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U honors fifth consecutive Churchill Scholar

Prestigious Churchill Scholarship provides opportunity to complete a one-year master’s program at the University of Cambridge

Michael Xiao of Pleasant Grove, Utah, a senior honors student majoring in biology, has received the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He is one of only 15 students nationally to receive the award this year and is the fifth consecutive Churchill Scholar from the U.

“Michael, who is also a talented concert pianist, epitomizes how early research opportunities are transformative and how they ‘turbo-charge’ the likelihood of creating world-class scientists,” said Denise Dearing, director of the School of Biological Sciences. “The School is first in line to congratulate him on receiving this extraordinary award.”

The Churchill Scholarship, established in 1963 at the request of Winston Churchill, provides undergraduates with outstanding academic achievement in the science, technology, engineering and math fields the opportunity to complete a one-year master’s program at the University of Cambridge. Students go through a rigorous endorsement process in order to apply, but only after their home institution has been vetted with the Churchill Foundation. The U was added to the foundation in 2014.

Michael Xiao, 2020 Churchill scholar from the U.

Michael Xiao, 2020 Churchill scholar from the U.

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Xiao, also a recipient of a 2019 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, had already presented and published work on how diesel emissions affect DNA by the time he finished high school. When he was in eighth grade, he contacted Dr. Kim O’Neill at nearby BYU to see if he could conduct experiments in his lab.

“The work I did in that lab really inspired me to keep going and helped me realize there are so many things we don’t know about major diseases such as cancer and muscular dystrophy,” said Xiao. “I think there’s a real thrill and satisfaction for me when I discover something that’s impactful.”

Xiao has added several more publications while at the U, studying how muscle stem cells differentiate.

“My research now in Jared Rutter’s lab basically looks at PAS Kinase, a protein with roles in stem cell differentiation that haven’t been well established in previous studies, said Xiao. “I’m looking at the biochemistry of this protein and also how it influences muscle stem cell quiescence and activation of the differentiation program.”

The program at Cambridge starts Oct. 1, 2020. While there, Xiao plans to join the lab of Dr. Christian Frezza at the MRC Cancer Unit for a master’s in medical science.

After his return, he hopes to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. and eventually start his own lab applying clinical insights to better understand the molecular mechanisms underlying disease.

“I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had here at the U, especially in terms of research and none of it would have been possible without my mentors such as Chintan Kikani, Anca Franzini and Michael Deininger,” said Xiao. “Ginger Smoak also supported me through this Churchill Scholarship application process and provided excellent advice.”