Halloween Contest Costume Winners

Back in October 2023, our department had a costume contest for Halloween. Of course, we had to go with Barbie in the Lab.

We weren’t the only ones with a Barbie-themed costume, but with a lot of work from the wonderful undergraduate students within the lab, we pulled out the win.

Our prize? 🍕 Lunch paid by the department 🙂

Hi Barbie 👋

What is happening at the Li Lab? – Research topics summed up


As you can see on the website under “Research“, we specialize in DNAzymes and aptamers, or more broadly, functional nucleic acids (FNAs). There, you can also learn a bit more about what these actually are. Within our research group, different people work on different targets for FNAs. We thought we’d sum them up for you to get a nice overview 🙂

Within our group, we aim to develop FNAs for use in diagnostics. This includes different targets from bacteria, to viruses, and more.

Bacterial targets include Campylobacter, Fusobacterium nucleatum, Clostridium difficile, and Treponema pallidum (cause of syphilis).

Campylobacter is one of four key global causes of diarrhoeal disease. It is considered to be the most common bacterial cause of human gastroenteritis in the world.

Fusobacterium nucleatum is associated with many poor health conditions such as gum disease, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and colorectal cancer. More recently, it has also been linked to endometriosis.

Clostridium difficile is a bacterial species that causes infection of the colon. Serious infection may lead to hospitalization. C. difficile infection can be spread easily and is difficult to diagnose. It is often diagnosed by looking at the symptoms and culturing of the bacteria, but this method is time-consuming and inaccurate.

Treponema pallidum is the species of bacteria which causes syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection which has been on the rise in recent years. Current diagnostics measure antibodies produced in response to syphilis infection as Treponema pallidum is difficult to culture.

In addition to bacteria, our FNAs also target viruses. Viral targets include SARS-CoV-2, norovirus, and influenza.

SARS-CoV-2, and the resulting COVID-19 disease, has thrown our world into a pandemic at the end of 2019, resulting in 6 million deaths so far. Many variants of the virus have arisen overtime, making vaccination and detection more challenging.

Norovirus is the cause of over 50% of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. Infection with the virus primarily results in vomiting and diarrhoea. Norovirus illness brings a large disease burden as it is estimated to cost $60 billion worldwide due to healthcare costs and lost productivity.

Influenza virus, more commonly known as the flu virus, causes respiratory illness, infecting the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. Diagnosis of the flu is most commonly based on symptoms. One challenge of diagnosing influenza through diagnostic testing is the existence of many influenza subtypes.

On top of that, we have some people working on pancreatic cancer, malignant hyperthermia, and the conservation of species

Pancreatic cancer is a cancer which is rarely diagnosed in the early stages as symptoms only develop once the cancer has metastasized to other organs. Therefore, the 5-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer is shockingly low, at around 12.5%. Earlier diagnosis of pancreatic cancer would improve patients’ chances of remission.

Malignant hyperthermia is a severe reaction that can occur in response to medication used for general anesthesia. Symptoms include an increase in heart rate, body temperature, and muscle rigidity. If left untreated, malignant hyperthermia can be fatal. Currently, diagnosis of malignant hyperthermia relies on the response of biopsy samples to the different drugs. A less invasive method with decreased turn-around time using FNAs is desired.

Conservation of species is important for maintaining ecosystems, as each species occupies its own niche in that ecosystem. Disappearance of a species can have disastrous effects on the ecosystem itself. In the Li Lab, the focus is on the conservation of caribou, a large species of reindeer. The intervention of humans through oil and gas exploration in Alberta has led to a decrease in caribou habitat, in turn leading to a decrease in caribou. Monitoring caribou in the environment can indicate the success or failure of intervention to restore caribou habitat. By designing an FNA-based test, we hope to monitor the caribou species in the field and help efforts in the conservation of the caribou species.

So, these are the different things we’re working on in the Li Lab. The final goal of the majority of these projects is the development of point-of-care tests which serve to improve pitfalls of current tests. These include invasiveness, high turn-around time, and costs. We hope it made some things a bit clearer, and that it’s piqued your interest for what we’re doing around here!

