Early Start, Big Finish

Natural Sciences3 MIN READ

Xiaoyue “Mike” Zheng sought—and found—high-level research at Colby

By Kardelen Koldas '15
May 24, 2020

When Xiaoyue “Mike” Zheng ’20 arrived on Mayflower Hill, he wanted to experience working in a lab as early as possible. By second semester, he’d joined Associate Professor of Biology Tariq Ahmad’s laboratory, starting off by taking care of fruit flies.

Four years later, Zheng leaves Ahmad’s lab and Colby not only as an exemplary biology student and highly skilled researcher but also as the class marshal, graduating with the highest G.P.A. in the Class of 2020. “He’s been awesome,” Ahmad said. “There’s no other way to describe it—the kind of work ethic he brings, the amount of hours he puts in. I just don’t know how he finds [the] time.”

During his sophomore year, Zheng worked with Ahmad on a project analyzing different proteins in flies that are associated with neurodegeneration. “After freshman year, I realized that if I really want to go into biology research after college, I might as well start early to get to know what it feels like,” said Zheng, a computer science and biology double major with a concentration in neuroscience, hailing from Dalian, a port city in northeastern China. “The nice thing about his lab is that you can actually work to different extents,” which Zheng did, becoming more involved each year. 

As a senior, Zheng pursued an honors thesis in Ahmad’s lab, exploring and characterizing pathways through which a mutant protein causes neurodegeneration using a fly disease model.

The research Zheng conducted, Ahmad said, was easily at the graduate level. He has already published two papers and is expected to coauthor more, which Ahmad noted is both “unusual” and “amazing.” 

“We are all very proud of his accomplishments,” he Ahmad. “I don’t know how I’ll run my lab without him.”

Zheng gave it his all in the classroom, too.  

His academic success earned him election into Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and most respected undergraduate honor society, in his junior year. The Biology Department awarded him its Alan Samuel Coit Biology Prize, given to students making extraordinary accomplishments and achieving a high level of excellence in their studies.

As a Presidential Scholar, Zheng was also involved with the Maine Concussion Management Initiative, where he developed software that would assist data collection and data analysis for Colby athletes. In his senior year, he modified the software to make it more applicable for non-Colby athletes.  

Zheng also sought opportunities beyond Colby. 

He interned at a lab in New York City last summer, gaining experience developing software and tools for building computational models of cells. “It was pretty cool,” he said. “I got to learn how people model cells and use my computer science skills in a biology project.”

This summer he’ll remotely join the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences as a computer science intern. In the fall, he’ll start a Ph.D. program at Watson School of Biological Sciences in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Long Island, N.Y.

“I’d like to pursue neuroscience research,” he said, “and hopefully contribute to the understanding of how the brain processes information.”