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Wesley DE-INBRE Alumnae Spotlight on Riza Li

Posted November 11th, 2020 at 9:57pm

Riza Li is currently pursuing her PhD from the University of Delaware’s Center for Bioinformatics & Computational Biology. During a recent interview, Ms. Li explained how events that led her to her current position can be attributed to her initial research experiences at Wesley College and the connections she has formed through the Delaware INBRE pipeline. “INBRE helped open the doors to everything that I’m doing and everything that I’ve been exposed to,” Ms. Li affirmed.

In 2012, Riza began her undergraduate studies at Wesley College as a mathematics major. She considered herself a non-traditional student since she was coming back to school eight years after beginning as a pre-med student and was now a mother of two. Her plans were to obtain her undergraduate degree in four years and become an actuary, using her mathematical and statistical skills to help quantify and manage financial impacts and risk. These plans, however, would change during her sophomore year after participating in an EPSCoR-funded research project with Dr. Derald Wentzien, Professor of Mathematics at Wesley College.

Following her research experience, Dr. Wentzien introduced Ms. Li to Dr. Malcolm D’Souza, Professor of Chemistry and Dean of Interdisciplinary/Collaborative Sponsored Research and Wesley College’s principal investigator for Delaware INBRE. Between Ms. Li, Dr. Wentzien, and Dr. D’Souza, it was decided that her skills in statistical modeling might be better suited for a future career in data science research. This decision fueled her application, acceptance, and participation in the 2015 Delaware INBRE Summer Scholar program under her mentor, Dr. D’Souza.

For two summers, Riza participated in the INBRE Summer Scholars program, working with epidemiological data involving obesity rates among counties within the state of Delaware. During that time, she admits to “opening her eyes” and continuing to release herself from the “tunnel-vision she had strictly on math”. It was also during this time that she was able to travel and present her summer research findings at the IDEA Conference in Maine. At that conference Dr. D’Souza introduced Ms. Li to Dr. Cathy Wu, Director of the Data Science Institute, the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and De INBRE Program Coordinator from the University of Delaware.

Dr. Wu was looking for graduate student applicants with backgrounds outside of biology for the Bioinformatics department. Riza applied and was admitted as a Masters student in the fall of 2016 at the University of Delaware. Shortly after, she was offered another opportunity to participate in the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship) program, for which she had to be a PhD student. In the Spring of 2017, she successfully converted to the PhD program and began her doctoral pursuit with a focus on data analysis involving personalized medicine.

As part of a program requirement, Ms. Li had to participate in a research internship outside of her field. For guidance, she called upon another contact she had made back at the IDEA conference, Dr. Claudine Jurkovitz, MD, MPH, senior physician scientist with the Value Institute at ChristianaCare Health System and head of Delaware INBRE’s Centralized Research Service Network. Ms. Li describes reaching out to Dr. Jurkovitz as a “serendipitous opportunity”. ChristianaCare was in the process of creating a diabetes initiative which would require extensive data analysis of electronic medical records. Thus, Ms. Li began her internship as well as her dissertation proposal, for which she is currently working on entitled, “Predicting Longterm Diabetic Complications by Utilizing Electronic Health Records.”

Although she is now “knee-deep” in data, spending an estimated 30-40 hours a week cleaning and analyzing, Riza still devotes time to data science research at Wesley College. Recently, along with her former INBRE mentor, Malcolm D’Souza, she published an article entitled, “Twenty-Year Observational Study Shows Rising Alcohol-Attributable Death Profiles in the U.S. and Delaware” (found at Ms. Li feels grateful for the opportunity to take on side projects and return to her current project with “fresh eyes”.

When asked about advice she would give to those thinking about following a similar path, Riza encourages keeping current on the literature and news in one’s industry and specific niche. She also mentions the importance of opportunities like the INBRE Summer Scholars program in shaping future pathways. “That’s what’s great about the INBRE program,” Li has stated, “it allows undergraduate researchers to experience mentoring and learning in a high-level research environment very early on so they can test out the waters of different things that might interest them and from there just progress on. And that’s exactly what happened for me.” Along the way, Riza has continued to conceptualize and provide meaningful contributions to the scientific field. In summer 2021, she will attain her PhD from UD’s Center for Bioinformatics & Computational Biology.

Written by University of Delaware Graduate Assistant, Kelly Dixon