Feature left bracketright bracket Fall 2020

Yatao Liu ’08 (PhD)

Supporting the Global Front Lines

The majority of the year has taken place six feet apart as the world’s top experts continue to grapple with COVID-19, the respiratory virus responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world while continuing to run rampant with no cure in sight. It’s an unnerving time, one where we don’t know what things will look like tomorrow, let alone three months from now.

With so many unknowns still in play, one thing’s sure—we’ve got to keep going, something Yatao Liu 08 and his teams at Envista Holdings Corporation understand all too well. 

“They’ve been working overtime,” he says. “We all have. Every night I get on my computer and remind them to stop working, to take days off and rest. That’s how motivated they are. They know what’s at stake.”

Liu is Vice President and General Manager, Infection Prevention Business Unit, at Envista, a medical supply company that recently separated as an independent entity from science and technology conglomerate Danaher Corporation. Envista houses a handful of other companies—one is Metrex, which focuses on infection prevention and control in healthcare environments. Its mission is simple: creating a world without preventable infectious diseases, especially healthcare-associated infections—a huge ask even in the best of times. But it’s up to the challenge, and has been since well before day one.

“When China first started reporting cases [of COVID-19], we thought this could be something big,” Liu says. Envista treated it as such, working quickly to figure out how it could help. And help it did: its products (everything from intermediate- and high-level disinfectants and hand hygiene to protective barriers, eye shields, and other forms of personal protective equipment) were centralized to ship to Wuhan to aid frontline healthcare workers in the fight against the pandemic. It began to closely monitor the virus’s spread, and soon sent products and support to South Korea, Italy, and dozens of other countries in need of assistance. To date, Envista has supported more than 80 countries, including the United States, with its products.

With these efforts and more, its research and development group has shown to continuously have its finger on the pulse of a rapidly evolving global situation in more ways than one—something that’s not only impressive, but necessary as days and months continue to go by without a vaccine.

“This is where time is testing us,” Liu says, “but we’re doing the right thing, and I’m proud of us.”

26 Edits Later

Liu’s education and experience—publishing dozens of papers on infectious diseases that have been cited hundreds of times, his expertise being featured on major news networks—makes him perfectly suited to his current position, but this wasn’t always the endgame he had in mind when he began his studies.

Originally from Huainan City, Liu had studied chemical engineering at East China University of Science and Technology, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees. That course changed in 2003 when his uncle was hospitalized for what should have been a routine surgical procedure—but he contracted a healthcare-associated infection and succumbed to it.

“He spent most of his life living with us,” Liu says of the man he grew up with. “His death led me to pivot and change my focus.”

That desire to change course is what led Liu to WPI and, in particular, to dean of graduate studies Terri Camesano, a chemical engineering professor who, coincidentally was working on infection prevention research that interested Liu. That fact is what ultimately led to his attending WPI for his PhD, choosing Camesano as his advisor, and making a lifelong friend and mentor in the process.

Liu spent five years in Worcester [his favorite place to hang out in the city? “The lab,” he says, without hesitation] working with Camesano and his fellow PhD candidates, lab mates, and collaborators on extensive infection prevention and bacterial adhesion research. His breakdown is simple: “The first step of a microbial infection is adhesion. If you can stop this—prevent the pathogen from latching onto something—then the infection can’t occur.”

After earning his master of public health in epidemiology from Harvard and serving as a postdoctoral research associate at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering, he eventually worked his way up through Danaher to his current position. 

“He has so many qualities that make him exactly the right person to work on COVID-19 response and prevention,” says Camesano, citing not only Liu’s technical expertise, but his concern for and desire to help others. “He gained valuable experience and held increasing leadership roles in industry, so now he also understands how to get the solutions into the hands of people who need them. He’s truly an example of WPI’s ‘theory and practice,’ and has taken that with him in the years since he graduated.”

“I try to carry the legacy of what I learned from WPI and Professor Camesano and use it to amplify positive work for society,” he says. He also has something tangible to remind him of the effect Camesano had on him: their first scholarly article. 

“I think she edited the first draft 26 times,” he says. “It would have been easier for her to take the data and write it herself, but she didn’t. She asked me to write it, revise it, and track all the changes. I listened, I learned, I sent her a second version. And she did it again. I still have that first version, 26 edits later.

“Not only did I earn a PhD, but I got a lifelong lesson on how to be a meaningful, true, useful leader in society. That I learned from working with Professor Camesano.”

“It’s complicated, but it’s our job”

Time is of the essence, and Liu’s teams wasted none of it in setting their plans into motion, and continuing
to research and share their expertise—often providing updated preventive measures and other information weeks ahead of other outlets, including the fact that COVID-19 is not just a bad case of the flu.

The sheer amount of information surrounding COVID-19 is overwhelming to those of us just going about our daily lives—which begs the question: How did such an expansive company sift through it all, then proceed to create an impact that not only spanned continents, but did so with such speed and efficiency?

“It’s complicated, but it’s our job,” Liu says. “Having to say, ‘I know I’m the one who should be able to help you, but I can’t right now,’ is the last thing we want. We’ve built the foundation, we’re prepared for tough situations all the time, so once a challenge like this one actually arrives, we’re ready to justify resource allocation and ramp up production. It’s why our research and development team can start testing on commercial efficacy, why the marketing team can work with educators to create clinical studies, why our sales and distribution teams can reach out to regions hardest hit and see what they need.”

In addition to their work distributing PPE, Envista and its respective companies are also leading community initiatives and educational series through webinars and social media campaigns, inviting experts to speak on COVID-19 fundamentals and prevention.

“We’re going to continue to invest and focus on the education piece as well as research,” Liu says.
“We need to help our communities through this.”

The Right Thing for the Right Reasons

As for Liu and his teams, their work continues against a backdrop of a global work in progress, identifying and addressing unmet needs by creating what Liu refers to as “meaningful innovations.” While experts are working on a cure for COVID-19, Liu says it’s important to remember that infectious diseases as a whole won’t be going away anytime soon, which is why they need to continue being prepared for what’s to come. 

That notion is what’s driving the research and development team’s latest project, something Liu refers to as a next-generation disinfectant with an optimization of short contact time (the amount of time a surface should be wet with cleaner for it to be effective against viruses) broad spectrum (bactericidal, virucidal, and fungicidal) efficacy, and good material compatibility. The goal is for the disinfectant to be effective against a broad spectrum of pathogens while still being safe for humans and the environment. Packaging
is also a factor, with a focus on creating a container with the least amount of waste as possible. 

They’re not just continuing their work, but looking for people whose passions align with theirs—because to Liu, it’s important to not only do the right thing, but to do it for the right reasons.

“The younger generation isn’t incentivized by fancy titles or fancy offices,” he says, adding that he strives to treat his direct reports exactly how he was treated by Camesano—with respect, understanding, and listening. “What they’re really looking for is how they can make an impact in society. We question how we
can provide a platform for them to do so. We really work for the next generation.”

It can be tough to get Liu to talk about himself and only himself; he often goes back to discussing his team and their collective talents, something that, in a way, says more about him than what could be described in a simple paragraph. He’s proud … of their work, of their passions, of their successes. “We’re proof,” says Liu, “that if we’re unified and can work together, we can create lots of synergies,
all leading up to something big, something

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