Congratulations to Dr. Shuwen Qian!

Shuwen successfully defended her thesis a couple of weeks ago which means that she is close to receiving her actual piece of paper certifying she has completed her PhD!

Some thoughts of Shuwen on her PhD journey:

Doing a PhD IS challenging, even beyond what I had imagined five years ago when I started this journey. This road trip, which I expected to have ups and downs and go back and forth, sure was a rollercoaster. If I am honest, most of the time (for me) was more of a down and back experience. However, I was fortunate enough to find my way out of those downs and back into some ups with incredible help and support of my supervisors, other lab members, and peers. It has been such a long way that it felt quite surreal that I made it to the point where I got to defend my PhD thesis, and it didn’t even feel real yet when we were all gathered at the Phoenix for my defence celebration. I feel truly blessed for this achievement and am beyond proud of myself. I chose to stay strong, to stick through it and make things happen. There’s definitely a weight off my shoulders now and I’m feeling so free, which I wish to be in the rest of my life also: To be free, always.

It’s true that a PhD isn’t an easy journey, but it’s supposed to shape you into a better scientist. We are all incredibly proud of the scientist Shuwen has become throughout the years and we look forward to see what’s next for her!

Summer Scholars Program

The Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences Summer Scholars Program (SSP) is a 12 week immersive research and mentorship program awarded to 9 undergraduate scholars this year for the second time since its establishment. I have had the pleasure of joining The Li lab through the SSP in May of 2023. Under the direct mentorship of Dr. Li & Jim Gu, my project focused on investigating DNAzyme activity in the cleavage of a specific RNA modification.

This experience not only allowed me to understand and support ongoing research efforts, yet also see first hand the true humanity behind all the research done in The Li lab and McMaster’s Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences Department. As an undergraduate student now entering my second year in the Honours Biochemistry program here at McMaster, the ability to connect with other like minded undergraduate students, graduate students, post doctoral fellows, faculty members and research staff, is truly unparalleled to anything I have experienced before.

I am continuously grateful for this opportunity and the chance to connect with so many talented, kind, as well as genuine people this past summer.

~ Tegvir S. Grewal

A wonderful lab retreat – Four days of happiness and relaxation

In July, I brought students and staff of my laboratory to Blue Mountain for a lab retreat. We had 22 people join in the fun, but unfortunately 7 couldn’t make it. We spent the days making breakfast and lunch ourselves, and we visited local restaurants two evenings for dinner. The final night was Taco Night, and we prepared dinner ourselves. Arguably the best dinner of all the days.

We played games, sang songs, and did various sports activities including volleyball, tennis, basketball, golf, running, hiking, and beach volleyball. The days of the retreat were filled with joy, relaxation, singing, and friendship, and I have fully appreciated the hobbies and talents of the students outside of science. It turns out that my lab has amazing athletes, singers, organizers, cooks, storytellers, and comedians.

They can work hard and play hard, and are just an amazing group of lovely young people. Even though everyone comes from all over the world with different backgrounds, everyone has a kind and beautiful heart and a willingness to help others.

I couldn’t be more honoured and proud to have such a very happy, kind, and helpful laboratory family. This trip not only allowed me to get to know them better, but it also allowed everyone to strengthen their friendships.

Money and time well spent for a priceless memory that we’ll all carry with us. Couldn’t be happier with the current team and dynamics that we have going in our lab!

– Dr. Yingfu Li

Jiuxing’s Editor Contributions

Congratulations to Jiuxing for his work as a guide editor and advisor for several journals.

He has served as a guest editor for Sensors and Frontiers in Chemistry, Sensors for special issue “Micro/Nano Biosensors and Devices”, Frontiers in Chemistry for Research Topic “Advanced Nanomaterials for in Vitro Diagnostics” and as a topical advisory panel member of sensors.

Welcome to Giulia Core

The Li Lab welcome our newest member, Giulia Core, who will be joining us as a visiting Ph.D. student from the University of Glasgow. She will be working on molecular diagnostic technologies.