We Are: Meet graduate student and plant biologist Shu Li

September 12, 2016

Shu Li is getting ready to defend her research and earn a Ph.D. in plant biology, but her reach already goes beyond the lab or classroom. She’s published work about her research on transgenic tomatoes — purple and grape-sized, worked with Graduate Women in Science at Penn State and is honing her science communications skills.

Q: Can you explain the work you do in the lab?

A: I am working on a system called self-incompatibility, a sexual reproductive barrier system. Plants are smarter than human beings. Apparently, they can recognize, without being told who is a relative, even if the plant looks exactly the same, who has a similar genetic background. When a honeybee or other pollinator brings the pollen from a relative to their pistil, they will reject it. Even if they are pollinated, they won’t produce any fruits. We want to know how this happens. We study protein interaction and molecular biology strategy to figure it out.

It has parallel systems in immunology. If we figure it out, hopefully we can give them hints to help people who study immunology.

Q: How did you end up studying this?

A: I started getting into the lab when I was a freshman in college in China. I majored in biotechnology, not plant biology. In that lab, I was trying to use a safe marker. We ended up producing transgenic dwarf tomatoes. They are adorable. We put a color in the pigment as the tag, and our transgenic tomatoes are purple. They look like grapes, and taste awesome.

I felt like plant biology is so amazing and there are so many things to do. Also, I was interested in genetics and how plants mate each other. I looked it up and found this lab. Penn State’s plant biology is a top-ranked program in the United States.

Q: What do you like about plants? What do you find interesting about them?

A: Probably like everyone else, when I see plants they have beautiful flowers and a beautiful green color, it makes me feel relaxed and cheers me up. I never get bored of them.

That’s part of the reason I work in a greenhouse.

Q: Were you interested in plants and flowers growing up?

A: I was kind of a weird kid. I looked at documentaries on Discovery and National Geographic and would draw little plants or animals. Although my parents joked that I might be a weirdo, they have been very supportive of my science-related hobbies and keep encouraging me to pursue my dreams.

Q: Do you have a favorite plant you like working with?

A: I am currently working with petunias. My parents’ apartment has a lot of them, I grew up with petunias. So, when I saw this lab, I said, ‘That’s the place I should be.’”

Q: With teaching, a lot of times science is seen as too difficult or too boring. How do you get past that?

A: I have a passionate interest in science communication. I think it’s very important to use common words to talk about what we’re working on. That’s important to get more support from society. Sometimes we can even get inspiration and ideas from society, especially farmers and gardeners. They spend more time in their lives with plants. So, in my spare time, I work for science organizations and write news articles.

Q: Talk about your involvement with the group Graduate Women in Science.

A: In 2011, I was an international student and wanted to find a group to hang out with. I wanted to learn more about other cultures. I made a lot of friends there. I was co-chair of the Voices conference, the biggest social event for graduate women in the sciences, for two years

In this organization, we would like to try our best to help others — not only women in science — to get more opportunities that otherwise they might not have access to.

Q: You were featured in a Penn State television commercial – was it fun being in your first TV appearance?

A: It was a lot of fun. But, it actually wasn’t my first. In high school, as a part time job I had a chance to work as an extra on a show. It was a story about high school. I was one of the classmates – the nerdy one always doing homework.

Q: Describe yourself in one or two words.

A: I would say I’m a dreamer.

This is the first Q&A in an ongoing series about students, faculty and staff at Penn State. Have suggestions for someone to feature? Email acd2@psu.edu

Last Updated September 13, 2016