Where are they now? Stem cell master’s program alumnus Kevin Liu, a PhD student studying cancer biology at Stanford

Kevin Liu
Kevin Liu (Photo courtesy of Kevin Liu)

In this series of alumni profiles, we highlight graduates of USC’s master of science program in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine. Our accomplished alumni have pursued many different paths—ranging from a biotech industry job to a teaching career, and from a PhD program to professional degrees in medicine, dentistry, and law. As the 41 master’s students in the Class of 2022 prepare for graduation, we look forward to welcoming them into our vibrant, diverse, and growing community of alumni. Congratulations Class of 2022, and Fight On!

Francesca Mariani, master’s program director

After years of New York City’s snowy winters, Kevin Liu was ready for sunshine. So Los Angeles’ perfect weather was a motivating factor for pursuing his undergraduate degree in health promotion and disease prevention, and master’s degree in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at USC.

“It was going to be either Florida or California,” he said. “When it was time to commit to a college, Miami was humid and hot, and I just couldn’t see myself there. And then I ended up coming to California, which was more moderate in terms of the climate.”

Liu’s parents originally moved to New York City from Taishan in Guangdong Province in South China. When Liu was 2 years old, his biological father passed away from liver cancer. Although Liu was the only child of his widowed mother, he lived next door to his cousin, who is like a younger sister to him. Growing up together, they played badminton and had snowball fights.

By the time he reached high school, Liu had developed a penchant for medicine and science. He performed research about water quality after Hurricane Sandy, and volunteered at Weill Cornell Medical Center. He loved biology—the only class where he never found himself checking the clock.

“Everything I learned, I could see it relating to my own body,” he said. “Especially when we learned about different organ systems, that was really fascinating.”

Inspired to learn more about the human body, Liu enrolled in USC’s pre-med program as a first-generation college student. He volunteered at California Hospital Medical Center, and joined the cancer research lab of Min Yu, associate professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at USC. Before long, he began spending all of his free time in the lab, and enrolled in USC’s progressive master’s degree program in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.

In 2020, he served as a co-author on a Cancer Discovery publication, in which the Yu Lab identified key characteristics of breast cancer cells with a propensity to metastasize to the brain.

After graduating from USC with both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Liu accepted a research job under the joint mentorship of Lay Teng Ang and Kyle Loh at Stanford University—where he could continue to enjoy the California sunshine.

“I lived in LA. I lived in New York,” he said. “And San Francisco was a good mix of both, where it’s a little faster pace than LA, but you still have the sunny weather.”

At Stanford, he worked to differentiate stem and progenitor cells with the goal of replacing cells lost to bladder cancer. He also served as a co-first author on a study about using stem cells to generate human artery and vein cells, which has been accepted by the journal Cell. He then applied to Stanford’s PhD program in cancer biology.

“Once I heard that I got into Stanford, I immediately accepted that offer the same day,” he said. “I love the weather here. It’s not as hot as LA, but it’s also not as cold as anywhere on the East Coast.”

As a PhD student and Cui Scholar Fellow, Liu is a member of Max Diehn’s lab, which uses patient blood draws—known as “liquid biopsies”—to detect and understand cancer metastasis.

Liu enjoys life on “the Farm,” as Stanford students affectionately refer to their alma mater. He frequently drives into San Francisco to explore different neighborhoods and cuisines, and likes to spend quality time with his two Japanese Chin dogs, named Loula and Kenzo, that “bring so much joy,” he said.

Whether his future leads him to a career in academia or in the biotech industry, Liu is immensely passionate about the liquid biopsy field.

“In the future, my main goal is either going to be early cancer detection or understanding cancer metastasis,” he said. “With every experiment I do, I can see the translational science—how my one experiment today can make a difference for patients in the long run.”