Sarah Xu kicks it up a notch

Sunday, March 4, 2012
Sarah Xu
Sarah Xu, LMP alumna at Yale Medical School

Whether investigating the role of tumour suppressor proteins in cancer, training at Yale Medical School, launching a social media company, or facing formidable opponents in the taekwondo ring, Sarah Xu, LMP alumna, is the personification of passion.

With infinite enthusiasm, it is a passion that extends to all aspects of her life. A recent graduate of the Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology’s (LMP) Arts and Science Undergraduate Pathobiology Specialist Program, she is also the past president of the student association (LMPSU).

Inspired by the courses offered through the department’s specialist program, Xu began her research career early with LMP Professor Michael Ohh. In the hopes of understanding why tumours with access to less oxygen become more aggressive, she investigated the oxygen sensing pathway between proteins Caveolin-1 (CAV-1) and Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR). Working with postdoctoral fellow Yi Wang, Xu helped to reveal that when a tumour lacks oxygen, the expression level of CAV-1 increases, which consequently increases EGFR signaling. This increase allows the tumour to grow more aggressively and has been observed in a variety of solid tumours. Prof. Ohh’s team believes that this might reveal another fundamental property of cancer biology.

“Despite numerous applications, I take only one summer student in a given year and Sarah was head and shoulders above the rest,” Prof. Ohh explains, “She’s very driven with infectious optimism. She’s one of the top few.”

With months of trouble-shooting and perseverance, the team was ecstatic to finally demonstrate the link between the proteins and the findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Describing the challenges of that research, she says, “The process really taught me that persistence is integral to research and that you have to have faith that the effort you exert every step of the way will help you realize your goal.”

During her time with Prof. Ohh, Xu was awarded the highly prestigious American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Undergraduate Poster Award. Prof. Ohh says, “Remarkably, she entered the competition all by herself, went there by herself and came back and said ‘Dr. Ohh, I won an award!’ Not many undergraduates have the initiative or the drive to do this.”

This drive persists and Xu is currently blazing new trails as a second year student at Yale Medical School. Beyond attending medical rounds, classes and sleepless nights spent studying for exams, she’s launched the first-ever Yale Pathology Interest Group. She is also the recent recipient of the Gold Award for Academic Excellence and Achievement in Pathology from the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP).

While pursuing a career as a clinician, she intends to continue pushing the boundaries in cancer research, “My past experience with research has shaped my view of medicine, in the sense that it made me realize that my role in medicine would mean more than just being a clinician or a pathologist.”

Never losing sight of the impact that research and clinical practice has on patients Xu participates in the Buddy’s Program offered at Yale. Through the program, she was partnered with a young girl with sickle cell anemia, a life-altering disease that requires ongoing blood transfusions to manage severe anemia. Xu supports her buddy through every transfusion and says, “It really helps me to remember that behind each tissue slide and behind each blood smear lies a patient. Their life and their family depend so much on the work that you do so it really helps to drive me further to be excellent in my academic pursuit. Also, I personally find it extremely rewarding.”

Not only is she impacting the lives of those around her, she also wants to improve the lives of millions through an entrepreneurial venture with former LMP students Boken Lin and Lex Wei. The group has been working on a social media application at the intersection of biomedical research and engineering. “It’s been extremely interesting in terms of the business challenges that we have to consider.” Xu points out. She adds, “It’s exciting to take problem solving outside of the classroom or laboratory.” At this rate, it’s not difficult to imagine her going toe to toe with Kevin O’Leary on the CBC’s Dragons’ Den.

When Xu isn’t in the lab, clinic or launching the next social media platform, you’ll find her throwing kicks in the taekwondo ring. Combining agility, flexibility and making quick decisions under pressure, she excels at this form of martial art. As part of the Yale taekwondo team, she is a fierce competitor and most recently won a bronze medal at the MIT National Collegiate Taekwondo Tournament.

Where will her passion lead her next? Deeply interested in pursuing clinical practice, cancer research and her entrepreneurial venture, it’s a given that she’ll continue to kick it up a notch in and outside of the ring.