by Abby Thompson
March 27, 2023
As a third year Medical Biosciences major at Imperial College, receiving “top of the year” awards for two consecutive years, alumna Kexin Xu participated in the 2022 cohort of the Equitech Scholars Program. She was recently accepted to the University of Oxford to pursue a Ph.D. in computational biology under a prestigious Clarendon Scholarship.
Originally from China and now living in the UK, Kexin wanted to bolster her computational biology skills with tools from data science. Kexin found a blog post about the Equitech Scholars program in the spring of 2022.
“I didn’t know what getting into the program would mean at the time. I thought it was a regular program where people learn to code. I’ve had programs before where there were no faculty members to guide me and we had to learn to code by ourselves, but in reality, it’s just so different from what I expected! I feel like the faculty really know how to inspire people’s interests in the topic. I think the key thing is that they all have this dream to change the world for the better, and they’re all thinking about how to use AI to improve equity and health care rather than just doing it for the sake of it,” she says.
Kexin says when she was at Imperial, she didn’t know how to code in Python, but while participating in Equitech Futures programming, she had tutorials with faculty where she learned how to use this language. With that, she has been able to work on the Nightingale Research challenge, through Equitech Research Labs, alongside faculty and peers. She is currently doing statistical analysis and hopes to continue collaborating with others in the Equitech community on research for social impact.
At the end of Kexin’s bachelors program, she didn’t expect to jump straight into a Ph.D. program. “I was planning to do a Master’s program first,” she says, “but after speaking with all four of the faculty, and with their encouragement, I decided to apply to several programs.”
“Before I applied to Oxford, I was rejected by Imperial and University College London for their Ph.D. programs. I was upset and considered applying to lesser well-known universities. Instead, I talked again with my teachers, and they told me I should believe in myself that the right opportunity was still ahead of me. I wrote 10 more applications! I think if you get a rejection, that doesn't say a whole lot about you. It likely means they don’t know how to appreciate you yet, and you should not value yourself as worth any less, and you should keep applying. For me, I got three offers after being rejected by universities that rank below them.”
Kexin credits Bhasi Nair, one of her faculty, for helping her learn the process of choosing a Ph.D. supervisor. “The key thing he said after the Equitech IRL event in London was that I should be able to choose my supervisor, rather than my supervisor choosing me. He really encouraged me that I should choose a supervisor really carefully.”
Kexin is excited to begin her program at Oxford in the fall and particularly interested in using spatial transcriptomics, named “method of the year” by Nature Magazine in 2020, to study gut development. She wants to research how immune cells colonize the gut to help understand irritable bowel syndrome. Kexin is trying to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help build a 3D model of the gut that incorporates already existing single-cell data. Beyond the Ph.D. program, she hopes to conduct research in the medical industry using AI to help model biology.
Kexin also hopes to help bridge the gap of education inequality between countries and help others who apply to Masters and Ph.D. programs in the United Kingdom. When she was applying, Kexin says some of her peers found it unimaginable how much access she had to professors, advisors, and suggested opportunities. She began to realize the educational inequities, specifically for immigrant students.
“We are so privileged to have so many resources and small group tutorials and so many experts in the field teaching me about stuff. 80% of my Ph.D. offer is because of the privileges I have. To apply, I needed to have research experience and because I am studying in the UK, I can email my professors to get research experiences with my network to write in my CV to help with my admissions for Ph.D. programs.” While acknowledging her privilege, she does not deny the difficulties she herself has had along the journey.
“When I was applying for my Ph.D., I was quite determined, but my family was against it because I am a woman. Tech is a very male dominated industry and program.” she says. When asked about her advice for the future generation, specifically women interested in data science, she says, “Don’t be scared to have your voice and to stand up to your parents and your peers, because a lot of times I think the men are more confident about striving for their rights, but a lot of females are too polite or too kind to stand up for themselves and do what they want. They keep sacrificing for themselves and their family and are often forced to conform to the norm of caring for their family and prioritizing them over career. In a male dominated environment like academia, a female has to stand up for herself and not be scared to apply.”
Kexin looks forward to continuing to stand for this during and beyond her time at Oxford.
To join the Equitech Scholars program this year, apply by April 15, 2023.