Texas Tech University

Chemical Engineering Professor Develops Materials Based on Natural Resources

Amanda Bowman

April 21, 2021

Wei Li

Wei Li received a 2021 Chancellor’s Council Distinguished Research Award.

In February, the Texas Tech University System announced its 2021 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching and Research Awards to honor outstanding faculty members who provide exceptional opportunities for students both in and out of the classroom. We are highlighting the seven Texas Tech University faculty members who were recognized.

Combining the technical with the natural comes easily to Wei Li. An associate professor of chemical engineering in Texas Tech University's Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering, Li uses inspiration from natural resources to design and develop novel polymer surfaces and microdevices for applications in biology, energy and optics.

Some of the microdevices Li works on include a smart microchip with the potential to understand how cancer is progressing in a person. His innovative work earned Li the 2021 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Research Award.

The Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching and Research Awards are given to individuals who exemplify teaching or research excellence, have significantly advanced teaching or research efforts and are noted as leaders among colleagues and in their respective fields. Established in 2001, they are the highest honors given to Texas Tech University System faculty members.

Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?

The research in my laboratory combines microfluidics, soft materials and nano-assembly techniques to develop novel functional polymer surfaces and microdevices for applications in biology, energy and optics. Using these techniques, we study important questions related to the influence of surface chemistry and environment, including how cells interact with functional surfaces and how environmental cues affect the chemical and physical properties of functional surfaces.

Wei Li
Wei Li

Answers to those questions can help us develop smart microchips to isolate rare cancer cells from blood, understand cancer progression and bring new insight for anti-cancer therapies. Those microchips are expected to dramatically increase the sensitivity and accuracy of testing drug resistance while reducing the assay time, sample preparation and cost.

What projects are you working on at this time?

One main thrust in my lab is dealing with circulating tumor cells (CTCs). CTCs in a cancer patient's bloodstream are known to originate from a primary or metastatic tumor

site and are thought to contribute to the spread of cancer to distant sites. CTCs isolated from blood can be used to characterize a patient's specific tumor type and thereby direct treatment. Challenges remaining in the CTC fields include how to make CTC detection more affordable and how to distinguish sub-populations of CTCs due to the heterogeneous nature of CTCs. I have been working on some creative ways to overcome those two hurdles.

First, we developed self-floating hollow glass microspheres (HGMSs) for cell isolation that require neither specialized lab equipment nor any form of external power source. These can be used for the separation of targeted cells from blood or other body fluids in a resource-limited environment. Further, we developed nanostructured HGMS to show shorter isolation time, enhanced capture efficiency and lower detection limits for commonly used cancer cell lines.

I also developed a new approach to reduce non-specific binding of blood cells on microchips by designing a new nanoarchitecture of thin film-coated surfaces. Due to its simple, effective, fast and well-characterized operation process, our cell isolation and recovery approach is expected to be a promising method to obtain high purity subpopulations of a wide variety of CTCs.

What areas are you interested in for future research?

We are developing smart surfaces that can dynamically respond to environmental stimuli, which have demonstrated great promise in wearable electronics and optical detectors. My lab is developing a photo patternable, nanolayered polymeric film that can reversibly display and hide structural colors in response to relative humidity changes. It is demonstrated that the color patterns on the film can be hidden and displayed spontaneously by contact with humid air, including human breath. This humidity-triggered color change is fast, of fine resolution, highly reversible and compatible with most silicon-based devices. This film is low-cost, stable and ready to be applied to large surface areas for potential applications in anti-counterfeiting, humidity sensors and optical color filters.

What rewards do you get from teaching?

I enjoy teaching. It is very rewarding to see the smiles and excited faces of students when I help them solve problems they have been stuck on for a while; to observe the students making solid and consistent progress in the laboratory; to receive “thank you” cards from students who noted that what I taught them in the class is useful for them in the work field; and feel the satisfaction of supporting students in achieving goals they did not believe they could achieve in the first place.

What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?

I have been amazed by what nature can make and have been particularly interested in developing bioinspired materials and surfaces. There are just so many ways that nature functions that researchers could emulate and need to strive to understand better. The need to know and learn more from nature is a significant reason I pursue a career in academia. I also appreciate the learning process in academia, which involves learning things I never

encountered when I was in school, reading a lot of papers and exploring science and engineering on my own. In academia, I learn new things from my research and then teach them to my students. It is important, because one day my students will surpass me and teach me new knowledge when they are at the frontline of research.

How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?

When I started my career at Texas Tech, I was very fortunate to have a good balance of research and teaching. Maintaining a good balance is always important. I greatly appreciated my mentors in the department who offered advice on manuscript writing and grant applications. My senior colleagues shared with me their experiences on how to teach core courses and elective courses, as different strategies are needed for engaging students. I also would like to thank Texas Tech's Teaching, Learning & Professional Development Center, which provided opportunities to advance my teaching skills and develop new active learning pedagogies.

Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?

My parents always encourage me to study hard, be positive, be patient, stay calm when facing challenges, make consistent progress every day, and never give up on my goals. My wife's love and incredible support has been my powerhouse for pursuing success. When I am not at work, I enjoy spending time with my two daughters. They remind me every day to focus, be fearless and have fun.