Faculty Spotlight: From Serbia and China to College Park

When husband and wife Zairen Sun Ph.D. ’98 and Beibei Li Ph.D. ’98 arrived in College Park from China in 1992, they had little understanding of their new country or its traditions or practices. What they did have was a mentor at the University of Maryland who knew what it was like to be an immigrant to the U.S.—and who could empathize with the process of adjusting to a very different way of doing things.


Now, the couple intends to help future generations of Terps through a major gift to the Maryland Promise Scholarship Program (MPP), in honor of Distinguished University Professor Emerita Elisabeth Gantt of the Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics.


The gift will support undergraduates from Maryland and Washington, D.C., who demonstrate exceptional leadership and academic potential, providing them with financial, mentoring and networking opportunities; it will be matched by the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation as part of its Building Together investment in the university.


Li and Gantt hug

“Education really changes people’s lives,” said Li. “Now we have the resources, and we really want to help those needy students who want to get an education and cannot. Hopefully we can help them to change their lives.”


Gantt took the couple under her wing after Sun began conducting research in her microbiology lab en route to a doctorate in biology; Li was studying chemistry. Originally from eastern China, Sun and Li “did not speak lots of English, and Beth was very, very patient with us,” said Li.


Born in the village of Gakovo, Serbia, near the border with Hungary, Gantt was familiar with the challenge of studying in a new language. Shortly before the Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito came to power in Yugoslavia in 1953, Gantt and her family fled, eventually landing in Chicago, where 15-year-old Beth began learning English. She attended Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill., and joined UMD as a faculty member in 1985.


When Sun joined her lab, Gantt was already in the habit of inviting her students to her home for holidays. “We got the taste of what Thanksgiving really means, what Christmas really means,” said Li. Marking special occasions at home with Gantt and her husband made Sun and Li feel “not as lonely,” she said.


The pair went on to successful careers in their respective fields: In 2012, Sun founded biomedical research company Vigene Biosciences, and Li is a scientific reviewer at U.S. Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit that develops standards for prescribed drugs.


“What I learned from the university is what I have been doing in my career,” said Sun. “We use the same technology, same techniques, same knowledge.”


Now, the couple is hoping that their gift will enable future students to build the kind of knowledge base and mentor-protégé relationships that they enjoyed with Gantt.


“I’m very, very touched” by the gift in her honor, said Gantt. “I can’t imagine a greater honor to receive from any students.”