Grads 2021: From XJTLU to Harvard

02 Sep 2021

Di Zhen, a Chinese student graduating from the School of Science, reflects on her journey to Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, her academic highlights and how the University set her on a path to her dreams.

Armed with a BSc Biological Sciences degree from XJTLU, Zhen wants to use the knowledge and experience she received to further her studies in Computational Biology at Harvard University.

A life-changing decision

But Zhen didn’t always have much of a plan for her future. She describes herself before university as an aimless frog, content to stay at the bottom of the well.

She didn’t even have a dream school – her parents made the decision for her after consulting several teachers and educators and ultimately landing in XJTLU.

Four years later, Zhen has climbed out of the well and is jumping even further. She has received offers from several prestigious universities, including Harvard, Columbia and Carnegie Mellon University.

Looking back, three events from her academic career stick in Zhen’s mind as turning points: a competition from the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation (iGEM), laboratory volunteer opportunities at XJTLU and the Harvard summer research programme.

Known unknowns

Like many students making the transition from a sheltered life at school to a more independent life at university, Zhen found her first year challenging. However, that changed when she joined the iGEM competition – she thrived in the new environment.

Zhen, then a Year One student, had to work hard to keep up with her Year Two and Three teammates. “It felt like entering a new world. The more I learned, the more I realised I don’t know,” she says.

To present the project, Zhen and her team travelled to Boston. They were joined by hundreds of groups around the world. Zhen was amazed and greatly encouraged. “I was shocked. I never thought there would be so many people with a passion for science,” she says.

The real meaning of research

Even though iGEM was a valuable experience, Zhen realised that wet-lab experiments, in which scientific research is carried out using chemicals or biological samples, just weren’t for her. It was then when she overheard that Dr Jia Meng was conducting a Bioinformatics project.

Without a second thought, Zhen contacted him explaining her wish to join his team. “I sent out the email impulsively; there were even grammar mistakes,” Zhen says. “But looking back, I’m glad I sent it.”

To her surprise, Dr Meng replied promptly and recommended she read two books about the R programming language. After devouring the books, Zhen joined the team as a laboratory volunteer.

“The books helped me better understand the research topic. Although it was a new field for me, I observed my seniors and listened to their reports, and I gradually understood what research really means,” Zhen recalls.

Reach for the stars

As a result of her experience as a lab volunteer, Zhen chose Bioinformatics in Year Two and applied for a masters programme in Computational Biology in Year Three.

For her further education, Zhen’s teachers and classmates encouraged her to apply to Harvard University. They explained to her that every year, XJTLU students receive offers from the foremost universities in the world.

“I felt nervous, but at the same time, confident,” she says. “If my seniors can succeed, so can I.”

To polish up her resume, Zhen searched for summer research programmes overseas. After sending out 20 emails, she received interview invitations from both Harvard University and Yale University.

Zhen opted for the three-month research programme at Harvard, which provided excellent opportunities and many challenges. “I couldn’t go to the US and our regular meetings were held in the daytime for them, which was nighttime in China,” Zhen says.

It was difficult at first, but Zhen quickly found a solution: “The professors and PhD students couldn’t guide me 24/7, so I set up a timetable to ask them questions and report my progress every week.”

By participating in the summer research programme, Zhen gained a slight edge over the other Harvard applicants. And this paid off when she received her dream offer – MSc Computational Biology at Harvard University.

Don’t fear failure

Four years at XJTLU has transformed Zhen from a frog at the bottom of the well into an eagle ready to soar.

Reflecting on her university life, Zhen believes that people in their 20s should not be afraid of failure or making mistakes. “Failure is part of the learning curve,” she says. “And mistakes can help shine a light on your uniqueness and unleash your full potential.”

By Qiuchen Hu, Huan Zhu
Photo by Yanye Wang
Edited by Xinmin Han and Patricia Pieterse

02 Sep 2021