Ground-Breaking DNA Research Leads SFU Grad To The Top

June 04, 1998

Life is good for Yingfu (Jeff) Li.

Since picking up his PhD in biochemistry from Simon Fraser University last October, Li has made more groundbreaking research discoveries at Yale University, won a prestigious doctoral prize, and earned his Canadian citizenship.

And now the 34-year-old scientist is being honored with the governor general's gold medal -- as SFU's top graduate student in the 1997-98 graduating class.

A glance at Li's academic accomplishments clearly shows why. For his thesis project, he isolated a very small DNA enzyme that is catalytic -- meaning that it enables chemical reactions to occur much faster. Not only did Li isolate the enzyme and demonstrate its effectiveness, he also characterized its properties in what his thesis supervisor, Prof. Dipankar Sen, describes as "astonishing depth."

Li's discovery, reported in top international scientific journals, has boosted research in the new field of DNA catalysis, which may eventually lead to the development of new drugs and medical treatments.

"It was a very challenging thesis," says Li, who spent three frustrating years trying to make the research work. At one point, he almost quit, but Sen talked him into staying. "He gave me confidence it was going to work," says Li. "Not too long after our conversation, I isolated the enzyme and things got easier and easier."

Li's persistence earned him a $5,000 doctoral prize from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Only two of these national prizes are awarded each year in the natural sciences.

"I was completely shocked at winning the NSERC award," says Li, who studied chemistry at China's Anhui University and applied chemistry at Beijing Agricultural University. Li, along with wife Hongjun and daughter Lily, left China in the early '90s.

Since October, Li has been doing postdoctoral work at Yale University, funded by a three-year fellowship from the Medical Research Council of Canada. There, he's been "challenging" DNA to do more difficult jobs in terms of enzymatic catalysis. "I've already got some very surprising results," he says, "and I'm sure when we report them, they'll most likely impress scientists in my field."

Li's next research goal is to find some medical -- and possibly commercial -- applications of the new DNA enzymes. After finishing the Yale fellowship, he plans to return to Canada, preferably to set up his own lab at a university. "I love Canada dearly and I really want to come back if there is a job for me," he says.

As for the SFU gold medal, Li says he's humbled by the honor. "I think of myself as a typical, normal student," he says. "I know I worked on a hard topic, and my research turned out to be successful, but I would say I'm very lucky with all these things."

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