From the corporate world to a new future through graduate studies

27 Feb 2024

When grappling with experimental research challenges, Yixuan Li, a master’s student at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University’s Wisdom Lake Academy of Pharmacy, often finds herself in in front of a blackboard.

The blackboard is in the office of her mentor, Dr Ken Cheng. It captures the free-flowing ideas and collaboration of Li, Yueyuan Han, a PhD student in Biological Sciences who shares Li’s research focus, and Dr Cheng.

From left, Yixuan Li and Dr Ken Cheng

Li gives an example of their process.

“Dr Cheng sketches lines, analysing the data associated with each line,” she says. “We individually express our perspectives on the blackboard, using diagrams to organise our thoughts. When we encounter a point that raises uncertainty, we brainstorm collaboratively, deliberating the merits of Plan A, B, and C.”

Li says these instances in front of the blackboard are significant: “The experience has left a lasting impression on me.”

Before delving into graduate studies, Li worked as a hospital pharmacist. Now, graduate studies have opened doors to new avenues.

Her days are filled with learning about new research fields, what ground-breaking technologies are prevalent in research and development, and how to conduct experiments and write lab reports and research papers.

“With every venture into a novel domain, the road ahead becomes broader for me,” she says.

Corporate to campus

In 2020, Li, who has a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, planned to pursue postgraduate studies abroad. However, the pandemic disrupted her plans. She decided that getting work experience would be a good choice.

Over the next two years, she worked as a pharmacist in a foreign-owned hospital, daily donning a white coat, reviewing prescriptions in the pharmacy, and guiding patients in medication use. Weekly, under the guidance of a clinical pharmacist, she and other new colleagues took turns presenting reports on the clinical application of medications, sharing insights.

Being a pharmacist demands a high level of responsibility. Although Li found fulfilment in her role, her desire for further education persisted.

In a highly competitive field like pharmacy, postgraduate education has become imperative, she says. When she decided to seek graduate education, her international work environment experience led her to focus on Sino-foreign collaborative universities in China. XJTLU Wisdom Lake Academy of Pharmacy, a collaborative effort between Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University and Suzhou Industrial Park, drew her interest.

Li at the second anniversary of XJTLU Wisdom Lake Academy of Pharmacy

After a detailed discussion with admissions officers about the curriculum, research initiatives, academic staff expertise, and laboratory facilities, she decided to apply for a two-year MRes in Pharmaceutical Sciences at XJTLU.

Struggles and joys

Li says she noticed an increased level of difficulty in graduate compared to undergraduate studies.

Students are challenged to think critically. Li says her instructors first guide students to form perspectives through literature reviews and information gathering. Then, in the classroom, they foster lively discussions with students, posing open-ended questions that don’t have clear-cut right or wrong answers.

In addition, the Academy upholds rigorous standards for writing lab reports, comparable to writing research papers, she says.

Her work as a graduate student includes watching videos related to experiments, analysing statistical data from similar experiments, engaging with classmates to learn from their experiences, and seeking guidance from teachers.

“Initially, the process was filled with challenges, from experimental operations and data processing to report writing–it was quite demanding,” Li says.

In the second semester, she became a part of Dr Cheng’s research group.

“Graduate studies involve both struggles and joys,” she says. “There is significant pressure, a heavy workload, and experiments may encounter setbacks. However, continued experience brings improvement on subsequent attempts.”


Li’s master’s research topic is exploring the impact of the metabolic byproduct dimethylguanidino valeric acid (DMGV) in type 2 diabetes.

“Having previously worked in hospitals and interacted with numerous patients, I’ve maintained a keen interest in the intricate relationship between drugs and diseases,” she says.

When she entered Dr Cheng’s research group, her mentor advised her to delve into the literature to learn about the latest advancements in her research focus. Subsequently, under the mentorship of senior doctoral students in the group, Li began conducting cell-related biological experiments.

Biological experiments follow a strict schedule, requiring her to complete experimental steps such as drug administration at specific time points.

Weekly group meetings, convened every Monday, provide her with insights into the progress in various research topics, enabling her to clarify her upcoming experimental tasks.

Yixuan Li travelling in Switzerland

According to Li, pursuing postgraduate studies not only elevates one’s academic standing but also provides insights into various pharmaceutical fields. This journey propels fledgling students towards genuine maturity.

“With increasing levels of competitiveness, you gain access to more opportunities, and there are a broader range of choices for future employment,” she says.


By Luyun Shi
Translated by Xueqi Wang
Edited by Tamara Kaup and Xinmin
Photo courtesy of Yixuan Li

27 Feb 2024


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