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WVU chemist earns 2021 Young Investigator Award from Eli Lilly

Peng Li

Peng Li, an assistant professor of chemistry at West Virginia University, has been named a recipient of the 2021 Young Investigator Award from Eli Lilly.

The award reflects the recognition that Li is at the top of his class of young analytical chemists internationally, said Gregory Dudley, chair of the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry.

Li, who joined WVU in 2016, focuses his research on developing novel tools for chemical and biological analysis based on acoustic waves and microfluidic devices.

The Young Investigator Award comprises an unsolicited and unrestricted grant of $50,000, which is renewable for a second year, for a total of $100,000. Award in Analytical Chemistry. The award is based upon Li’s outstanding research, publication record and the impact he has made in the field of analytical chemistry.

“Given its unsolicited selection process, I’m happy that the research output by my group has gained recognition nationally,” Li said. “This award has a long history, and many past awardees have become leading experts in the field of analytical chemistry. I feel especially honored to receive the same recognition as those professors I admired a lot at the early stage of my career.”

One of Li’s top accomplishments at WVU has been his research to simplify experiments in mass spectrometry, a method commonly used by chemists, biologists, physicists and forensic scientists for analyzing molecular materials.

While mass spectrometers require materials to be ionized, or gain an electrical charge, before they can be examined, Li and his team have created an instrument that goes straight to the source: the VSSI (vibrating sharp-edge spray ionization) device.

The VSSI is a rectangular piece of glass approximately 2.5 inches long and one inch wide that collects and ionizes samples on the spot.

“It can replace and even surpass the performance of large, complex, high-voltage and expensive equipment,” Dudley said of the VSSI. “It’s revolutionary. People can now think about cheap, portable analytical devices with unprecedented capabilities. They can also think about analyzing complex biomolecular samples (e.g., proteins) under milder conditions that do not degrade the sample the way current technology can.”  

Li speaks proudly of the innovation.

“A mass spectrometer is a powerful analytical instrument that can reveal the identities of molecules directly,” he said. “It is widely used for biological discovery, monitoring environment samples, ensuring the quality of drugs and other chemical products, and detecting chemical and biological warfare reagents, etc. The ionization source serves as the bridge between the sample of interest with the mass spectrometer. The VSSI technology offers improved performance, smaller size, more flexibility and lower cost compared to the commercial product, which typically cost between $5,000 and $10,000."

CONTACT: Jessica McGee
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences