Imagining a Future with Dementia-Free Aging

Richard Hamming, a prominent mathematician and computer scientist, once delivered a speech on conducting exceptional research. He stressed the significance of open-mindedness and scientific advancement, stating, “He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.”

As a high school student aspiring to delve into research, William Li stumbled upon this quote when inquiring about how to kickstart his research journey. He expressed, “I think that science is kind of an opaque area to break into. It’s hard to know what you’re supposed to be doing from time to time,” reflecting on the challenges of venturing into the realm of science.

Having pursued a double major in physics and computer science, Li took Hamming’s advice to heart. By keeping his metaphorical “office door” open, he engaged in various research endeavors, spanning from neuroimaging to genomics, all while shaping his ultimate ambition: to become a physician-scientist contributing significantly to Alzheimer’s disease research.

Inspired by his grandfather, a doctor, Li’s interest in working with patients in clinical settings blossomed early on. He initiated his journey by volunteering at retirement homes and the Byrd Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute at the University of South Florida in high school. Through these experiences, Li witnessed the profound impact of Alzheimer’s disease on both patients and their families.

Alzheimer’s disease captivated Li not only due to its devastating effects but also because of the scientific mystery it poses. With no cure in sight and limited knowledge about its origins, the disease remains a compelling scientific puzzle. Li emphasized, “Beyond its human impact, Alzheimer’s represents a frontier of our understanding of human disease.”

Embarking on an MD/PhD program this fall for an extensive period, Li aims to secure a residency in radiology or neurology and later engage in teaching and research alongside medical practice. His ultimate dream is to contribute to the development of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Exploring Knowledge:

Li’s tenure at MIT has been notably defined by his research involvement. He underscored, “To me personally, research means being able to contribute to a body of knowledge built upon by generations of minds in the past. I see modern science and technology as a pinnacle of human achievement, and it’s a dream come true to be able to add to this work.”

During a regular academic week, Li spends up to 15 hours in the lab, delving into diverse research projects aligning with his long-term aspirations. Collaborating with the Soljačić and Johnson groups at the Research Laboratory of Electronics, Li has explored nanophotonics, a field focused on light control through designing structures the size of a wavelength for applications like optical and X-ray imaging.

Within his research initiatives, Li has aimed at enhancing the safety and efficacy of X-ray imaging for medical screenings. Moreover, he concentrates on leveraging computational methods to devise nanophotonic device elements for achieving higher-resolution imaging, highlighting the significant implications of imaging technologies in disease understanding and early diagnosis.

Starting in his sophomore year, Li engaged in research at Professor Manolis Kellis’ lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Leveraging computational tools, he analyzed genetic variation among Alzheimer’s patients to understand the disease better, compellingly breaking it down into subtypes to facilitate comprehension and treatment. Last summer, Li received the SuperUROP Outstanding Research Award for his contributions to this project.

Building Connections:

Upon joining the Kellis lab, Li felt overwhelmed by the vast field of genomics. Initiating an academic journal club, he and his peers would convene to read and discuss research papers. The club served as a platform for sharing exciting research spanning decades, with members gradually presenting their own research topics to the group.

As the collegiate relations co-chair of MIT’s Pre-Medical Society, Li organized an annual meeting connecting pre-med students from the greater Boston area. This platform facilitated interactions among students and offered valuable insights from pre-medical advisors and alumni.

Among the various communities he embraced at MIT, Li cherished his dormitory experience in Next House, the university’s largest dorm building. Immersing himself in dorm activities since his junior year, he actively engaged in communal events like Thanksgiving dinner, contributing to an enhanced social life and sense of community.

After unwinding on weekends and engaging in dormitory traditions, such as group workouts, Li returns to the lab to further his research on understanding the complexities of the brain and tackling dementia-related challenges. As he forges ahead on his dual path as a researcher and physician, his vision entails a future where individuals can age gracefully without the fear of debilitating illnesses.