P.D. Soros Fellowship for New Americans


Zijian Niu, 2024

PhD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Zijian Niu is an immigrant from China

Fellowship awarded to support work towards a PhD in Computational and Systems Biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Zijian (William) Niu was born in Kaifeng, China, but he spent much of his early childhood in Shanghai. His parents wanted to give him a better education, so they sacrificed their respectful occupations and proximity to their extended family, immigrating to the United States when Zijian was eight.

With limited English proficiency, Zijian’s parents were forced to take up low-paying jobs. Merely two years after arriving, his mother was hospitalized with nasopharyngeal cancer. With his father working late into the night, Zijian often felt a sense of helplessness. Thankfully, he found refuge in his education, developing his own independence and resilience with the help of English language learner teachers and friends who adamantly tried to communicate with him.

Throughout the rest of his K-12 education, Zijian developed a fascination for biology, having witnessed both the complexity of its systems and its simultaneous fragility when faced with disease. Zijian is now finishing his undergraduate career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studies biochemistry, biophysics, and physics as a Roy and Diana Vagelos Molecular Life Sciences Scholar.

At Penn, Zijian works with Professor Arjun Raj to develop new computational methods for biomedical image analysis, including a deep learning algorithm for detecting diffraction-limited spots in fluorescence microscopy images obtained from spatial transcriptomics. For this work, he was awarded the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship in 2023.

Zijian’s interest in accelerating biomedical discovery through computation has led him to pursue a PhD in computational and systems biology. He aims to develop novel computational methods to extract biological insights more efficiently from experimental data and leverage these tools to tackle complex biological problems.

Having served as a teaching assistant and peer educator on Penn’s campus and a STEM mentor at underserved Philadelphia high schools, Zijian is also passionate about science education and communication. In 2022, he cofounded an initiative called Project Lucid to build awareness and confidence for effective science communication among Penn undergraduates. In addition to his future research career, Zijian aims to leverage his communication skills to promote scientific literacy and inspire scientific enthusiasm among the public and K-12 students, especially those from underserved communities.

  • BA Biochemistry, Biophysics, Physics | University of Pennsylvania 2024
  • PhD Computational and Systems Biology | Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Barry M. Goldwater Scholar
  • Roy and Diana Vagelos Scholar
  • Roy and Diana Vagelos Science Challenge Award
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