Student Spotlight: Yan Li

man stands on coastline and stares at the ocean

On this episode of Confluence we hear from Bertha Morton winner Yan Li on his cutting-edge research in bioinorganic chemistry, how watching A River Runs Through It in China helped him decide to study at UM, and how his research is driven by a desire to help others. 

Story Transcript

DONG WANG: Yan is a great scientist. He’s very intelligent and hardworking. Specifically, in the field of chemistry, there is no shortcut. You have to be able to motivate yourself and, and devote your time, energy, and effort. In that regard, I think Yan has been doing an incredible job. I see Yan has been showing the essence of being a great scientist. 

ASHBY KINCH: You just heard the voice of Dr. Dong Wang, professor of chemistry, talking about his student, Yan Li, one of the Bertha Morton graduate student scholarship winners for 2021-22. Welcome to Confluence where great ideas flow together, the podcast of the graduate school of the University of Montana. I'm Ashby Kinch, associate dean of the graduate school. This episode of Confluence is part of a series recognizing the achievements of some of our outstanding graduate students. Named for a great Montanan who dedicated her life to public service, the Bertha Morton award was endowed to support graduate education by recognizing the distinctive contributions our graduate students make in research, creative activity, and public service. Yan’s enthusiasm, self-motivation, and cutting-edge research in bioinorganic chemistry make him a fitting winner of the Bertha Morton scholarship. Through his involvement with the Wang Research Group, he has taken on some of the most challenging projects by working on the high-valent dinuclear cobalt species. Yan is on track to continue making significant contributions to his field, and we're proud to share his graduate journey with listeners. Enjoy the float.  

KINCH: Thanks for joining us, Yan.  

YAN LI: Yeah, thanks for the invitation, Professor Ashby. 

KINCH: So, congrats. It's a big award. What does it mean to you to win the Bertha Morton award? 

LI: It means so much. So, I have spent four years here in Missoula, and I still remember when I just came here. I was, you know, kind of like an outsider for both American lifestyle, also the research group. So, I was acting a little bit clumsy at first, but fortunately this is a benchmark for me. That means that I got used to the life and the research style as a scientist. So, also, this is a validation for my research progress. 

KINCH: Yeah, absolutely. Benchmark is a great – high benchmark, right? I mean, you know, reaching this great level. And so, tell us more about that acclimation process, about getting used to the American lifestyle and I guess the Montana lifestyle. How did you come to apply to UM and what brought you here?

LI: Well, that's a very interesting story. So, back in days when I was in China, so I was in college and in my spare time I like to watch a lot of American movies. So, one of them is called A River Runs Through It

KINCH: Never heard of it. What are you talking about? A River Runs Through It. 

LI: That's a joke, right?  

KINCH: Yeah, of course. Yes.  

LI: Yeah, somebody else recommended that movie to me. And I was a big movie fan at that time. So, that's how I know Montana and especially Missoula. Yeah. And when I apply – browsing information for graduate school, so my brother just suggested me University of Montana. So, I look into the faculty page and I noticed professor Dong Wang research is really consistent with my interest in chemistry. So, I email him, and he replied with great enthusiasm. He said, hey, Yan. Welcome. I think you can fill this position. 

KINCH: Yeah. 

LI: So, I came, I met him, and we have a great conversation. That's pretty much how I joined the research group. 

KINCH: Yeah. It's – I love that story because it's a, you know, a chemistry connection – bond – pun intended. 

LI: Right. 

KINCH: But it was brought out by a movie. A film was the catalyst for it.  

LI: Yeah, exactly.  

KINCH: I'm going to keep punning on chemistry. A film was a catalyst for it. So, what a great story. And what part of China are you from? 

LI: I'm from a small city. It's kind of near Beijing city. But you still need to take an eight-hour train to get to Beijing. 

KINCH: Oh, wow. So near there, but eight hours is a pretty long way away.  

LI: Yeah.  

KINCH: China's a big place. Montana’s a big place. Have you grown comfortable in Montana? You've enjoyed living here? 

LI: Yeah, I really enjoy it. One of the biggest difference is, between China and America is that, in China even though it’s a small city, there are billions of people over there. So, out here you can, you spend more time with yourself just being alone.  

KINCH: Yeah. 

LI: Yeah. I myself, is kind of like a quiet person. So, I really enjoy the life here. 

