Mathew Li is equally at ease in the pool, at a triathlon and in the lab - photo by Martin Dee
UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 5 | May 1, 2008
Science Grad Gives Back on a Global Scale
By Brian Lin
Above all, Mathew Li wants it be known that he likes to “keep it loose,” although you wouldn’t know it from the list of accomplishments the 23-year-old has under his belt.
A competitive swimmer by age eight, Li went to multiple national championships and an international swim meet in Germany and competed in two Canadian triathlon nationals before graduating from high school. During a co-op term at Roche Bioscience in Palo Alto, California last year, he developed a cell-based assay that the company now uses to screen for potential treatment of asthma -- and he learned to surf.
He co-authored a paper that was published by top-tier medical journal Rheumatology and recently competed in his first Ironman triathlon in Tempe, Arizona. He finished 20th out of 83 in his age group in 11 hour and 46 minutes, surpassing his own goal by 14 minutes.
“There’s room for improvement,” says Li. “I definitely want to give it another shot.”
The Faculty of Science graduate has also served as head coach of the Special Olympics Swim Club in Richmond and spent last summer in Tanzania with the Global Service Corps educating teenagers on HIV/AIDS.
What fuels the pharmacology major are a strong work ethic and volunteerism instilled by his father. “My dad didn’t care how well my brother and I did as long as we finished what we started and gave it our best efforts.
“I try to bring the same commitment to my studies and athletics so at the end of the day, I can put all my cards on the table and walk away saying ‘I’ve done my best.’”
That perfect blend of easy-going and hard-hitting may just be his secret. His time in Tanzania, which he describes as “a whirlwind of emotions,” started out simply enough.
“I went there just to see what I could do,” says Li. “We hear so much about the AIDS crisis in Africa and I wanted to see how one person can make a difference.”
Li and other volunteers trained students to be peer educators who would form a health club in their respective schools and become aggregators of accurate health information.
“People were really friendly and welcoming. They appreciated outside help but were most interested in being part of an African solution,” says Li.
Some of the volunteers he worked with came from Women in Action, an organization founded by a local woman that supports HIV-positive people and their families and empowers them to educate others in their community.
“Family and community ties are highly valued there, much more than material goods,” says Li. “When someone is stricken with HIV, tuberculosis or malaria, the first and greatest impact is to their ability to interact normally with family and community.”
Witnessing some of them overturn the stigma and insisting on making a positive contribution through their own painful experiences, says Li, made his experience “exciting, scary, inspiring and heart-breaking all at the same time.”