By Brenlee Coates
Michael Xu has become a kind of ambassador for science education, but he says it hasn’t always been this way.
“I wasn’t always a kid that was a diligent person. I found it hard to detach myself from the Nintendo,” laughs Xu.
It was after finding his niche in research that he turned into the model student. “If you find something you’re passionate about, you follow with your effort,” he explains.
Unlike many of his high school compatriots, Xu spent his summers working in the lab alongside researchers at CancerCare Manitoba. It was a method used there that inspired his prize-winning experiment at the Canada-Wide Science Fair, earning him a $2,000 scholarship to pursue his post-secondary education, and the silver medal among 500 candidates. His experiment, which analyzes circulating tumour cells in prostate cancer patients, also won the inaugural prize for excellence from the Canadian Society of Clinical Chemists (CSCC).
Now in his first year at the University of Manitoba, Xu says he hasn’t decided if he wants to follow in his mother’s footsteps to become a doctor just yet, but he knows it’ll be something within the healthcare field. While careers in the field of medicine seem to run in the family, Xu attests that he didn’t have any genetic disposition to excel in science. “I don’t think it comes naturally to me,” says Xu. “I kind of came in learning how to run before you can walk… I think all kids kind of have an innate creativity in them, and I think research kind of brings that out in them.”
Although he doesn’t think anything sets him apart from other students, his appreciation for how he’s grown through his studies is quite mature for his age. “I’ve benefitted so much from this – all the skills I’ve developed,” says Xu, citing presentation skills and a strong work ethic as examples. “I’m very humbled… (But) the awards are really secondary to what I’ve learned.”
One of the goals Xu hopes to pursue in his career is to help “improve individualized treatment” in Canada. He says the same disease is treated the same way in most patients, even though their microbiology makes them unique.
In the meantime, Xu continues to champion science education to youth, hoping to spur similar enrichment in their lives. He’s volunteering for an upcoming provincial science fair at the university, and he assists in tours of schools through the Let’s Talk Science outreach program, where university and college students stage “fun experiments like exploding volcanoes” for young students. “That kind of thing turns into the inspiration for the cure for cancer,” proclaims Xu. He encourages students to get involved in their school science fairs, and can vouch for how inspiring it is to get to see people’s experiments across the country.
“There’s a lot of hardworking, inspirational people that are there. Not just the MDs but the people that you’re competing against,” says Xu. He knew many of them were going on to really reputable programs in international universities; “you kind of take the cue to work hard and it motivates you to work harder with whatever you want to do in life,” says Xu.
Though already very accomplished for his age, he looks forward to plenty of development over his years at the university: “I still have a lot to learn. I have so many more goals I want to accomplish.”