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Professor X. Nancy Xu Receives AAAS Mentor Award

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

X. Nancy Xu, professor of chemistry, biochemistry and biomedical sciences and biomedical engineering at Old Dominion University, has been named the recipient of the 2020 Mentor Award, presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Xu is being honored for her efforts to recruit women, underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students to the fields of 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 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. Xu has lead work 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. Women make up 70% of the researchers in Xu’s laboratory.

Xu is “especially dedicated to identifying students, many from populations that are underrepresented in STEM, who need help to overcome their insecurities and doubts in their own abilities to succeed,” said Linda McGown, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in a nomination letter. “She is particularly sensitive to the diversity of experience and challenges across the student population and tailors her efforts to meet the needs of the individual.”

She has also prioritized creating opportunities for students to present their findings at national meetings, said nominator Younan Xia, professor of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “The symposia organized by Dr. Xu always include renowned researchers, rising young stars, and outstanding students from various disciplines of chemistry,” said Xia.

Xu has received a number of awards from Old Dominion University that recognize her role as a mentor. She has received the student-selected “Most Inspiring Faculty Member” award three times and received the President John R. Broderick University Diversity Champion Award in 2018.

Nominators also championed the achievements of her students as a testament to Xu’s guidance. Xu has directed and mentored 12 postdocs, 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.

Said Warner, “She has been and continues to be an outstanding leader, educator and mentor. Her devotion to educating the next generation of STEM students has made a difference in the lives of many students and in the educational environments in which she has worked.”

The AAAS Mentor Award honors individuals who have mentored a significant number of students working toward a Ph.D. who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, including women, minorities and people with disabilities. The award winner must also demonstrate scholarship, activism and community-building on behalf of underrepresented groups in STEM. The award, established in 1993, is given to mid-career professionals who have less than 25 years of experience; mentors with more experience receive the Lifetime Mentor Award.

Xu will receive the award on Feb. 15 at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle.


Nancy Xu with students
X. Nancy Xu is being honored for her work in recruiting and advancing women, underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students in science. | Courtesy X. Nancy Xu