Getting to know: Graduate student Kerry Xu hopes to inspire next generation of scientists

Kerry Xu works in a chemistry lab on the UIUC campus.

One year ago, Kerui “Kerry” Xu (BS, '21) was about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Illinois and was still considering her next step.

Passionate about teaching science to others, Xu was leaning toward pursing a Master’s in education until she finished her senior thesis.

“I felt that my passion for chemistry research was outrunning the passion for science education,” said Xu, who is now a first-year graduate student in chemistry at UIUC, where she works as a teaching assistant in chemistry and is a member of professor Mei Shen's research group.

Xu said she is involved in research that uses electrochemical methods to detect neurotransmitters, which are closely related to most neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are aiming to develop implantable electrodes for in vivo detections of neurotransmitters via electrochemical methods,” Xu said. “Hopefully, we could relate certain conditions (such as environmental pollutants) to the changes in neurotransmitter releases in brains and eventually unveil the cause of neurodegenerative diseases.”

Xu has had a lot of practice lately explaining research in the Shen lab. Earlier this spring, she was a contestant in “Research Live!” – a speech contest in which students have three minutes to explain their research on stage in front of a live audience that is not chemists-only.

“We received feedback from judges after the preliminary round and continued to polish our speeches for the final showcase,” said Xu, who made it to the final round of the competition. “Besides the competition, it is also a platform for sharing research projects across disciplines. It is fascinating to learn other research outside the chemistry department. I enjoyed my experience not only because that was the first time I got to physically meet a lot of people after the pandemic, but also the fact that I received positive feedback from the general audience. I have always considered delivering a scientific speech to the general public as a challenge for most scientists.”

Born in Hangzhou, a growing city in southeastern China known for industry, information technology, and scientific research, Xu said she did not have a sterling academic record and was told by middle school teachers that she might not make it to college.

“People usually would expect a story of how an intelligent kid discovered their research interest at a young age and continued to pursue their dream. I was not born with extreme talent in the STEM field as people would stereotypically expect,” Xu said.

At the age of 14, her life completely changed, according to Xu, when she moved to the United States and enrolled at an all-girls high school in Buffalo, New York.

One of her high school teachers introduced her to the exciting world of chemistry, which had first caught Xu’s interest when she was given a toy microscope that her cousin didn’t want. It wasn’t fancy, Xu said, but she got to observe fibers and large particles from daily objects.

That initial interest continued to grow in her high school chemistry class.

“Her excellent teaching style made chemistry an enjoyable journey instead of a boresome subject,” Xu said of her chemistry teacher.

Xu said that learning experience also taught her that education was the key to inspiring young generations. She now aspires to go on to a postdoctoral position in a research lab and eventually become a lecturer.

“So I can inspire the next generation,” said Xu, who also enjoys photography, cooking, sketching, and martial arts outside of her academic career. “I box on a regular basis.”

— Tracy Crane, Department of Chemistry

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