Emma Xu Named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 List

Mechanical Engineering PhD student is cited for her research in photonics

Feb 09 2023 | By Eithne McDonald | Photo Credit: Emma Xu/Columbia Engineering
Emma Xu awarded Forbes 30 Under 30 2023 for Science

Credit: Emma Xu/Columbia Engineering

Emma Xu, a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, was recently named a member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2023 for Science. She was selected for co-inventing a photon-avalanching process and for developing a process to apply nanoparticles to N95 masks for viral disinfection. An inventor of several patent-pending technologies, Xu’s work has even appeared on the cover of Nature magazine. Among her other awards is the prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. 

Xu’s journey began in China. At the age of 15, she immigrated with her family to a small town in Texas, where she had to work minimum-wage jobs to support herself and her family. For college, Xu initially enrolled in a small, local institution that didn’t have a physics department. During this time, she was also homeless as she escaped from her abusive stepfather. Xu says that she “constantly worried” about her next meal and accommodation for the night, as she went to school full-time during the day, and did various part-time jobs in the evenings and weekends. She recalls having “no prospects for the future” and “was just trying to survive, day by day.”

In her sophomore year, she finally transferred to the University of Texas at Dallas on a full scholarship, where she discovered her passion for physics and began her research career. She earned her BS in Physics in 2015, and is now a sixth-year PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, working with Associate Professor P. James Schuck to develop lanthanide-doped upconverting nanoparticles (UCNPs) for cutting-edge imaging probes, sensors, and local light sources. 

If you work hard and have a clear goal of what you want to achieve, things will work out accordingly, and people will be eager to help you.

Emma Xu
PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering

Xu has conducted research at the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of California-Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and various startups. Her research interests include nanotechnology, photonics, and spectroscopy. Xu’s work focuses on characterizing nanoparticles to study their optical properties with applications to a variety of fields such as bioimaging, night vision, additive manufacturing, and viral disinfection. She is the co-founder and CEO of Avant Photonics, a startup that aims to build the world’s highest resolution 3D printer (sub 100 nm resolution). Some exciting applications are photonic integration and master fabrication. 

Despite all she has endured, Xu believes that “if you work hard and have a clear goal of what you want to achieve, things will work out accordingly, and people will be eager to help you.” Honored to be listed as a Forbes 30 Under 30, she credits her time at Columbia Engineering to being the most crucial and rewarding part of her journey. She is grateful for Professor Schuck’s encouraging and supportive mentorship, especially his support for her entrepreneurial pursuits; she also feels lucky to be a part of a friendly and collaborative lab culture, where she gets to work with many talented researchers from all over the world.

Several alumni were also named to the 2023 Forbes 30 under 30 lists: Shensi Ding ’15SEAS and Gil Feig ’15SEAS, Cofounders, Merge, on the Enterprise Technology list; and, on the Games list, Dominique Gordon ’19SEAS, Product Manager, Xbox; and Chloe Shih ’16SEAS, Product Lead, Discord.

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