Emma Xu, a 2015 UTD physics graduate, was awarded the Forbes 30 Under 30 science award for 2023, paving the way both for young people in STEM and for improved 3D printing and viral disinfection.
As a current Ph.D. mechanical engineering student at Columbia University, Xu fostered her love for physics and research at UTD. Through her experience in different research projects and labs, Xu developed a keen interest in the practical applications of nanoparticles and has goals to continue developing a startup for her research. She was awarded the Forbes 30 Under 30 in science prestige for her research in applying nanoparticles to viral disinfection for masks. Beyond her Forbes accomplishment, Xu hopes to see more young people, especially women, continue their education in the hard sciences.
Receiving a Forbes 30 Under 30 award is no small feat. There are over 15,000 applications nominated for only 600 available spots in 20 different categories such as science, education and social impact. According to Forbes, over 100 reporters search the country to find and highlight different young researchers’ and entrepreneurs’ work.
“I feel very honored, I think [this award] is a pretty big thing,” Xu said. “And it feels so surreal. Since the acceptance rate is pretty low, you never know if you’re going to get it or not. So, I feel like it’s an honor that they saw something in me, and it’s validating years of hard work and perseverance.”
Xu was awarded this honor for her research with nanoparticles. More specifically, her research focuses on tiny particles that transform lower energy light into higher energy light. This specific property of nanoparticles can be harnessed into a wide range of applications such as bioimaging, night vision and 3D printing. Xu said that after receiving her Ph.D., she plans to continue working on her startup, which focuses on building the world’s highest resolution 3D printer.
“Prior to coming to [Columbia], I had exposure to seeing how scientific research can start as research in the lab to the market and have a positive impact on society,” Xu said. “So that inspires me to also pursue a similar career trajectory.”
During her time at UTD, though she was only an undergraduate, Xu worked in Robert Wallace’s lab, a UTD professor of material sciences and engineering. Wallace’s research focuses on nanoelectronics and making new materials for faster computer chips.
Wallace believes that Xu’s Forbes honor is a rare and important achievement for young researchers. According to NPR, in the beginning of 2022, there were about 1 million fewer students enrolled in college than before the pandemic, highlighting an upcoming trend of people preferring to enter the work force rather than university for financial reasons. Research in the hard sciences has also felt the effects of this trend, as there is a decline in the number of people pursuing higher education.
“When students think about going beyond their bachelor’s degree, they might not realize that professors and universities basically cover their tuition and give them a stipend,” Wallace said. “So they don’t have to actually pay the kind of money they would if they wanted to be an MD, or a lawyer or business student … in science and engineering, we’re so desperate to attract young, talented people that we’re absolutely happy to pay for them to go to school.”
Wallace highlighted that the difficulty of the math is one of the challenges that students encounter, which discourages them from entering higher level education in the sciences.
“Math is seen as a big hurdle, but really what it takes is just time … you really have to work hard. There’s no substitute for that,” Wallace said.
Wallace said Xu is a great example of a student who worked hard to achieve her goals despite facing personal challenges. Xu said she came to the U.S. when she was 15, and despite wanting to pursue the humanities and literature, her English was not as good compared to native speakers. She then focused on developing her math skills and pursuing engineering and physics. Even then, Xu felt doubt about whether research was the right path.
“… in my physics classes, there were very few women,” Xu said. “And it can be intimidating to even sit in that class because it’s like 80% men, and you feel like you don’t belong, and even the faculty are mostly men … but hopefully younger women can see that I have pursued science and achieved some level of success, and they can be encouraged. They should want to pursue science and they absolutely can.”
Xu also said that she and many of her classmates used to fear that they would not have many career prospects if they pursued physics. While Xu feels that this concern is valid, she said there are more career opportunities available than people may think.
“I think physics is a great major because you learn a lot of problem-solving skills, which can be applicable to a lot of different areas and jobs,” Xu said. “Looking back, I have my classmates who pursued Ph.D.’s in physics, and some are now working at big banks as quantitative analysts and some are working as engineers, and some are doing physics education … I think had my younger self known about all these different career paths, I would be less anxious about majoring in physics. So hopefully other physics students see this, and they may be scared, but I hope this encourages them too.”