GU alumna Helen Xun

Helen Xue is a graduate student at The John Hopkins University School of Medicine. 

If you’re looking for an example of someone who truly embodies what it means to be a Zag, look no further than Helen Xun.

Not only does she embody all of the qualities encompassed in Gonzaga’s mission statement, but she is also working on a project that will help fix the problem of ventilator shortages as the coronavirus sweeps the country.

Xun graduated from GU in 2015 with a degree in biochemistry and is now a student at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is working on a startup aimed at increasing ventilator capacities using 3D printing technology, which helps create prototypes at an accelerated rate. This will help ease the problem of ventilator shortages, a pressing issue since coronavirus cases around the country are increasing.

When Xun was a student at GU, she participated in lab research during her sophomore, junior and senior years. She worked closely in lab with Professor Jennifer Shepherd, chair of both the chemistry and biochemistry departments.

“Shepherd was a keystone mentor and role model for me. She challenged me daily and had a thirst for knowledge and research that inspired me to push myself,” Xun said via email. 

Xun credits both Shepherd and GU as the reasons she is where she is today.

“[Xun] is a giving person. She’s so smart, but she wasn’t ever super competitive [or] super cocky, just a very easy personality,” Shepard said. “She was very mature, she’s very independent and she’s a go-getter."

Xun also said how supportive the environment at GU is for women in S.T.E.M. fields.

“My mentors at Gonzaga in the department of biochemistry and biology taught me to be courageous, and never to make myself smaller or underestimate myself or my team,” Xun said. “It is a privilege to be surrounded by strong women faculty from diverse backgrounds, in both chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology, and supportive male faculty.” 

With her current work on her startup involving increasing ventilator capacities, Xun is combining medical research and engineering techniques, an innovative combination that she dubbed as being a "surgineer."

She said the GU community was influential in allowing her to pursue her passion.

“[The] nurturing environment and supportive community gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams of becoming a surgeon scientist, a dream that was unfathomable and unattainable prior to my matriculation to Gonzaga,” Xun said.

Shepherd also said how creative Xun is and how she had hoped Xun would use this to her advantage in the future.

“I had hoped that she would continue doing some kind of research and not just be a clinician because she’s so innovative, and I think the surgineer is good for her,” Shepherd said.

David Boose, chair of the biology department at GU, said Xun’s work developing ventilator adapters and working to help fight against coronavirus doesn’t surprise him.

“This is exactly the kind of thing that we want to prepare our students to do in biology and chemistry and biochemistry,” he said. “It’s not that she’s just out there doing research, but she’s actually using that research to solve societal problems. That’s exactly what you want science graduates from a Jesuit university to be like."

Xun mentored younger students while she was at GU and taught them techniques as well as helped them set up experiments, Shepherd said.

“[Xun’s] whole person is educated very well," Shepherd said. "She’s engaged in the community and she’s definitely a lifelong learner. You could read the Gonzaga mission statement and find all of these qualities."

According to GU’s mission statement, GU strives to educate its students for lives of leadership and service for the common good, inspire a commitment to solidarity, social justice and global engagement and to educate the whole person.

“She’s extremely bright. She likes to take charge of things and she likes to lead projects, and it sounds like she’s doing the exact same thing where she is in medical school,” Shepherd said. 

For current GU students, Xun said finding your passion is important, as well as being humble and always open to improving yourself and of listening to others.

“You can always learn something from anyone, it's a matter of listening and reflecting” Xun said. “Just stop and listen. Listen to what the world needs, what people need and what you need.”

Lillian Piel is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @Lil_Piel.

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