It Takes a Village
Lab scientist Cissy Li pulls off her goggles to see the bigger picture.
Public health was once a nebulous concept to Cissy Li, who studies the world on a molecular scale. Five years into a Bloomberg School PhD program in Environmental Health Sciences, her vision is broader and sharper; her goals clear.
Conversations with “high-caliber” Bloomberg School classmates passionate about topics ranging from biostatistics to mental health presented her with a panoramic view of public health.
“Being in an environment where it’s easy to talk to people from all disciplines has really helped me learn different ways to think about problems,” says Li, “as opposed to just staring out of my cubbyhole through lab glasses.”
Her bench research tackles Candida albicans, the feisty organism responsible for most yeast infections afflicting humans. Li was one of the first to study this fungal pathogen in the lab of Valeria Culotta, PhD, where baker’s yeast was the usual subject.
“There was something pretty cool there to dig up,” says Li. Her work on how trace amounts of copper in the body are linked to C. albicans infections garnered her top honors in the 2015 Delta Omega Poster Competition: not only first place in the Laboratory Science category, but also Overall Winner.
While C. albicans infections are mild in most people, they can kill individuals with compromised immune systems, Li explains: HIV/AIDS patients, for instance. She studied this severe version of the disease in mice, using new methods she learned by reaching out to experts throughout the Bloomberg School and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“It took a small village of researchers and collaborators to take my project where it has gone,” says Li.
She discovered that the animal host fights the fungus by depriving it of copper, yet the pathogen maintains an upper hand because it can adapt to varying levels of the trace metal. Knowing how C. albicans works could help researchers to develop anti-fungal drugs that will stop the yeast in its tracks—and save lives.
“That’s what we need to do with basic science,” says Li, “use it to solve real world issues that people face.”