The data detective

The bioinformatician Yang Li is setting up a new department at the Centre for Individualised Infection Medicine. She explores mountains of data to enable individualised treatment of infections.

Yang Li has been in Germany since May. Li is a common surname that the new professor at the Centre for individualised infection Medicine (CiiM) shares with football stars, fashion designers and about 100 million Chinese people around the world. In keeping with European tradition, she puts this name second and signs off her emails informally with “Yang”. When she is in China, however, Yang Li reverts back to Li Yang, as there the surname is given first. Is that not confusing? “Absolutely not,” says Li. “In China we use characters that are unambiguous – no chance of getting mixed up.” Instead, what she found confusing was the variety of languages she encountered when she came to Europe. Since then, however, her family members have become polyglots. Both of her daughters are growing up speaking Chinese, English, Dutch – and now German. The older of the two was just four when Yang Li moved the family to the Netherlands to complete her PhD at the University of Groningen. Her husband helped her to combine work and family. The two scientists are a well-rehearsed team. “We went to the same high school in China, but did not know each other there,” explains Li with a laugh. “We only met at the university where I did research and taught after completing my studies. I followed my husband to Europe when he moved to Brussels, and he came with me to Groningen.” That is where the chemist discovered bioinformatics. It required considerable effort to learn the biological and genetic foundations, but she was enthusiastic: “Finally, I was able to apply my knowledge in mathematics, computer science and statistics to real biological and medical questions,” she says. “I had found my dream job.”

Her efforts soon paid off: She received prestigious awards for her research, both from China and Europe. Li’s first article in her new discipline was published in PLOS Genetics and continues to be cited today. The study describes which genetic factors determine gene regulation in response to changing environmental conditions.

Her profound knowledge of chemical informatics and systems genetics helped the ambitious scientist to rapidly establish her research niche in systems bioinformatics and to raise large amounts of funding for her work. In Groningen, as group leader, she developed various bioinformatic methods for functional genetics. Today her older daughter studies medicine in Groningen, while Li continues to enthusiastically dedicate herself to bioinformatics. “These days it is relatively easy to generate large, multi-dimensional and highly complex data volumes,” says Li. “However, analysing these is a challenge; a unique, exciting task for bioinformaticians.” Together with her employees she is developing methods to filter out useful biological information from the mountains of data. “Coming up with new strategies is always fun for me,” she explains with enthusiasm.

Li is also a member of the Human Functional Genomics Project – a Dutch–American–German project that investigates the variations in the genetic makeup of different people. With her team, Li is working on understanding the genetic basis of different immune responses in humans. “Through the combination of different omics approaches we have already been able to explore some fundamental biomedical aspects of the human defence system,” she says.

Centre for Individualised Infection Medicine

The vision of the CiiM is to individualise the management of infectious diseases. CiiM is a joint venture of the HZI and the MHH. Research activities at the center aim to identify individual parameters that influence the progress of infection and to translate these findings into optimized and individualised care of patients with infectious diseases.
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When the CiiM asked whether she would like to come to Hannover as an infection researcher and set up the new Computational Biology for Individualised Medicine department, she consulted with her husband again. He agreed and was able to assume the leadership of a research group at the Hannover Medical School (MHH). Their younger daughter has been attending school in Hannover since the summer and is rapidly learning the new language. “I am sure she will soon be able to teach me German,” says the professor with a wink, and not without pride.

Li and her husband now work wall to wall, she for the HZI and he for the MHH, both under the roof of TWINCORE. Li describes her new place of work with many superlatives. “The HZI offers me a world-class research environment,” she says. “I am very much looking forward to collaborating with the immunologists, epidemiologists, geneticists, mathematicians, infection biologists, clinicians and translational groups on site. The strategic alliances, for example with the MHH, and the cutting-edge omics platforms form the optimal foundation for my research.” Li is pursuing big-data approaches in order to understand the influence of genetic and external factors on individual susceptibility to infection and the progression of diseases. “Thanks to the Hannover Unified Biobank and the existing patient cohorts, we can correlate data from hundreds of patients with findings from the literature in collaboration with clinicians and big-data scientists,” she says.

Li is recruiting doctoral students, post-docs, a laboratory manager and technical assistants for her new department. “We will also set up our own wet-lab here, in which we can carry out experiments and analyses and also reproduce published results.” The newly appointed department head hopes that the results of her research will act as catalysts for the development of innovative methods for the individualised prevention, diagnosis and treatment of infections. “That is something that everyone will benefit from.”

Author: Ulrike Schneeweiß

Published: October 2019

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