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Researcher joins ASU School of Molecular Sciences to advance disease treatment

March 14, 2024

Disease treatment research is no easy endeavor, and when your work involves exploring nucleic acids' capacity to assemble or fold into complex nanostructures, it can be hard to even explain.

Luckily, Di Liu, who recently joined Arizona State University's School of Molecular Sciences as an assistant professor, has a simple analogy at hand.

"I like to think of it as building intricate models out of molecular LEGO blocks, where each piece is precisely designed to fit together,” Liu explained.

Liu, who has a joint appointment at the ASU Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics, began his research career at Nanjing University in China. Born and raised in Zibo, an industrial city in China’s Shandong province, Liu was drawn into science thanks to the strong emphasis on chemistry, physics and mathematics throughout his education.

That strong foundation led him to pursue his Bachelor of Science in chemistry at Nanjing University, where Liu worked on creating anti-cancer drugs under the mentorship of Professor Zijian Guo. 

"This project not only sharpened my skills as a researcher but also ignited a passion to make a difference in biomedical research," Liu said.

Next, his quest for knowledge took him to the University of Chicago for his PhD, where he dove into the intricate world of designing nucleic acid-based topological structures with Professor Yossi Weizmann.

Finding the work intellectually stimulating and incredibly rewarding, Liu was honored to receive the Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Predoctoral Fellowship. After Chicago, he moved on to Harvard University, where, as a Merck Fellow of the Life Sciences Research Foundation, Liu delved into leveraging RNA nanostructures to elucidate the 3D structures of natural RNA molecules with Professor Peng Yin.

“Each step of this journey has been pivotal in shaping my dedication to advancing both the fundamental understanding and the practical applications of molecular sciences,” Liu said.

His current work at ASU extends beyond scientific exploration and forges new paths in disease treatment — ranging from cancer to bacterial infections. The most rewarding part for Liu is the constant discovery — every day bringing a new challenge and a step closer to potential breakthroughs.

Looking ahead, Liu’s objective is to identify and validate novel therapeutic targets, such as DNA topoisomerases or structured RNAs, and to advance RNA-based treatments. The goal is to not only contribute valuable knowledge to the field of molecular sciences, but also to develop practical solutions that can improve health care outcomes.

“I value the collaborative, supportive and inclusive spirit within the scientific community at ASU, which plays a crucial role in advancing my research,” Liu said. “Ultimately, I hope to be remembered as a scientist who bridged the gap between fundamental molecular research and real-world biomedical applications, making a lasting impact on both the scientific realm and society."

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