Investigator Spotlight: Getting to know Xiaojuan Li
Xiaojuan Li, Beyond the CV
Welcome to our spotlight series, where we look beyond the CV and learn more about our investigators. Meet Xiaojuan Li, a former DPM fellow who joined our department as a faculty member in 2019. She is a pharmacoepidemiologist with expertise in large electronic healthcare databases, advanced (pharmaco)epidemiologic and causal inference methods, and comparative safety and effectiveness research. Let’s dive in!
Q: What kind of research are you doing and why do you think it’s important?
A: My research focuses on generating valid and actionable evidence regarding the uses, benefits, and harms of medical treatments from real-world data to inform clinical decisions and healthcare policy. As a methodologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about the data quality, study design, and analytical approaches to improve the validity of evidence generated from observational studies, especially those from comparative effectiveness research.
I am particularly interested in the long-term effects of complex medical treatments for which evidence is often suboptimal. Ideally, we would study these questions with randomized clinical trials. However, trials may be infeasible in many cases due to cost, time, and ethical constraints. Observational studies provide an opportunity to correct this but doing so is not easy. Researchers have largely shied away from the complexity of technical and methodological challenges, which help explain the dearth of research in this area despite its clinical importance. Increasingly available high-dimensional electronic healthcare databases and development in causal inference methods will probably accelerate the movement toward long-term effects research to inform decision making for patients with chronic diseases. I hope my work can be a catalyst in this process.
Q: What sparked your interest in pharmacoepidemiology?
A: My introduction to pharmacoepidemiology occurred during a conversation in the gym locker room at Research Triangle Institute, where I was doing bioanalytical work for drug development after college and planning on going to graduate school. I got to chat with researcher Suzanne West whom I later found out is an internationally recognized pharmacoepidemiologist. From the conversation, I learned that pharmacoepidemiology is the perfect intersection between my background in drug development, my passion for improving human health, and my love for numbers and statistics, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in pharmacoepidemiology. I’m forever thankful to Sue for leading me to where I am today.
Q: Tell us a little more about some of your current research projects.
One of my current projects studies the conditions under which it may be possible to replicate the findings of previously published randomized clinical trials with observational data. We are applying state-of-the-art causal inference methods to replicate two published trials of pharmacological products that served as the basis of marketing approval using real-world data collected from routine care. This project will shed light upon how to leverage high-dimensional electronic healthcare data collected during the routine care to improve and streamline clinical and regulatory decisions.
Q: You’ve transitioned from DPM research fellow to faculty member. What has that transition been like, and what advice would you offer for current research fellows anywhere to prepare for life as a faculty member?
A: My transition was a smooth one, thanks to the support I received from many people involved. I was given a lot of autonomy and leadership opportunities during my postdoctoral research fellowship, which helped the transition tremendously. While any advice is necessarily coupled with a person’s particular experience, I hope my perspective will nonetheless be helpful to current fellows who are about to go on the job market or are close to transitioning into a faculty position.
Two things that I would like to stress are (1) learning to tell your story well and (2) gaining grant writing experience. Telling your story well is arguably the most crucial skill which I continuously strive to hone. I was given this advice when I was planning my job search and found it very helpful. Think about your story, explain what motivates your research and career interests, what have you done, and what you want to achieve next. You can start this process as early as possible. Even you are not ready to start your job search yet, thinking about this can help frame your research focus during the postdoctoral fellowship. Securing funding to conduct research is increasingly important in today’s research environment. During the fellowship, seek opportunities for grant writing. In addition to the apparent benefits a funded grant brings to your research and being a sign of independence, writing grants helps you learn to formulate research questions. Having this experience and learning from your mentors will help make the writing process much easier when you start pursuing funding as an independent investigator.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: In my free time, I enjoy all kinds of outdoor activities, especially hiking and cycling. I also like going to Broadway musicals and spending time in museums, especially when weather disapproves outdoor activities.