Texas Tech University

Reshaping the Future of Vaccines

Weston Brooks

December 21, 2023

Hong Liu

This student has a quest to address global health challenges by contributing to public health through innovative medicine and preventative care.

Hong Liu's enthusiastic approach to One Health research and his inspiring attitude towards helping animals, humans and our ecosystem is what made him the perfect fit to be part of the inaugural class in Texas Tech University's School of Veterinary Medicine's innovative Ph.D. in One Health Sciences

Liu is originally from Shandong Province, located in northern China. Prior to Texas Tech, he received his bachelor's in agriculture from Huazhong Agricultural University in China and earned his master's in bioengineering at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  

He also served as junior researcher at Wuxi Biologics, a company that specializes in anticancer target drug development. While there, he was able to learn Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) standards from the pharmaceutical company.

Let's get to know Hong Liu through a series of questions. 

Tell us a little bit about your family. How has the culture you grew up around influenced you to be the person you are today?

My parents work tirelessly to support our family, striving to provide the best resources for my upbringing. As the first-generation college student in my family, I always recall my parents' advice that being an honest and hardworking individual doesn't guarantee smooth sailing, but things will mend in the end. 

Honesty earns me trust from friends and mentors, becoming invaluable partners in both life and research. Hard work serves as a compensatory force for my limited talent in science, yielding positive feedback repeatedly.

How did you find your passion in research?Hong Liu Research

I am deeply passionate about contributing to public health through innovative medicine and preventive care. Currently, I am dedicated to vaccine development.

Unlike many students who discover their interests early and aspire to excel in their chosen fields, I found myself as a restless individual who was uncertain about the future until I joined Texas Tech University. The One Health Ph.D. program at Texas Tech University's School of Veterinary Medicine revealed that, "From Here, It's Possible." This opportunity allowed me to integrate my learnings from both my undergraduate and master's studies to explore more possibilities.

While majoring in aquaculture during my undergrad, I grappled with the question of whether to focus on fish exclusively or leverage my knowledge to benefit a broader audience. My path led me to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where I contributed to the development of plant biostimulants and veterinary drug additives. Post-graduation, I joined WuXi Biologics, engaging in the development of anti-cancer medicines, a transformative and self-discovery journey.

Amidst my diverse but also inconsistent academic background, the emergence of COVID-19 and the School of Veterinary Medicine's One Health Ph.D. program acted as a guiding torch. One Health, addressing human, animal, and ecosystem health comprehensively aligns perfectly with my interdisciplinary background. 

I believe studying One Health within this program will equip me to evaluate and address global health challenges holistically, not only in drug development but also in enhancing medical strategies. My goal is to contribute to the development of medicine, public health strategies, and preventive care while impacting a broader community.

What inspires you to pursue what you love to do every day?Hong Liu Research

It is hard to determine if what you do daily aligns with your passion. Prior to embarking on my Ph.D. journey, I recognized that attaining the highest degree on the planet, a Ph.D., would be an arduous endeavor. I characterize it as a physical and mental practice of austerity. 

The motivation to willingly undergo such challenges stems from the desire to elevate oneself to one's envisioned level. For me, becoming a pharmaceutical developer is a cherished objective, necessitating proficiency in extensive professional skills, cutting-edge scientific vision, and a resilient heart to endure inevitable setbacks. 

Perhaps, I may also contribute to medical strategy improvement or preventive care, demanding comprehensive and professional skills. In essence, I am steered by my career goal, driven by my personal requirements, and fortified by my gradually toughened will. These elements collectively inspire my daily commitment to the laboratory.

Why did you choose Texas Tech?

I was admitted to the Biological Department, thinking it was the right fit given my background. However, upon realizing that addressing current and future health challenges requires consideration of numerous related factors for a more comprehensive understanding, I decided to transfer to the School of Veterinary Medicine's One Health Ph.D. program. 

This shift allows me to reconstruct my thinking and professional framework, expanding my vision to encompass animal and environmental perspectives. By integrating the three primary pillars of health—human, animal, and ecosystem—this program empowers future researchers to tackle complex global health issues effectively.

