A background in art helps a PhD student push the creative boundaries of chemical biology


Margie Li smiling in glasses and a beige blouse



In an era of declining commitment to arts education in this country’s public schools, Margie Li, a second-year PhD student in chemistry and chemical biology, has just the kind of story that arts advocates might like to hold up us as an example. For Li, the arts and sciences have always gone hand in hand, and her early exposure to the power of creative thinking has helped inform her approach to her research.

“My parents are engineers and my grandmothers were doctors, so the importance of science was always very clear to me as a child,” says Li, who remembers her grandfather teaching her the basics of math and science. “However, I went to an unconventional elementary school” — the McCarthy-Towne School, a public school in Acton, MA — “that focused a lot on experimentation and art. That history really influenced me in college, so much so that I actually had a double major, in chemistry and in art history.”

And although she is not pursuing an artistic career, Li says her foundation in creativity “allowed me to explore more contemporary ideas. Studying art opened up a world of options that I didn’t know really existed. That may sound strange because I'm studying a natural science, but my field is less traditional than what I was interested in as a child. By nature, I like things that are conventional, things with rules and tradition — but exploring new fields allowed me to look at new ideas as real possibilities.”

That exposure to creative investigation, and a willingness to explore the unknown, has helped her find her way — to her field of chemistry and chemical biology, and to the PhD program at Harvard.

“Chemical biology is a relatively new field, and its definition varies depending on who you ask,” Li explains. “Its role in the sciences is yet to be determined. However, it is a really exciting field to be in. Because there are no conventions, we are not limited by tradition. Really creative, imaginative, and perhaps even wild ideas can be tested, so long as the technology allows it.

“In chemical biology, we think more about manipulating biological systems, rather than investigating a biological system,” Li says. “Chemical biology asks, ‘Nature is able to do a lot of things; can we take advantage of those things and make it do what we want it to do?’ I don't know if I'll be successful in my project, but even the opportunity to explore it is really exciting.”

Li’s research focuses on protein delivery, specifically on delivering proteins or macromolecules into living cells. “It’s important because a lot of drugs we have today are small molecules, which include everything from aspirin to chemotherapy,” Li explains. Protein delivery can be much more effective — and, in the case of chemotherapy, much less damaging to healthy cells — because it is “so much more site-specific than the small-molecule drugs we have today.”

Originally from China, Li’s education and background could have been very different. “My family moved to Boston in 1993, when I was just four or five years old,” she said. The family moved to Wisconsin several years later, but the eclectic foundation of Li’s early education sparked a permanent love of learning. “No homework, no tests, and we studied what we wanted to study,” she says, laughing. “That’s just how I grew up. It made learning really, really fun.”

In addition to her research, she serves as academic coordinator with Harvard Women in Chemistry, a group dedicated to the quality of life and professional development of women in the department. “We try to create an environment where female speakers can talk about their science and their lives,” Li says. “It’s a platform so that people can feel comfortable about being both a scientist and being a woman in the field. Part of it is also just to get people to talk about science, to have conversations with professors in the field at Harvard, and professors outside Harvard as well.”

In September 2011, the group coordinated the first Boston Women in Chemistry Symposium (WInCS),  which was sponsored by the Harvard Integrated Life Sciences Program (HILS) and by the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. The event, showcasing the work of graduate students and postdocs from institutions around greater Boston, was eagerly embraced by the community, and organizers plan for it to become an annual affair.


Story credit: Jennifer Doody

Creative Chemistry