Gustave Li Hongzhou ’24: Pursuing Research, from Interest to Excellence

Gustave Li Hongzhou ’24 developed an early interest in basic sciences, and in high school was selected for the Youth Science and Technology Reserve Talent Program at the Beijing Science Center. Later he explored organic chemistry at the Institute of Process Engineering of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. His passion for science led him to study neuroscience at NYU Shanghai, the first university in China to offer the major to undergraduates. Last year a paper he co-first authored was published in STAR Protocols, an open-access peer-reviewed protocol journal from Cell Press. 

As a student at NYU Shanghai, Li said he was drawn in by courses like Foundation of Biology with Assistant Professor of Biology Fang Gang and Assistant Professor of Biology Jungseog Kang’s Cancer Biology. “The small class size of 20 students gave me ample opportunities to gain professional guidance and hands-on experience, fostering a culture of active learning through discussion and practical experiments,” he said, adding that the experience got him thinking about a career path in academia. “I particularly enjoyed Kang’s class,” he added, “where his passion for research and presentation of cutting-edge findings in the field deeply inspired me.”

Although it was biology classes that first captivated him, Li decided to pursue an honors degree in neuroscience, which integrates biology and chemistry. “It resonated with my research interests and my personal motivation, having grown up in a family with two parents working in the pharmaceutical field,” he said. 

Professor Kang praised Li for his interdisciplinary approach. “Gustave’s unique experience working in cognitive neuroscience as well as the cell and molecular neuroscience field allowed him to understand neurobiology from a microscopic scale to a macroscopic scale,” he said. “I truly believe that Gustave has a bright future as a neuroscience scholar.”

While studying away at NYU’s New York campus, Li had the opportunity to take NYU Professor of Biology Christine Rushlow’s Genetics class. He also joined NYU Silver Professor of Biology and Neural Science Claude Desplan’s lab, where he said the lab experiences helped him build a strong foundation in developmental biology and genetics.

Gustave Li (back) with Dr. Claude Desplan


Li began working on brain development in fruit flies (Drosophila) with NYU senior Li Siqi. “The genes and the brain of Drosophila are somewhat homologous to those of humans,” he explained. “The study of its brain can provide a reference for human brain research, potentially helping explore the pathology and treatment of human brain diseases.”

Their research yielded strong results, but the process was not without its challenges. Li’s initial attempts at conducting experiments for his paper encountered significant challenges, particularly in identifying suitable Drosophila genotypes due to confounding genetic markers. “With guidance from our mentor, Yu-Chieh Chen, a postdoctoral fellow at Desplan’s lab, we ultimately changed our approach and started over from scratch,” he said. “Despite facing a daunting peer review process, with one reviewer posing over 80 questions, we persevered with revisions and correspondence, eventually publishing our paper.”

His study, co-first authored with Li Siqi NYU ’24, was published in STAR Protocols. The research provides a cost-effective technique for generating gene-specific split-GAL4 lines, crucial for fly researchers. He also had an opportunity to participate in international conferences, including GSA TAGC24 and ABRCMS, to share his research on Drosophila. “I was particularly proud to receive the ABRCMS Best Poster Award in Genetics and Developmental Biology,” he recalls. He has continued his Drosophila research back at NYU Shanghai, working on a Dean’s Undergraduate Research Fund project and his thesis project.


Gustave Li (right) with Dr. Yu-Chieh Chen


In the fall, Li will head to California for the PhD program in neurobiology at California Institute of Technology (Caltech).  “I’m excited to attend my dream school,” he said about the next chapter of his academic and personal life. “My joy in research lies in its fusion with personal and professional life, whether in solitary experimentation or collaborative endeavors,” he said. He added he’s looking forward to “fostering a relentless pursuit of discovery and innovation for future academia or industry pursuits.”