Chemistry professor Xiaoji Xu named a 2020 Sloan Research Fellow

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Assistant chemistry professor Xiaoji Xu was recently named a 2020 Sloan Research Fellow. The fellowship, awarded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, seeks to honor outstanding early-career researchers across eight fields, according to the Sloan press release. This year, there were 126 recipients. 

Xu, one of 23 chemistry researchers nominated, will receive a two-year $75,000 fellowship that will go toward advancing his research. 

Xiaoji Xu

Gregory Ferguson, chair of the chemistry department, said this award places Xu in an elite group of emerging leaders in the field of chemistry.

Lauren von Eckartsberg, the Sloan Foundation’s grant coordinator, said early-career researchers sometimes struggle to attain the funds necessary to advance their research projects. Since the inception of the fellowship in 1955, the foundation has aimed to recognize and reward the work of younger researchers. 

“Typically, as early-career professors, it’s a difficult time to get funding,” von Eckartsberg said.  “That is one of the main reasons why the award was geared toward them. Also, just being able to identify those people who are showing promise and who will continue to go on and make great discoveries and conduct new research in various fields.”

Ferguson has high praise for his colleague. He said Xu has upheld the mission of the chemistry department and has contributed greatly to the university in his teaching, research and service. 

Xu said he is honored to have received the award and believes it will allow him to explore with higher risk. 

“When you do research, there’s a technical aspect and a confidence aspect,” Xu said. “With the fellowship, I get a boost to the confidence aspect. In this case, I am more willing to take scientific risk, conduct high-risk, high-reward experiments.”

Xu said his research and interest lies in physical and analytical chemistry, as opposed to synthetic and organic chemistry– the areas people often associate with discipline. He is currently working on a family of techniques called nanospectroscopy, trying to understand how molecules respond to light at the nanoscale. The molecules in question are smaller than a wavelength of light. 

There is a diffraction limit that puts a barrier on the optical resolution. Xu said he is developing techniques to bypass the diffraction limit to get to the spectroscopy of molecules and materials at the nanoscale. 

Xu said he will use the money to study the formation of aerosols, referring to submicron particles. Tailpipe emissions are one example of aerosols. He plans on purchasing an aerosol collector and will use the analytical chemistry technique his group developed to study their composition and how different chemicals organize to form the particles. 

Ferguson said since the discovery of the microscope through the present day, chemists have always been interested in visualizing the natural world in as great a resolution as possible. He believes Xu is taking that to the next level. 

“(Xu is) answering the question how does one image below the natural diffraction limit?” Ferguson said. “He’s developing techniques that allow imaging, allow chemists and scientists to see things over very small light scales. He’s a fantastic colleague. When my own or other research groups have had issues or challenges that his techniques can bear upon, he’s always very eager to help out. In terms of collegiality, you can’t beat him.”

Xu said he doesn’t believe he has distinguished himself from his peers. He attributes his success to having not been afraid to try new things rather than follow others, and believes luck may have also played a role. 

“As a researcher, if you do crazy work that is new, rather than following others, eventually if successful, it will bring more reward than following existing research and others,” Xu said. “In this case, I feel myself to be very lucky. I had several ideas and when I tried them, almost half of them worked. I was able to bring something new to my research area.”

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