Between Two Worlds

When I was nine, my family and I migrated from Guangzhou in Southern China with a population of 5 million, to a town called Junee in central New South Wales. With a population of only 6000 back then, being one of the few Asian kids in a small town placed me between two worlds; one the stereotypical expectations of my strict Asian parents and the other wanting to swim in the Murrumbidgee River with my friends. And when it came time to choose a university, I knew I wanted something that could provide both a country and city ambience, so I was ecstatic when I got accepted to the Australian National University in Canberra and began my long-standing obsession with the immune system.

My undergraduate grades were mediocre, just good enough to get a couple of short summer scholarships – because who doesn’t want to work like a real scientist and spend the entire summer at college with your mates for free? I was very curious about white blood cells, particularly T cells that specialise in recognising and killing cancer and virally-infected cells. These cells also have this unique ability to “remember” their encounter with a foreign pathogen as in the case of a re-infection, that results in efficient clearance without causing severe disease. Naturally, when I got wind of an Honours project investigating T cell transcriptional memory responses with Prof. Sudha Rao, I jumped at the chance. She taught me how to ChIP, ChART and Seq*, skills which aided me through my PhD and later on in my first post-doc with Prof. Stephen Turner. By using these molecular techniques I wanted to solve the mystery behind these killer T cells; how these field soldiers of our immune system rapidly multiply, travel to the site of infection and kill virally-infected cells [1]. Knowing the molecular switch that engages these killer functions opens up novel avenues for infection and cancer treatments.

Since 2020, I have been working under the leadership of Prof. Phil Darcy and A/Prof. Paul Beavis at the Peter Mac, where I was able to directly apply my expertise in epigenetics (how DNA is packaged) and T cell immunity on Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T cells: a unique type of T cell that is genetically engineered with an antibody receptor to specifically target antigens that are overexpressed on cancerous cells. The success of CAR T cell therapy is heavily dependent on the intrinsic properties of T cells and their capacity to persist in the patient. With our national and international industry partners, we therefore have a unique opportunity to carry out patient-focused research, where we test a range of adjuvants that may enhance the way that CAR T cells fight against solid tumours as well as their ability to persist long term as a form of immunosurveillance. 

Coming from a background where the values and expectations of academia were heavily indoctrinated from day one as an undergraduate student, working on industry-contracted projects has been an eye-opening experience. I quickly realised a lot of the decision making in my day-to-day experimental design is not solely focused on publications. It now includes different aspects from patents, regulatory affairs, clinical trial executions, manufacturing and supply chains. All of these are important for enabling successful research translation and commercialisation.  This knowledge gap made me realise that I am once again in between two worlds. Although I play a very small part in this grand scheme of research commercialisation as a researcher, it is still an important connection, bridging both basic research and industry. Taking on this role has made me a more engaged researcher with newly acquired perspectives and an integrated understanding of research commercialisation and business development. Aligning industry requirements and academic incentives is absolutely critical for encouraging a more diversified research community, hopefully one that thrives on the basis of a strong relationship between academic research and the Australian biotechnology sector.

Video legend: CAR T and breast cancer cells are combined together and their interaction is imaged over a 2-day period. The top video captures how normal CAR T cells can kill tumour cells while the bottom shows a type of specially-made CAR T cell that kills fewer tumour cells, but are much more persistent. This is a quick assay that simulates how CAR T cells kill tumour cells in real life.

Dr. Jasmine Li is a post-doctoral researcher in the laboratories of Prof. Phil Darcy and A/Prof Paul Beavis at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Her post-doctoral work focuses on identifying molecular regulators of CAR T cell persistence. She is supported by industry-funded contracts, NBCF and NHMRC funding.

Dr. Jasmine Li can be contacted by:

Email: [email protected]

Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jasmine-Li-11

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jasmine-li-a99a6095

ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0521-6674

*ChIP (Chromatin Immuno-precipitation Assay); CHART (Chromatin Accessibility by qPCR, it’s ATAC-seq, but from the 2000s) and Seq (NGS sequencing).


1) Li, J., et al., KDM6B-dependent chromatin remodeling underpins effective virus-specific CD8(+) T cell differentiation. Cell Rep, 2021. 34 (11): p. 108839.

More Tales from Peter Mac Postdocs