High SchoolFalmouth High School
Undergraduate EducationBachelor's degree in Applied Mathematics and Chemistry from Yale University, 2023
As a boy growing up on Cape Cod, Charles Xu loved exploring the tidal marshes and estuaries that seemed to stretch on endlessly around his childhood home. He was fascinated by the diversity and the sheer abundance. A 2023 graduate of Yale University, where he is currently a research assistant in computer science and genetics, Xu traces his passion for both science and the environment back to those formative experiences.
“For me, my passion for these subjects emerges out of a sense of curiosity and wonderment about the natural world, and a deeper sense of how things are connected and all playing together. You can smell the sulfur and think about the mats of bacteria that are drawing down carbon, and you look at all these tiny developing organisms in the estuaries that branch off through the marsh, and you just become very curious about everything. Out of that curiosity, I think, grows love and affection for the living things that surround you. And from that comes a strong sense of stewardship.”
The Cape is a beautiful place, but it is also fragile and vulnerable. Charles was keenly aware of that, too, and he became interested early on in tackling big environmental challenges. With a naturally quantitative mind he combines his love of nature with an aptitude for thinking and problem-solving at scale. “The work I’m currently doing falls under the broad heading of ‘AI for science,’” he explains, “using artificial intelligence as a tool for understanding complex biological and physical systems.”
“Being a tree hugger and being a computational scientist are not mutually exclusive,” Charles says, “although I guess they're often non-overlapping circles.” What fascinates and energizes him is the prospect of harnessing the enormous potential power of AI to pursue systematic changes in how we use natural resources, or more fundamentally, how we treat the planet.
“I think it's the confluence of a desire to do good and seeing all of these really powerful examples of computation solving somewhat intractable problems that could have very deep impacts. I think that's where AI could really help, in addressing the problems at the kind of scope and size that they need to be handled. I really like that idea of taking a quantitative approach to the types of impacts we can have.” He is inspired by initiatives like Project Drawdown, where sophisticated science is applied to practical concerns. “For example, if we analyze different sources of carbon emission, we can see that while there are many different sectors in which we have carbon emission, some of them have much more sensitive levers. So, by pulling on refrigerants we can have a much greater effect than if we pull on other levers.
“For me, considering my skill set and looking at areas where I could effectively contribute, I think scaling and looking at climate change from a systems-level perspective is something I am well-suited for. You have all these processes going on simultaneously, interacting with one another. How do you optimize and find improvements, or create new technologies and understanding to address climate change? These sorts of questions play to both my professional and my personal interests and I find them very enjoyable to work on.”
As a young scientist starting his career, Charles recognizes the critical importance of encouragement and mentoring. A high school teacher steered him toward the Thoreau Scholars program, and he sees himself now as part of a growing community. There are two other HDTF Scholars currently at Yale and just passing them on campus gives him a sense of connection. Moving forward, he hopes that he might be able to motivate and impact other students as his mentors have affected him.
“I do like the idea of going into academia. I've been fortunate to have several very good mentors. Academia appeals to me not only because you get to do research, which is something that brings me a lot of personal fulfillment, but you can have a pretty big impact through your teaching and mentoring.”
As specialized and erudite as his scholarship might be, Charles keeps his feet firmly on the ground. “My neighbor growing up was a fisherman, and that was interesting because I think the environment is a source of beauty and inspiration, but it’s also essential to human health and prosperity. Being exposed to both of those is something that's really important, and it’s sort of unavoidable on Cape Cod.”