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Always a team

  • Yuying Liang (left) and Hinh Ly (right) smile at the camera. Hinh has his arm around Yuying. They are seated against an ivy wall.

    Always a team

    A CVM power couple tackles COVID-19 and life together

    Yuying Liang (left) and Hinh Ly (right)

    All photos in this story were taken prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

When Yuying Liang, MS, PhD says, “As scientists, we accept that there may be diverse answers to the same questions and we accept differences in how scientists form opinions,” she’s not just talking about how she and her collaborator, Hinh Ly, MA, PhD, run their joint lab. She’s also talking about their marriage.

For many couples, the pandemic has increased time spent together and put vows to the test. But when it comes to partnering, Yuying Liang and Hinh Ly are a rock-solid team. Whether they’re in the lab developing therapies and treatments for COVID-19, or getting their twin boys out for a round of tennis to ward off cabin fever, the duo collaborates in and out of the lab. 

But what’s their secret? “We have a lot of common interests but from different perspectives,” Liang says, “because we have had different training before.” Liang received her PhD in genetics while Ly’s is in microbiology and immunology. “New projects develop naturally out of the way we collaborate because our work styles complement each other. That’s important because we can’t be good at everything.” Liang and Ly agree: Liang handles key details and making things happen, while Ly keeps the bigger picture in mind, fostering brainstorming, managerial skills, entrepreneurship and collaboration. 

“We always welcome new perspectives and new ways of thinking,” Ly says, “not just from each other but from our trainees as well.” 

New projects develop naturally out of the way we collaborate because our work styles complement each other. That’s important because we can’t be good at everything.

Yuying Liang, MS, PhD

Under the umbrella

COVID-19 has commandeered much of the Liang-Ly lab’s time, energy, and resources. The 14-person lab has been awarded seven different grants from the UMN COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant program out of the University’s Office of Academic and Clinical Affairs (OACA), which the team is using to dismantle the virus’ impact from all sides.

“We are applying what we know about virus-host interactions and microbiology and biotechnology to address pressing questions about COVID-19,” Yuying says. The lab taps the reservoir of knowledge and methodology they have developed in addressing Lassa virus and influenza virus to tackle these questions. While this coronavirus is new, the methods the Liang-Ly lab uses and the concepts they apply to fight it are not. “We are simply expanding the directions of our projects, which all exist under one umbrella. So, it’s well within our domain and capabilities to study this novel coronavirus.”

The Liang-Ly lab wears white coats outside and smiles together at the camera
Front row (from left to right): Vikram Verma, Xiaoying Liu, Morgan Brisse, Yuying Liang, and Hinh Ly Back row (from left to right): Junjie Shao, Sophia Vrba, Da Di, and Qinfeng Huang Lab members not pictured: Md Mizanur Rahman, Shania Vel Sanchez, Natalie Kirk, Mythili Dileepan, Hannah Murphy, and Shamim Ahmed

Additionally, Ly was recently appointed Director of Graduate Studies for the CVM’s Comparative and Molecular Biosciences (CMB) graduate program. “My predecessor did an excellent job running the CMB program for the last several years and I would like to continue the successes he developed for the program,” Ly says. “I would also like to bring in more students from underrepresented and underprivileged backgrounds to foster different perspectives. I think that would really enrich the training for our students in both the laboratory sciences they do and the social side of managing collegial and respectful interpersonal relationships.”

Meanwhile, both Liang and Ly continue to deeply enjoy teaching and sharing knowledge. They continue to co-advise six graduate students, three postdoctoral and research associates, and a senior laboratory technician, as well as a couple of undergraduate students. And of course, both are teaching this academic year. 

Projects currently funded by OACA

Scroll through below to learn more about what research the Ly-Liang lab is doing on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, with funding from OACA.

A SARS-CoV-2 virus, depicted in neon green against a peach background

Accurate, accessible testing

The ability to detect antibodies against a SARS-CoV-2 infection presents a tremendous opportunity for the development of a COVID-19 diagnostic test. Effective, efficient, and accessible diagnostic testing is crucial to mitigate the current pandemic. Yuying Liang, MS, PhD, and Hinh Ly, MA, PhD, are developing a convenient and cost-effective approach to detecting viral antibodies. Their test would be suitable for screening a large number of samples and would also be sensitive for a more accurate detection of SARS-CoV-2 infection in exposed populations of both humans and animals. They plan to share the results of their work with clinical laboratories at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Department of Health. The project began on March 16, 2020 and is slated to wrap up by March 15, 2021.

A SARS-CoV-2 virus, depicted in pink against a green background

Striving for a new vaccine

Social distancing can help deter some of COVID-19’s spread, but the development of a vaccine is the only surefire way to combat this devastating disease. A team of researchers led by Hinh Ly, MA, PhD, and Yuying Liang, MS, PhD, will use their recently patented technology to develop one such vaccine. These scientists have already successfully used this technology to develop a new vaccine against human influenza virus. That vaccine showed 100% protection against lethal influenza infection in a mouse model. Now, they aim to determine whether and how well the new vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 can generate cellular immune responses in vaccinated mice. Funding for this project began on March 16, 2020 and extends through March 15, 2021.

