Issue Date: June 5, 2017
Career Ladder: Xiaoxi Wei
Encouragement from family
Growing up in China with a petrochemical engineer and businessperson father and a physician mother, Xiaoxi Wei was encouraged to pursue scientific activities. “My father would often let me take things apart and analyze how things worked, and my mother would stay by my bed telling me stories from the children’s encyclopedia when I was sick. I was fascinated by science.”
Chasing after a scientific theory
Wei became interested in cellular survival and transplant technology in elementary school after her grandfather died due to cirrhosis. She learned how fish are able to survive at below-freezing temperatures and that some organisms, such as frogs, can be completely frozen and awakened later. “My father encouraged me to be the ‘biohacker’ who can figure out how to freeze biological tissue for someone in need of a transplant, and I wanted to try it.”
Speed bump on the way to college
When starting her undergraduate studies, Wei was initially discouraged by her college entry exams. “I was really worried for the test and then performed below my standards. The entrance exam for Chinese students is considered to be the only life-changing event, but my parents encouraged me because it is just the starting point of life’s journey.” Wei went on to finish her bachelor’s degree in biotechnology at Ningbo University in 2007 with highest honors.
After working as a business translator for two years, Wei decided to come to the U.S. to continue her education but switched from biotechnology to medicinal chemistry at the University at Buffalo under professor Bing Gong, an expert in supramolecular chemistry. She realized the field of cryobiology was lacking a fundamental chemical understanding, which she views as the reason no one has made a major breakthrough. “I learned that the chemical concentrations needed to preserve organs long-term cause significant damage to an organ’s cells and lead to failure. I needed to study chemistry to figure out how to change that.”
Starting her own venture
Within months of finishing her doctorate in 2014, Wei founded X-Therma, which functions at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Molecular Foundry, giving it access to cutting-edge expertise and instrumentation. “I wanted to try on my own to make this big change happen where my designed molecules can truly be used for helping patients.” Wei hopes to benefit millions by revolutionizing cryopreservation. Her company has raised $3.6 million in angel and Small Business Innovation Research funding thus far. At age 31, she considers that a success.
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