Two Countries/Two Universities
When Yi Li was growing up in China, he only knew about two U.S. universities: Harvard and the University of Michigan. He was familiar with U-M because his grandfather was among the first three waves of Chinese students sent to the school in the early 1900s.
Li, now a professor of biostatistics at U-M SPH, says his grandfather had the special opportunity to study in Ann Arbor because of the work of the late James B. Angell, the university's longest-serving president. Angell put his academic career on hold in 1880–81 so that he could serve the U.S. government as Minister to China.
One of Angell's special projects was to help create a scholarship program that would allow Chinese students to study in the U.S. The money came from a $333 million indemnity that foreign countries demanded China pay them after the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. Angell insisted that America's portion of the money be used to create the scholarship program for Chinese students.
Li said his grandfather, Tan Qizhen, earned a master's degree at U-M in political science before returning to China in 1921. He became a legislator in the Nationalist government, which was toppled in 1949 when the Communists took over the mainland. He died in 1958 before Li was born.
Li, who is from the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, followed in his grandfather's academic footsteps and earned his doctorate at U-M. "When I got admitted to the University of Michigan," he said, "I went to the student record office and they still had my grandfather's transcript."
After graduating, Li went to Harvard, where he taught for 12 years. Last September, he was invited and returned to U-M to be the director of the Kidney Epidemiology and Cost Center at the School of Public Health. He said his grandfather's history with U-M was not a determining factor in his decision to return to Ann Arbor. "But U-M has a very strong connection with my family, so it was just like coming home," he said. "This connection made my decision much easier."
KECC Moves to SPH
Under the direction of biostatistician Yi Li, the U-M Kidney Epidemiology and Cost Center (KECC) has moved into the SPH complex, where KECC researchers conduct studies, train post-graduates, and crunch data on human organ transplantation and dialysis and chronic disease management. "We're more than just kidneys," Li told the audience at an open house for the center last year. While the more than 20 U-M faculty members affiliated with the center devote most of their time and energy to chronic- and end-stage kidney disease—as has been true throughout the center's 19-year history—they also work to address statistical, economic, and other issues associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. SPH biostatistician and KECC affiliate Douglas Schaubel says, "What underpins KECC's work is its ability to manage large databases." He notes that the center's database for end-stage renal disease contains information—including treatment history, claims, transplant and provider data—for over two million people.