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A Look Back at 2020 AAAS Award Winners: Chemistry Professor Champions Underrepresented Students

Nancy Xu of Old Dominion University is the winner of the 2020 AAAS Mentor Award. | Neil Orman/AAAS 

Each year, AAAS bestows two awards on individuals who demonstrate extraordinary leadership to increase the participation of groups underrepresented in science and engineering, including women of all backgrounds, Black, Native American and Hispanic men, and people with disabilities. In 2020, the Mentor Award went to X. Nancy Xu for her work to recruit women, underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students to chemistry, biochemistry and biomedical sciences and engineering and to support their retention, inclusion and advancement.

“It is difficult to imagine a more qualified professor who effectively combines top-quality research with an intense interest in mentoring students at every level,” said Isiah Warner, professor of analytical and environmental chemistry at Louisiana State University, in a nomination letter.

Xu is a professor and the director of a laboratory that pursues research at the interface of chemistry, biology, engineering and medicine at Old Dominion University, a minority-serving institution in Norfolk, Virginia. Women make up 70% of the researchers in Xu’s laboratory, which focuses on nanobiology techniques to address biomedical problems, developing spectroscopic imaging platforms to examine single live cells and single developing embryos in real time at nanometer resolution.

She also served for more than a decade as the biological chemistry track coordinator and director of an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in biomedical sciences, to which she actively recruited and supported women, minority and first-generation students. Xu has also prioritized creating opportunities for students to present their findings at national meetings.

Nominators also championed the achievements of Xu’s students as a testament to her guidance. Xu has directed and mentored 12 postdoctoral fellows, 18 Ph.D. students, three master’s students, 35 undergraduate students, and five high school students, many of them members of groups underrepresented in science. Nearly all undergraduates she mentored have pursued graduate degrees in chemistry, biochemistry, engineering or biomedicine, many of whom have gone on to faculty positions at universities or other prestigious roles in medicine and industry.

The 2021 recipients of AAAS’ two awards for mentoring – the Mentor Award goes to a mid-career professional with less than 25 years of experience, while a mentor with more experience receives the Lifetime Mentor Award – will be announced during the AAAS Annual Meeting, to be held virtually Feb. 8-11. Register for the meeting today.

[Associated image: Courtesy X. Nancy Xu]



Andrea Korte

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