Tony Xu kept his head in the books during his first year in a dual-degree program at Western. It paid off: far from just dedicating himself to his coursework, he also developed a tool to make scientific papers more accessible for the average student by trawling the internet for related discussion and context.
Looking back on his undergraduate degree now, you’d never know he was tucked away studying when he started at Western. Now graduating from software engineering and commerce and on his way to a master’s program with a prestigious scholarship under his belt, Xu has a burgeoning resume and an extracurricular calendar to match.
Xu made the most of his time as an undergraduate student, throwing himself into fulfilling research projects like studying the optimal needle placement for prostate cancer treatment and classifying satellite tornado images. He joined the triathlon and equestrian clubs, landed the role of lead software engineer on the Sunstang Solar Car and worked as a residence don on top of it all.
“I wish I was more involved in my first year, so it was nice to better seize the opportunity in later years,” Xu said.
It changed the way Xu thought about his future.
“Prior to Western, my dream was to get a nice job, but now my dream would be to do something entrepreneurial; I realize it’s actually possible to take products to market. That’s one thing I hope to bring to my further studies. I’m hoping I’ll get some unique insight into a problem I could build a product around.” – Tony Xu, engineering and commerce graduate
Making academic text more accessible
He has already created a tool to respond to a real-life need in his own world.
“A couple of friends and I noticed it was really difficult to read scientific papers, but Googling didn’t provide in-depth views into a scientific topic. We didn’t really understand the terminology they were using; a lot of the papers were heavy on math and it took a lot of time to understand what they were saying. We also weren’t sure what the ultimate impact of the paper on a field was.”
“Every paper seems so niche, so it’s really hard to get the big picture, and at the same time, the very latest, cutting-edge information.”
Xu and his friends built a system to highlight news stories, blog posts and videos that capture the scientific conversations around high-impact publications to give a reader context, a greater depth of knowledge on the research discussed in the paper.
“We applied to a lot of incubators and programs, but received rejections. That was really tough, but we were still learning the business process,” Xu said.
His dual degree at Western helped build the skills and knowledge he needed to market and finalize the web tool.
Xu presented the idea at a library conference with dozens of academic librarians and generated interest from several American colleges. Eventually his team piloted the tool with two Toronto high schools from 2018 to 2020. Thousands of students tested it and provided feedback.
“The students said it was cool and helped them learn more. The teachers said it was a good ice breaker to interesting topics,” Xu said.
He hopes to advance his technical skills even further during his master’s to enhance the tool.
Stretching his wings
Though Xu has accomplished more than many, he emphasizes that Western taught him much more than academic concepts and professional skills. The interpersonal was just as important, he said.
Xu pointed to the rich array of opportunities he seized in search of new experiences, adding clubs, athletics and fun to balance out his demanding academic pursuits.
“Try to stretch outside your comfort zone,” he advised incoming students.
Embracing that motto was one of the most valuable shifts he made at Western, Xu said.
“It was a really good opportunity to interact with people with different perspectives, different philosophies on life. That was a really good lesson for me. Now I seek that out.”
Next, Xu’s headed to McGill on the McCall MacBain Scholarship to pursue a Master of Science degree in electrical and computer engineering. He hopes to use the skills he developed at Western to drive solutions.