How is it being part of the inaugural One Health Ph.D. class at the School of Veterinary Medicine?

Being a pioneer is always challenging yet rewarding, especially as this One Health Ph.D. program is not only the first at the School of Veterinary Medicine but also in the United States. It is truly my pleasure to be part of this groundbreaking initiative and to grow alongside it. The expectations and feedback from both students and faculty nurture our collective growth, fostering the development of advanced study and research in One Health. 

Our work is poised to become a cornerstone in this discipline, contributing to the maturation of this innovative program. Equally important to me is the incredible diversity within our community. I never imagined I could study and collaborate with partners from multiple areas on the same topic. Each individual brings unique professional ideas from their disciplinary perspectives, providing a valuable opportunity for knowledge accumulation. 

These colleagues are not just research partners; they are also companions in life. Our community exudes harmony and warmth, as exemplified when I broke my leg. I received visits from my friends every day and their care and support continued until my recovery.

What is your research focus?

I am currently developing a thermostable vaccine based on a virus-like particle platform. Traditional vaccines require cold storage and transportation, posing challenges in tropical developing countries where such conditions are hard to guarantee. These regions are susceptible to pandemics due to limited medical and sanitation infrastructure. Our work aims to pioneer thermostable vaccine research, contributing to vaccine promotion and controlling disease spread at the outbreak's root to protect a larger population. 

From a One Health perspective, this thermostable vaccine platform has the potential to extend into veterinary vaccines. By conjugating animal disease antigens, we can prevent the transmission of zoonoses. The areas our work targets play a crucial role in balancing human and animal health. The success of thermostable vaccines could be a huge breakthrough, reducing dependence on cold-chain equipment and saving energy. This achievement represents a significant step toward ecological health.

Who is your mentor and how are you working together? Hong Liu and Ebenezer

Dr. Ebenezer Tumban, a seasoned scholar in virology and vaccinology, serves as my principal investigator (PI), making this collaboration an exciting and challenging journey. Under his guidance, we collaboratively engage in activities ranging from lab design to project refinement, contributing to the development of a mature and professional laboratory. 

Dr. Tumban has been instrumental in my training from the beginning, providing timely and helpful suggestions and comments. His mentorship extends beyond academia, positively impacting my overall well-being, especially my mental health. With a perpetual smile, Dr. Tumban's communication serves as a constant source of encouragement, fostering a positive and effective relationship that acts as a valuable buffer in the demanding context of a Ph.D. program. 

Our ongoing and future endeavors involve navigating a more extended and challenging path, as we strive to explore innovative approaches in the virus-like particle platform. This endeavor is not only necessary but also glamorous.

What are your plans after completing the One Health Ph.D. Program?

My career plan has always been to become a drug developer because I am passionate about dedicating my time and energy to the pharmaceutical industry. This path provides a swift means to contribute to helping and saving more people. 

Additionally, I am contemplating serving as a researcher in a One Health organization or public health authorities, aligning with my current studies. This direction would offer more opportunities to contribute to the development of One Health strategies. 

I firmly believe that future pandemics can be effectively mitigated by strategically balancing disease management and prevention programs from a One Health perspective.

What are your favorite things to do outside of school?

Cooking is one of my favorites, akin to an experiment. The reason for this hobby may stem from my father's previous job as a cook, significantly lowering the learning threshold for my culinary skills. The difference now is that I play the role of the principal investigator in my kitchen, where my fingers, hands, and tongue act as the most accurate analytical balance, thermometer, and detector, respectively. More importantly, I consider myself a foodie. 

Before coming to Texas Tech University, I explored half of China, but my approach to travel differs from others. While some immerse themselves in local natural scenery and humanities, I prefer to discover and indulge in diverse local foods. 

In addition to my passion for cooking, I am a veteran National Basketball Association (NBA) fan. My NBA journey began in 2002 when Yao Ming was first picked in the draft by the Houston Rockets. After years of watching, I gradually shifted my allegiance to the San Antonio Spurs. It's amusing that both teams hail from Texas. My choice was influenced by the team's talent combined with their altruistic approach.