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Impact Magazine

Celebrating Women In Science: Margaret Liu

Margaret Liu portrait, holding a microscope
Photo by Emily Tribe

Margaret Liu grew up with a determined mother who shaped her into a tenacious scientist. Liu’s mother faced racial prejudice as a Chinese immigrant, so she encouraged her children to work hard in school and provided them with music lessons to ensure unique opportunities. She would often tell Liu, “To whom much is given, much is expected,” reminding her that she was held to a high standard.

A light blue sidebar with the header Notable Contributions. Discovered how to activate T-cells with bispecific antibodies for tumor cell killing. Proved that DNA-based vaccines are effective. Catalyzed research on human immunodeficiency virus and tuberculosis vaccines. Increased the availability of vaccines across social classes and countries. Another header says Fun Fact. Margaret Liu turned down admission to Yale and Princeton to attend Colorado College on scholarship.

Liu became a proficient piano and flute player while pushing herself in academics. At the age of 13, she started taking classes at the local community college because her school wasn’t offering advanced placement courses yet. Taking advantage of her small-town circumstances, Liu received the Boettcher Scholarship, offering her a full-ride scholarship to any Colorado university. She turned down Yale and Princeton’s admissions offers to attend Colorado College, where she discovered her love for immunology while exploring her musical talents.

Liu later moved to Paris, France, to study piano at École Normale de Musique de Paris on a scholarship from the Rotary Foundation. With the goal of becoming a scientific triple threat by researching, treating patients, and teaching, Liu then attended Harvard Medical School and became board certified in internal medicine, endocrinology, and metabolism.

After graduation, Liu completed her internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital where she met her husband, Robert Johnson. Only 13 years earlier, it would have been illegal for a white man to marry an Asian woman. Liu said concerning social justice, “Always be open to new pathways, to making this world better in terms of social equality for people here and now. To live that out is my calling.”

From 1984 to 1988, while Liu was a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she discovered that T-cells can be activated for tumor cell killing with bispecific antibodies—but it wasn’t until 2014 that the FDA ratified bispecific antibody treatments. After many years of working in academia, Liu left to work at Merck Research Laboratories, where she researched vaccines and gene-based immunization. She found that DNA-based vaccines could activate the generation of antibodies. Liu’s DNA-based vaccine was the first to be tested in healthy humans, proving such vaccines were safe. Her DNA-based vaccine started the search for a universal flu vaccine and was the catalyst for a large volume of research on human immunodeficiency virus and tuberculosis vaccines.

Liu worked at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she focused on global health issues and the availability of vaccines to people of different classes and countries. While she didn’t start her career motivated by the progression of vaccines, she found fulfillment in developing solutions to global problems.

Liu and her family suffered from a worldwide problem—social injustice—so she chooses to relieve a form of suffering for everyone by using the power of science to solve global health issues.

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"Always be open to new pathways, to making this world better in terms of social equality for people here and now. To live that out is my calling."
Margaret Liu
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