Skylar Li

Class of 2023

Like the Victorian artists who employed diatoms—microscopic single-cell algae that wrap themselves in intricate glass shells—Zhuoyan (Skylar) Li sees singular beauty in the natural world, as well as unlimited, life-affirming potential in the marriage of art and science. For the biomedical engineer, technology is creativity.

Before the pandemic compelled the Egleston Scholar to return home to Japan, Li had been working in Professor Tal Danino’s Synthetic Biological Systems Lab, writing for Bwog, and dancing with Orchesis, Columbia’s student dance group. Last summer she interned at a startup building AI capable of recognizing human emotions, and co-founded (with Columbia classmate Yutaro Tanaka ’23) Atelier Basi, a mentoring organization fostering self-expression among high schoolers.

In Tokyo for her sophomore year, Li is balancing SEAS courses with additional classes at International Christian University via Columbia’s Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement, as well as interning with both a venture capital firm and a video game developer. She spoke with us about her twin passions.

How does biomedical engineering intersect with the arts?

I value storytelling in everything I do. For example, the unique rules of nature within biological tool sets can aid in generating expressions unavailable to traditional artists. Bio-art creates a unique opening for narratives that are enabled and guided by boundaries of living systems, and the past year has been about learning the intricacies of those systems. In Professor Danino’s lab I was part of a project researching pattern formation capabilities in bacteria with a goal of engineering strains that can function as biosensors. I’m deeply intrigued by both the medical and artistic potential of such bacteria within these mechanisms.

What’s capturing your imagination right now?

I’m most interested in human microbiomes, and particularly our symbiotic relationship with microbial ecosystems that are both separate from and part of our bodies. I’ve been involved with a startup in Tokyo that’s working to propel a new microbiome analysis platform that can sequence individual bacterial cells. The goal is to figure out how unknown strains contribute to human behavior.

Art provides a first step in taking these discussions out of the lab. Tissues, bacteria, and organisms have been used as mediums since the Victorian era, but there are now so many branches of bio-art. Some bring visibility to little-known organisms with visualization techniques; others adapt biotechnologies to modify or synthesize new systems, like a jacket made from the stem cells of Alexander McQueen!

Through these artworks we can enter the ecosystem of biotechnology, almost as microorganisms ourselves. For example, I want to explore how the development of personalized drug delivery using microbiota mapping could reinforce the microbiome as a biomarker. Or how microbial transplantations could enable identity theft in the future.

Last semester I took a microbiology course studying genetic aspects of microorganisms, such as the relationship between marine microbes and ocean pollution. Learning about how microbes adapt to extreme conditions through regulation of gene expressions and self-repair pathways has got me thinking more about how to contemplate our future on a planet with an increasingly unstable environment.

What’s the biggest strength of Bio-Art?

A lot of areas like synthetic biology and computational biology are still growing fast, with immense potential for pharmaceutical applications. The danger is that until debates in bioethics are translated into policy, novel technologies might be used to widen inequalities, such as purchasing others’ microbiomes through fecal transplants or personalized therapies without generic replacements. Speculative design is an open-ended approach that, properly implemented, can empower people of all backgrounds to shape such possibilities before they become reality.

What inspired you to found Atelier Basi and mentor high school students?

Our year-long online program encourages positive growth through art and creative writing workshops. Our crowdfunding project received an overwhelmingly positive response, surpassing our original goal by 300 percent. That allowed us to welcome six new undergraduate mentors to our team. More personally, running Atelier Basi and mentoring has provided joy at a very difficult time.

What do you miss most about New York?

Professor Danino’s lab, my weekly off-campus yoga sessions, taking walks in Central Park, and helping out with tours and workshops at the Museum of Modern Art.

Student Spotlight

Learning about how microbes adapt to extreme conditions through regulation of gene expressions and self-repair pathways has got me thinking more about how to contemplate our future on a planet with an increasingly unstable environment.

Skylar Li
Class of 2023