‘Lab-on-chip’ technology expert joins Vanderbilt as H. Fort Flowers Professor

Dongqing Li — an international leader in “lab-on-a-chip” biotechnology who is joining Vanderbilt as the new H. Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering — dreams of creating a miniature, portable laboratory the size of a business card, capable of on-the-scene diagnosis of diseases and rapid detection of biochemical warfare agents.

Even before joining the Vanderbilt School of Engineering this semester, Li was already well on his way to realizing his dream. From his laboratory at the University of Toronto, Li had already developed many lab-on-a-chip technologies. “Lab-on-a-chip” technology refers to hand-held devices that are able to quickly analyze DNA and proteins within miniature but fully integrated laboratory systems. These devices can be used directly in the field by police, emergency medical technicians, security personnel and hazardous materials assessors.

At Vanderbilt Li will develop more of these technologies, in addition to conducting fundamental research in fluid behavior at the micro- and nano-scale. One device he is developing will be able to detect bacteria, viruses and cancers using fluorescence and a miniature laser multiplex system. The device will be able to complete tests within 30 minutes, compared with 4-6 hours required by conventional laboratory tests. Another device will be able to separate white blood cells and DNA from a single drop of blood.

“Dr. Li is a pioneer in the lab-on-a-chip” field,” says Vanderbilt Engineering Dean Kenneth F. Galloway. “We are very excited to have him as H. Fort Flowers professor.”

The H. Fort Flowers Chair in the School of Engineering was created through the contributions of the Flowers family to honor the late H. Fort Flowers, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 1912 with two B.E. degrees in engineering. He earned an M.E. degree in engineering from Vanderbilt in 1915. Flowers was a highly successful engineer, inventor, manufacturer and philanthropist. The inventor of a side-dumping gondola railroad car for transporting and delivering bulk materials, Flowers held more than 80 patents.

Li earned his bachelor of science in thermophysics engineering from the Zhejiang University, China, in 1982. He received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Toronto in 1991. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship with the University of Toronto the year after graduating, he became research assistant professor with the University of Victoria Department of Mechanical Engineering in 1992. The next year he was appointed assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta, and he achieved tenure there in 1997. He was appointed full professor at the University of Alberta in 1999. He came back to the University of Toronto as professor in July 2000.

A prolific writer and researcher, Li is editor-in-chief of the journal, Microfluidics and Nanofluidics.