One of the greatest pleasures of studying at PKU is that you walk around campus knowing that in your midst are some people of unparalleled, prodigious genius. Erudite human beings who in years, months, and maybe even days to come will do things that many throughout the world might only ever dream of doing. This year’s Rhodes Scholar here at Peking University is one of those amazing people who are well on their way to making profound changes in not just Chinese society, but global society as well—his name is Xu Ni.
Born in Guizhou to parents from Shenyang in the Northeastern part of China, Xu Ni moved to Beijing at the age of six to attend school. He is now at Peking University’s School of Medicine, has also taken a “gap year” at Oxford University and has attended a three-week research program this past summer at Yale. Somehow through all of this, he still managed to find the time to study English— it’s no wonder this is Peking University’s Rhodes Scholar of 2017. At 23 years of age, Xu Ni has already accomplished a great deal, and yet he maintains an air of prudence and modesty that one might not expect from someone of his stature. In fact, Xu Ni credits a lot of his successes and accomplishments in life to chance. This was one of the concepts that kept coming up in my conversation with Xu Ni, and is crucial to his own telling of the story of how he arrived at this point in this life.
Just one of the many reasons Xu Ni was eligible for the Rhode’s Scholarship was that he has both set up and helped run branches of major medical exchange programs here in China, which includes the International Federation of Medical Students Association (IFMSA) and its Standing Committee on Research Exchange (SCORE), as well as It Gets Brighter China (or 总会变 好 in Chinese). According to Xu Ni’s own telling of the story, the founding of SCORE was possible because he took advantage of a chance, he saw a poster advertising an IMFSA conference in Tunisia and thought it would be “a good chance to travel with friends”. During his stay at the conference as a general delegate, he found that China lacked these institutions for international research exchange and so he felt he “had the responsibility” to found these organizations. Upon his return to China and after a bit of research, he founded SCORE China and became the National Officer of Research Exchange. After four months, he was also elected Vice President of IMFSA.
Xu Ni also attributes his decision to study medicine to chance. His high school entrance examination scores were good enough to get into the Second High School attached to Beijing Normal University, but couldn’t quite make the cut to get into their elite science program that he wanted, so he ended up testing into the elite humanities program instead. He found that, in fact, he had a knack for this area of study as well. In fact, he realized that he could find a way to synthesize his knack for humanities and his love for science through medicine. Had he not ended up in the humanities program, his direction in life may have been different.
When he came to PKU, he started out studying medicine, but he didn’t necessarily want to be a scientist and do research, he just wanted some practical experience. In fact, he wanted to be a brain surgeon similar to those he saw in medical dramas on television. He explained, “So, I wanted to get in touch with a neuroscientist… as a sophomore.” However, there was one problem with this plan, the school assigns supervisors for research training programs and they assigned Xu Ni a geneticist. “So I tried to contact a bunch of neuroscientists, but they are all full.” Here, ‘chance’ came back into play, and his neighbor told him there was a professor, “he had just come back from the U.S., and his research focused on neuropathic pain.” Xu Ni says, “I think it’s kind of practical, so I said, ‘Why not try neuropathic pain!’” This ended up leading to a first-author publication in the Journal of Neuroscience.
A major reason Xu Ni won this year’s Rhodes Scholarship is due to his work with mental illness and improving conditions for people suffering from mental illness in China. Here too, Xu Ni says his involvement in the field of mental illness and interest in psychiatry inadvertently happened over time. According to Xu Ni, “I think it wasn’t a ‘one-night decision’, its more about several pieces coming together, and then one day everything crystallized, I knew I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I think my reasons are four-fold: first, personal experience; second, personal fulfillment; third, the challenge; and fourth, the opportunity.” Xu Ni goes on to explain that his personal experience with chronic illness (ulcerative colitis), witnessing his grandmother’s struggle with depression and the fact that he’s a talkative guy have all come together in his decision to study psychiatry. “I think psychiatry is the perfect combination of neuroscience and getting to know people more deeply.
Over the summer, Xu Ni was a bit lost as to which direction he wanted to take his PhD research, but he knew he wanted to do clinical research and work with patients. So, he decided to do a three-week summer clinical neuroscience research program at Yale, where he would be researching ketamine as an anti-depressant. This is where Xu Ni discovered fulfillment: “In that ketamine research program, I started to take care of one patient with treatment refractory depression from the beginning to the end—for three weeks.” He continues, “When I first saw him, he was like a beggar; he didn’t shave, brush his teeth…he was just waiting for the new treatment.” Oddly enough, this man had suffered from chronic pain, and was now suffering from depression. A transition in illness that mirrored Xu Ni’s very own transition in research. By the end of the three weeks of treatment, this man had begun to recover. This story and the feeling of helping another person recover, the feeling of fulfillment has stayed with Xu Ni until now. He clarifies, “I want to be part of this positive transformation for patients, and I also want to harness the power of medical innovations.” The challenge of and opportunities in the field of psychiatry right now also add to the allure of this field of research for Xu Ni. He explains that the mental health challenges in China right now are something that he wants to help enact positive change in. He says, “Mental health is highly stigmatized in China right now.” He cites various cultural sources for this from media to the learned fear of mental illness from a very young age in China, and he feels that “our current medical education does not allow for better social acceptance of mental illness.” As such, there is plenty of room to move forward to more positive interaction with mental illness socially and culturally. This is where opportunity comes in.
There is plenty of room to move forward in the field of mental health in China. As Xu Ni himself says, “There are a lot of negative attitudes toward mental health in China. That’s why we wanted to start ‘It Gets Brighter China’,” Xu Ni says, “we want to raise awareness and provide education for the general public—get them to seek help.” China’s branch of ‘It Gets Brighter’ was founded by Xu Ni for this very reason. He wanted to use the model set up in the UK’s version of this noble organization (“sharing personal narratives”) to do that same work here in China, but with a twist. He wanted to implement a public awareness campaign as part of ‘It Gets Brighter China’. “It’s part of my specialty, so we deliver some professional knowledge, to fight groups, one for depression and one for Asperger Syndrome.
It is on this journey from testing into the high school humanities track, to having the chance to research neuropathic pain, to his current work in the field of psychiatry that Xu Ni primed himself to win a 2017 Rhode’s Scholarship, and it’s no wonder that he was chosen out of the many students who applied. Xu Ni is not just studying this field for the sake of studying, or even for the sake of finding a good job afterwards. He’s doing it to help people, and he discovered that this was what he wanted to accomplish on his journey to deciding to study psychiatry. This shows through some of his most recent work— using “the power of art to raise awareness” of mental illness. “For my part, I want to combine that with public education, so I’m collaborating with a very big company, My Therapist ( 简单心理).” He continues, “With their help, we will try to reach the general public through WeChat.” This sort of work that Xu Ni manages to not only accomplish, but also balance with his studies is what sets Xu Ni apart from other people. It is this drive to help people achieve better understanding of mental health, along with his ability to get things done that makes him a perfect candidate for the Rhodes Scholarship. It is what makes him one of the people of our generation that is going to not only change China, but also the world. “In the future—I’m writing the proposal now—I want to build up a kind of community for people interested in psychology and psychiatry, because in China, we currently lack professionals to deliver such services. So, I want to start these communities and connect them with specialists.” He has big ideas and wants to show the people in these communities that “you are not alone; you are not the only one who wants to study this. You will meet other people with the same ideas… and we can encourage people of younger generations to study psychology and psychiatry.” In this way, Xu Ni is set to change the face of psychology, psychiatry, and the understanding of mental health in China. He finishes, “I think the Rhodes Scholarship is both an honor and a responsibility.”
Author: Carson Ramsdell