Stanford. Chen suggested an examination of miRNA in the immune system, and Li hit the ground running.

"All my major decisions are based on hallway conversations," Li laughs. After testing only 7 mouse miRNAS, they found mi181a, a potent modulator of T-cell sensitivity. "But Li didn't just say, ‘That's great,' and write a paper," recalls Davis. Li profiled miR-181a expression in various stages of T-cell development and tested its mechanism of action.3 "It's a mark of a good scientist," says Davis. "That paper in Cell is a real model of a thorough and important study."

Now an assistant professor at Duke, Li took his miRNA work from mice to humans, developing a technology platform to profile miRNA expression in small populations of cells, such as tumor or HIV samples. The ultimate goal is to determine which of those tiny strands of RNA can be used as biomarkers or drug targets, says Li. Davis has no doubt about the future success of Li's lab. "He's catalytic," says Davis. "He has great talents and wants others to do their best, too. He'll lead them in fruitful directions."

Title: Assistant Professor of Immunology, Duke University Medical Center
Age: 36
Representative publications:

1. Q-J Li et al., "MAP kinase phosphorylation-dependent activation of Elk-1 leads to activation of the co-activator p300," EMBO J, 22:281–91, 2003. (Cited in 56 papers)
2. Q-J Li et al., "CD4 enhances T cell sensitivity to antigen by coordinating Lck accumulation at the immunological synapse," Nat Immunol, 5:791–99, 2004. (Cited in 80 papers)
3. Q-J Li et al., "miR-181a is an intrinsic modulator of T cell sensitivity and selection," Cell, 129:147–61, 2007. (Cited in 90 papers)


Avatar of: wen chen

wen chen

Posts: 1

June 15, 2009

Really great job and good luck. Anyway you are a committed scientist.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 125

June 15, 2009

Certainly not taking anything away from the man, but Manuela Martins-Green must have been a very motivating and supportive advisor for him. I pretty much wasted my PhD years under a totally overrated and overtpaid Anglo male buffoon who was a great politician but a terrible scientist and a horrible doctoral research advisor. I sure would like to read a testimonial of her from someone who knew her personally.
Avatar of: Leo Wang

Leo Wang

Posts: 1

February 8, 2010

Knowing him personally in his Riverside age, I have to say it's a privilege to be a friend of such a great talent with such a great man's personality. The fact that everyone talks in the hallway but most of us don't make anything out of it says something. I take this place to wish him all the best he deserves.
Avatar of: Hongwei Yuan

Hongwei Yuan

Posts: 1

March 16, 2011

Wish Qi-Jing has a successful career and fruitful accomplishment! As one of Dr. Martins-Green?s student, I can respond to the previous comment and testify that Dr. Martins-Green is a very motivating and supportive advisor. With her enthusiasm in science, she is skilled at inspiring her students. She guides her students through all the way of research from finding questions, using the appropriate tools to tackle the problems, utilizing the correct method to analyze data and summarize the result. She even trained students about how to make impressive presentations. Her training definitely left marks in our minds and will continue affect us in our scientific career.

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