KINCH: And so, this relationship with Professor Wang has developed over time and you've been able to work in his lab. Tell me about that research. What is your advisor relationship with him been, and how has that contributed to your research?  

LI: I will say without the assistance of my advisor, there can be no progress on the research. So that's – you are right – that's a key factor in the whole graduate life. First Dong introduced me the background of the lab. So, and he introduced me to a few very interesting projects. So, I pick up this one as soon as I heard him saying that, you know, so far nobody has try this method, have achieved this one before. So, to be specific, this is a transformation of a C-H bond. You know, C-H bond is a very basic bond in almost everything, okay. So, we are focused on the functional addition of the single C-H bond. That means transform C-H bond, for example, add an oxygen atom into it to make it, to make it a C-O-H bond. That's alcohol, okay. So, anything possess this C-O-H bond that's called alcohol. So, that's pretty much what I'm focusing on, but that's not the most exciting part. The exciting part is how to achieve that point. So, we developed a new strategy. A dinuclear cobalt species. So, it's a metal complex. So, the metal complex has nothing to do with the daily metal you see. It's not a knife, something like that. It is a molecule that has a metal center in it. So, the one I am working on is a dinuclear. That means it has two metal centers in the same molecule. So, this one is able to catalyze the transformation of C-H bond to C-O-H bond, you know, very high reactivity, which is very rare. Also, the dinuclear cobalt species itself is the first one so far in the world. I think, that really helps people to understand to reach a better understanding of the such high-valent metal complex because to capture such a reactive species it is really hard. So, the ability and the reactivity is like a balance. You know, you want to, this complex to be stable, somehow you could capture it. But you don't want it to be a rock.  

KINCH: Yeah.  

LI: You want to use it to do something.  

KINCH: Yeah.  

LI: Yeah. And I think the complex that we developed has reached a perfect balance. So that's why our first paper draw so much attention from our peers. 

KINCH: And so, a project like that, which is really basic science must be exciting to think about what the applied uses of it are. So, what are some of the ways you're thinking about extending research and how might it be applied? 

LI: Yeah. In the industrial field, the simplest is carbon hydrate, is methane, C-H four, which is a major component of natural gas. So, in the world right now, you know, tons of millions of natural gas is wasted every year because the difficulty in transportation, okay? If someone could find a, find out a strategy by utilizing a synthetic model, that means chemistry ways of doing things. So, if somebody could come up with a way to transform methane to methanol, so methanol is a liquid. So that will solve a big problem in the industry. 

KINCH: Denser, easier to contain, and then easier to move.  

LI: Exactly.  

KINCH: Fantastic. So, but your lab itself won't work on the applied part. You'll just continue working on the basic research that underpins it. 

LI: Yeah, exactly. So, now I'm working kind of like a, a separate project. It is still, the main role of the story is still the dinuclear species we developed, but we are utilizing it to catalyze a C-N bond cleavage right now. We're now preparing the manuscript right now, and we want to give it a try to submit to Science in the near future.  

KINCH: That's exciting.  

LI: Yeah.  

KINCH: So, work in progress. And, and where's all this headed for you personally? So, you're how close to completion are you? And what do you think your path beyond the degree is going to be?  

LI: I will say first, I will settle down and get the rest of work done in UM. And, in the near future, after I graduate for sure I want to pursue a postdoctoral position in the United States. And eventually, my final goal is to become a professor, you know, at a research university.  

KINCH: Okay. So, like a research outcome, you know, stay in the academy, continue to do basic research, and continue to develop an academic profile. 

LI: Yeah, I think this is very consistent with the Bertha Morton spirit. So, when I read the application, I, I knew about her story. That was pretty touching. I told my parents and my mother said, you know, she want to be that lady herself in the future. I think that that's very touching, very moving. And, yeah. I think at least her spirit told me that, besides the research, the progress on research, just be a good person. Even though we are all just small human individuals in this big world, big universe. But we can still do something to benefit other peoples and the society, the world. I think that's a good inspiration for me to continue my current research. 

KINCH: Thank you so much for joining us and… 

LI: Thank you, professor.  

KINCH: Best of luck to you.  

LI: Thank you.   

KINCH: If you enjoyed this episode of Confluence, subscribe to our podcast feed at Apple, Google, Spotify, or Stitcher. Make sure to rate and review to support our enterprise of bringing you the voices of graduate education at the University of Montana! See you on the next float.