University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

Protecting Ideas

Alumna Shui Li protects innovation, in areas both new and old.

Erica Loeks Sutherland


s a high school exchange student from China living in Hutchinson, Minnesota, Shui Li (B.S. ’09, M.S. ’12) visited Duluth for the first time one summer with her host family. She fell in love with the beauty and scenery, and when it came time to apply for college, she set her sights on the University of Minnesota-Duluth for her undergraduate degree.

Li studied biochemistry and molecular biology and graduated in 2009. It was a perfect fit at the time, she says. “I always liked science throughout my life. I liked science fiction, and I liked learning about chemistry.”

Over the next several years, Li used her curiosity as a guidepost, following her love of science and writing, as well as her knowledge of Chinese culture and digital media, to carve a path of her own.

For graduate school, Li moved to the U of M’s Twin Cities campus to study medical chemistry, where she was exposed to what has ultimately become her career, patent law and technology, built around her scientific interests. (Her adviser was testing molecules that were in the patenting process and working with lawyers. Li was fascinated.)

After completing her master’s degree, Li earned her law degree from the University of Wisconsin, and worked as a patent attorney at Robins Kaplan LLP in Minneapolis for six years. As part of her practice, she counseled clients around the world on complex intellectual property and technology issues. Today, she’s about to begin a new job at Microsoft in the Seattle area, working on the legal side of Microsoft Azure, the company’s cloud and artificial intelligence business. She’ll be working on cutting-edge technology issues, including data privacy.

Li says she’s particularly interested in the future of technology, including new advances in smartphones and apps like TikTok, as well as older fields of study like Chinese traditional medicine. Though the two topics seem dissimilar, she says scientists and engineers are inventing new technology to improve what’s already known to work with both—which might be innovations to make streaming on your smartphone a millisecond faster, or technology that concentrates an ingredient in traditional medicine to make it less toxic to the human body.

“[These advances are] all invented by someone who’s part of a company, who’s part of a university, or on their own,” Li says. “The inventors were not happy with the status quo, [so] they thought of something to improve on it that we could all benefit from.”

For example, Li became interested in TikTok a few years ago as it grew from a popular Chinese app called Douyin to a global phenomenon. For several years, Li has closely followed Chinese regulations on privacy, banking, and technology transfer. As TikTok gained popularity around the world, she started to examine the privacy issues use of the app raises, such as where it stores user data, how long it keeps that data, and how it seems to know exactly what videos users want to see. At her new job, she hopes to expand on that experience.

“I have a TikTok, and I think within a few hours, it was feeding me things that I wanted to watch,” Li says. “No other social media platform has the ability to do that. There is some sort of backend algorithm to do that, so that’s intellectual property. That’s why I became interested ... and I started looking into all the legal ramifications associated with it.”

With her new job, Li also hopes to continue working on her side interest in Chinese medicine, a personal passion she says Microsoft encourages. Though traditional Chinese medicine deals with practices that are thousands of years old, Li ultimately views it in much the same way she views technology: “Just because you are taking something old and you’re trying to make it better shouldn’t prevent you from getting a patent,” she says.

While production around the world slowed during Covid-19, the pace of technology innovation actually sped up as people worked remotely, attended appointments virtually, and shopped for clothing and groceries online. Li sees the future of her work in new technologies as making it easier for people to do everything online.

“That was already happening before, but the pandemic really accelerated it,” Li says. “We’re probably going to see more apps and companies that are going to support online retail or remote learning— remote everything, making things more convenient for people.”

Colleen Connolly is a freelancer in Minneapolis.

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