Women in UBC Science: Dr. Xin Li

Dr. Xin Li didn’t plan on becoming a researcher, but rather, she stumbled upon the career “accidentally”. A UBC Professor in the Michael Smith Laboratories and the Department of Botany, Dr. Li’s curiosity for science started to grow significantly near the end of her PhD, pushing her to continue a career in science as a postdoctoral fellow. In this role, she became deeply passionate about discovering answers to unknown research questions about plant immunity and defenses.

Fast forward to 2020, Dr. Li has become one of the recognized experts in plant immunity. Known for her research in discovering regulatory components involved in plant immunity, Dr. Li’s work aims to find new ways to grow crops in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner. 


How did you become a researcher?

Dr. Li: During my undergrad, I majored in genetics and genetic engineering because less memorization and more logic is required, with a bit of mathematics (which I was good at!). At that time, I hadn’t been exposed to much research so the research aspect was vague to me. Then after graduation, the trend in China for top biology students was to go to the United States to pursue your dream. So, I went to Oklahoma State University with a scholarship and started my graduate studies. At the beginning of my PhD, I didn’t exactly understand what research was all about, but later on, it became obvious to me that it was an interesting avenue to pursue.

It wasn’t until late in my PhD that I realized my huge appetite to learn more. I started asking questions about things that didn’t have answers, and there were no tools to address these questions at that time. So, I wanted to fill this void. This drive led me to work on a model organism, which launched me into molecular genetic research. It was a slow process at first, but I’m glad I pursued this path and became a true expert.


How did your peers (friends, family, etc.) react to you pursuing a career in science?

Dr. Li: My parents, both engineers, were always supportive. When I went to school in the United States, they did not understand what I was doing, but they still supported me. I think I am very fortunate to find something that I am good at and enjoy doing every day.


How did your mentors influence your career path?

Dr. Li: My PhD supervisor was really cool. He was nearing the end of his career, so he gave me lots of freedom to do my research. This was the first time I realized that science could be fun! For example, when you discover something that nobody else in the world knows, the happiness is immeasurable. Those eureka moments drove me further into science.

My postdoctoral supervisor taught me the molecular genetics of Arabidopsis, a model organism used to study plant biology, and she had a big influence on me. What she taught me was that science is not easy – like any challenging careers. Science is becoming more and more competitive, and you have to work hard to get to the bottom of things. Working smart and thinking creatively is equally important because the life cycle of a project is so long and can be frustrating. If you don’t work smart and don’t cover your bases or do your controls or plan efficiently, then you might run into some serious problems. As well, you need to think creatively when designing experiments, as you may have to look at the results from a different perspective.


What is the significance of your research?

Dr. Li: Plants play an essential role in sustainability, and maintaining life on earth. However, we still do not understand the majority of the plant species. My lab studies the model plant, Arabidopsis.

As with all model organisms, we choose to study them because they are easy to grow and maintain. Instead of growing rice or wheat in the lab – which takes a long time and lots of land – Arabidopsis is small in size and provides many seeds. The genome is also small, making it easy to manipulate. Lastly, if you look at Arabidopsis, most of the genes are shared in our crops such as tomatoes, peppers, and rice; many are even shared with humans. By using a model plant like Arabidopsis, you can build a solid foundation for understanding many basic biological processes. In my lab, we specialize in researching plant immune responses. By better understanding the immune system, we should be able to come up with novel ways to deal with pathogen threats. For example, instead of spraying fungicides and pesticides, we can promote the health of the plants so that they can defend themselves against environmental threats. This whole research area, therefore, has implications in both food security and sustainability.


Have you noticed any positive improvements to obstacles and barriers for women in science?

Dr. Li: I think the environment has definitely improved from 50 years ago. Back then, there were only a handful of women professors in Botany. I think things are very different now and women are more empowered to pursue a career in science. In Botany, we have a large number of female professors/lecturers, probably close to or even over 50%.


What is your advice for aspiring young women researchers?

Dr. Li: I think for many young people, especially girls, they may not even think of science as a possible career choice. That’s where parents and teachers play such an important role in actively promoting science to their children and students. In general, I would encourage young adults to try new things and to take risks. Trying new things allows you to have the necessary information to make your own choices and to carve out your own pathway to success. It will also allow you to understand yourself better, knowing what you are good at, what you are passionate about, and what you enjoy doing.


Why do you love being a scientist?

Dr. Li: What can be better to be able to satisfy your own curiosity on a daily basis? Being a scientist allows me to discover how things work and to answer questions I am curious about by designing experiments to tease apart the underlying mechanisms. It also gives me opportunities to work with many young talents who share the same passion. Seeing their growth is of tremendous satisfaction. 

This article is one of the many stories celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which takes place every year on February 11. Spearheaded by the United Nations, this day promotes full and equal access to participation in science, technology, and innovation for women and girls. The Faculty of Science is supporting this day by featuring ten inspiring women researchers who are making their mark at UBC and beyond.