A SARS-CoV-2 virus, depicted in light blue against a royal blue background

Establishing a safer vaccine option

A study led by Mythili Dileepan, PhD, will use non-infectious virus-like particles to create a vaccine for COVID-19. Relying on these virus-like particles (which mimic the SARS-CoV-2 virus), rather than using the actual virus in a vaccine, could stimulate a protective immune response in the human body without the risk of injecting a live virus mutant as a vaccine that can potentially cause disease in humans. The study is slated to wrap up by April 15, 2021. Dileepan and her team in the Liang-Ly laboratory have several years of experience in developing vaccines to treat diseases in both humans and livestock.

A SARS-CoV-2 virus, depicted in purple against a pink background

Targeting a potential Achilles' heel of COVID-19 

Proteins of highly pathogenic viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 disease, play a critical role in the body’s immune response to infection, sometimes causing overt inflammation and tissue damage. A team of scientists led by Qinfeng Huang, PhD, suspects that a viral protein on SARS-CoV-2 — the nucleocapsid (N) protein — might be responsible for dampening the immune response that allows the virus to replicate unchecked. This can then prompt severe inflammation and lung tissue injury. Identifying the protein responsible for this dangerous and unwanted bodily reaction can lead to potential treatment and prevention options against this deadly virus. Huang and his research team in the Ly-Liang laboratory have nearly a decade of experience investigating the role of key proteins in modulating virus-host interactions by deadly viral infections, including Lassa fever and Ebola. This project is slated to wrap up by April 15, 2021.

A SARS-CoV-2 virus, depicted in lilac against a magenta background

Targeting virus assembly to inhibit SARS-CoV-2 infection and COVID-19

In order for the SARS-CoV-2 to infect humans and cause COVID-19 disease, it must be able to produce more progeny viruses in the infected cells. This process of viral assembly depends on coordinated interactions between the different viral proteins. Since this is an important process that is required for viral infection and disease pathogenesis, Postdoctoral Associate Md Mizanur Rahman, MS, PhD, in the Liang-Ly laboratory, hypothesizes that disrupting the essential viral protein-protein interactions with antiviral drugs presents a tremendous opportunity to cripple virus replication in order to ameliorate COVID-19. This project is funded from August 15, 2020, to August 14, 2021.

A SARS-CoV-2 virus, depicted in neon blue against a mustard yellow background

Assessing COVID-19 virus-host interactions

Of the four structural proteins that make up human coronaviruses, the envelope (E) protein is currently the least understood by scientists. However, certain aspects of the E proteins of SARS-CoV-1 (which caused the 2003 SARS pandemic) and SARS-CoV-2 (which causes COVID-19) suggest that the E protein on these two viruses share similar functions. The SARS-CoV-1 E protein specifically interacts with two key proteins found in the virus-infected cell (syntenin and PALS1). Together, these interactions contribute significantly to disease pathologies, such as immune overreaction and lung inflammation and injury, which are the hallmarks of both SARS and COVID-19 diseases. To better understand how the E protein in SARS-CoV-2 interacts with syntenin and PALS1, doctoral students Hannah Murphy and Da Di are working in the Liang-Ly laboratory on two separately funded projects. Murphy aims to assess the interaction between the SARS-CoV-2 E protein with syntenin and PALS 1 in human lung cells. Di is setting out to develop novel tests to screen for compounds (as potential new drugs) that can disrupt these protein-protein interactions. Together, the findings from these two studies could lead to treatments to mitigate the current COVID-19 pandemic. The funding began August 15, 2020 and ends August 14, 2021.

Twin boys, twin jobs, Twin Cities

Hinh Ly smiles at his wife, Yuying Liang, in their lab.


The duo met in 2000 while doing their postdoctoral training at the University of California-San Francisco. They worked in neighboring labs — he on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), cancer, and aging, and she on Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpesvirus. “We both had such a wonderful time there,” Ly says, “and eventually, we decided to get married before we moved to Atlanta to work as assistant professors at Emory University in 2003.” 

In 2007, their twins, Darren and Derrick, were born. Five years later, the couple took jobs as professors in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. The public school system in the Twin Cities also motivated the couple to relocate to Minnesota. 

“From a professional perspective, the U of M is also very comprehensive and has almost every discipline you can think of,” adds Liang. “We have developed many different collaborations both within the CVM and across campus. Our research has evolved very successfully and we have started some great collaborations on campus and even with local industry companies to develop our projects even further into applied and translational medicines to benefit humans, companion animals, and livestock.” 

Ly smiles at Liang. “Good things really do come in pairs,” he says.  

Good things really do come in pairs.

Hinh Ly, MA, PhD

For better or worse

Liang says that sharing a career path, and an understanding of the specific stresses and enjoyment that come with it, strengthens her bond with Ly. “If we have something to let out, it’s really helpful to have someone to listen non-judgmentally.” 

“Working together as a couple, you really have to treat each other as equal partners in everything,” says Ly. At the same time, the pair is strategic in maintaining separate office spaces while working. Still, Ly says, “We always work together as equal partners both at work and at home, regardless of the tasks.”

But nobody’s perfect. And while Ly and Liang might get into intellectual disagreements, they prioritize compartmentalizing and respecting their differing perspectives, rather than approaching them as personal conflicts. 

“I've always enjoyed working with Yuying as an equalled partner and confidant at work and at home all these years,” Ly says. “She's making me a better person, always keeping me on my toes and keeping me honest. I wouldn't do it any other way but with my wife and colleague, Yuying.”

Join the fight against COVID-19

If you are interested in supporting the Liang-Ly lab’s research on COVID-19, contact Bill Venne, director of development and alumni relations at the CVM, at, or 612-625-8480. Or, click on the button below:

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