Nursing alumna Hongjin Li researching supportive care for breast cancer survivors with support of new NIH grant

Hongjin Li

Now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Cancer Center in Chicago, Hongjin Li earned her BSN from UMSL in 2013. (Photo courtesy of Hongjin Li)

Nearly 94% of breast cancer survivors experience some degree of joint pain, hot flashes, sleep disturbance, fatigue, depression or anxiety during or after endocrine therapy. New research from one University of Missouri–St. Louis alumna investigates the role that acupuncture could play in alleviating those symptoms.

Hongjin Li, who earned her Bachelor of Science in nursing from the College of Nursing in 2013 and today works as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Cancer Center in Chicago, was recently awarded $719,550 by the National Institutes of Health to further her research on supportive care for breast cancer survivors. Specifically, Li’s research examines the use of acupuncture to manage these symptoms for patients in Federally Qualified Health Center oncology clinics, which provide primary care services to underserved areas and populations.

“There is a health equity issue here in Chicago,” Li said. “Not everyone has access to acupuncture. So from this study, we want to reduce this disparity and see whether it’s feasible to do acupuncture in the Federally Qualified Health Centers.”

Li’s research focus comes from a personal place. While pursuing her BSN degree at UMSL in 2009, her mother was diagnosed with rectal cancer. She decided to take a temporary leave from school in order to return home to the Hubei province of China and care for her mother. She saw firsthand how acupuncture was used to manage her mother’s symptoms and knew she wanted to devote her work within the nursing field to examining how the treatment could be used to help other patients.

“She had a lot of pain, fatigue and she didn’t sleep well when I was taking care of her,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be a nurse scientist and do research on how we can first understand the symptoms experienced by breast cancer survivors. And then what can we do to manage those symptoms?”

Li was initially introduced to UMSL by Rensheng Luo, a friend of her mother’s who works as a research associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UMSL, and ultimately decided to enroll in the College of Nursing, which she describes as having a very good – albeit “tough” and “intense” – program. She credited the BSN program with giving her a solid background and foundation in nursing, providing hands-on experience through clinics at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and mentoring her in evidence-based research. Her professors were also encouraging, as Li was the only international student in her cohort at the time.

“I had a lot of trouble with the language and terminology at the beginning,” she said. “They helped me overcome this difficulty.”

In order to get to know other international students on campus, Li also worked as a student assistant for UMSL Global and joined the Chinese Students and Scholars Association. In addition to meeting with international students to help figure out how to transfer credits, among other things, she assisted with the International Student Orientation, including picking students up from the airport when they first arrived in the U.S. for classes.

When she graduated with her BSN from UMSL in 2013, Li knew she wanted to pursue nursing research, and sought ways to further develop her skillset as a researcher. She decided to continue her academic career at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in biostatistics.

“I feel like statistics is a tool – an important tool – in order to do research,” she said. “And a lot of nurses are not good at data and stats, so I wanted to have some background between nursing research and statistics. We’re dealing with data right now every day. So I just want to gather information and learn about this tool in data, statistics.”

From there, Li went on to the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, which is well-regarded for its oncology program, to earn her PhD. While at Pittsburgh, she met her mentor, Endowed Oncology Chair Catherine M. Bender, and published three articles related to this research for her PhD dissertation.

Postdoc work then took Li to the University of Illinois Chicago, where she now works as an assistant professor in the College of Nursing. In addition to teaching courses in statistics and palliative care, Li is continuing her research on care for breast cancer survivors with the help of co-investigators and colleagues Judith Schlaeger, a practicing licensed acupuncturist, Ardith Doorenbos and Crystal Patil. She has also submitted a research proposal to the National Cancer Institute for grant funding examining the mechanisms of acupuncture using metabolomics and microbiome and hopes to hear back this summer.


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