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Rong Li

Cell Dynamics

Department of Cell Biology, School of Medicine
Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Whiting School of Engineering

Rong Li is a molecular cell biologist and biophysicist who has made seminal contributions to actin cytoskeleton regulation, cell polarity, cell division, cell cycle control, and to aneuploidy and cellular evolution.

Li’s research focuses on understanding how eukaryotic cells establish their distinct morphology and organization in order to carry out their specialized functions. By studying a variety of topics in cell dynamics, including cell polarity, actin cytoskeleton regulation, and cell division, she explores how the ability to adapt to a changing environment is built into cellular systems, and how that ability gives rise to a cell’s properties. Together with students, scientists, and scholars across multiple departments and universities, Li goes beyond the goal of identifying fundamental principles to work on applying these basic science insights to the improvement of human health.

In other words, Li says her lab tries to “figure out how a cell divides, moves, and adapts to its environment. That’s really important for understanding devastating diseases such as cancer or aging-related degeneration diseases.” One of Li’s key papers, “Targeting the Adaptability of Heterogeneous Aneuploids,” demonstrates a novel strategy for eradicating a karyotypically heterogeneous cell population by using its adaptive nature against it. This work, published in Cell, opens up potential treatment options for conditions in which drug resistance is a problem, such as infections and cancer.

“I feel there’s a sense of freedom at Hopkins,” Li said upon her recruitment as a BDP. “I have the opportunity to be creative to try to figure out what’s the most effective model to do this work. That’s what attracts me to come here. For me, this is a much bigger playground. That is challenging and exciting.”

She joined Johns Hopkins in 2015 from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research and the University of Kansas School of Medicine, where she served as a senior investigator and a full professor of molecular and integrative physiology.

At Hopkins, as the director of the Center for Cell Dynamics in the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences (IBBS), Li is working to deepen the existing collaboration between the Schools and Engineering and Medicine. She will provide new tools and approaches to examine the dynamic processes that underlie the lives of cells, moving beyond the parts list that the human genome provides to a mechanistic understanding of the molecular events underlying complex behaviors.

She is also carrying her interdisciplinary and research-focused approach into her teaching, ensuring that the university’s students are equipped to graduate from their classrooms into the real world to solve real problems.

Li was the first high school graduate from the People’s Republic of China admitted to Yale University, where she graduated with a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in biophysics and biochemistry. She went to the University of California, San Francisco to earn her PhD, followed by a postdoctoral appointment at the University of California, Berkeley, and a faculty position at Harvard Medical School.

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