Nanxi Xu is a 4th year Ph.D. student in Developmental Psychology at the University of Missouri (MU) focusing on social and emotional development in children. Nanxi’s research looks to answer how early childhood experiences impact people and their relationships throughout their life.
“I really enjoy working with family and kids,” Nanxi said. “I had some questions about how early childhood experiences are navigated through lifelong development and that really encouraged me to pursue my research in this area.”
Her road to becoming a scientist was anything but typical. Nanxi started as a finance major at the University of Wisconsin – Madison (UWM) and had to take an introductory psychology course as part of the prerequisites for getting into the business school which led her to become a double major in finance and psychology.
“I probably would never have chosen psychology as my major if it weren’t for the prerequisite,” Nanxi said. “I’m an international student, English is not my primary language so reading and writing a lot of reports and papers is not really my strength.”
Nanxi has been utilizing the skills from her business degree this year when looking into internships and fellowships in science policy. Through science policy, Nanxi wants to advocate for families and children that have survived neglect and abuse or are part of underrepresented populations.
Studying Developing Minds
Nanxi has over a decade of experience working with children and families. Research in child development can focus on normative samples, studying children and families experiencing typical development, or focus on clinical populations. Currently, Nanxi’s work is researching typical childhood development and social structures. While pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Denver, Nanxi worked with children that have been mistreated or from low-income communities.
“I feel like my experience working with diverse families really helped me to learn what kind of social issues I’d like to focus on through science policy,” Nanxi said. “I’d like to focus on children and families that live in historically underserved communities, like low income and rural communities, and really advocate for them and their needs.”
Nanxi volunteers with a variety of projects that have a large advocacy focus. One of these organizations is the Preschool Development Grant through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. This program works to provide quality learning opportunities for young children. Nanxi is a consultant on a project that advises on family relationships and the emotional and social development of children with and without these learning opportunities.
Children need to master a variety of skills, both cognitively and socially, at a young age to be able to succeed in school, such as making good relationships with their peers. The Preschool Development Grant works to make sure that children can have the resources they need to develop these skills, regardless of their income level or other socioeconomic factors.
“With this program, whatever children need to overcome certain barriers, we can get them the resources so they can be successful in school,” Nanxi said. “If parents are stressed and unable to be engaged, we need to look for what the government can do to reduce some of the burdens for the family so we can further increase healthy development in children.”
Currently, Nanxi is working on her research on how children develop, specifically on how parental guidance and social relationships help produce productive members of society. To connect this research with her career goal in science policy, Nanxi agreed to volunteer with Boone County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) organization. CASA works on the legal side of child welfare issues, such as abuse or neglect, to advocate for the child’s best interest in court. Nanxi has also been networking with people who have experience with the adoption and foster care systems in Missouri.
“Research is only one piece of the entire puzzle,” Nanxi said. “I’m trying to learn about child development in ways other than research, there are so many other branches that play a part into the big picture of a child’s life.”
Advocacy through Mentorship and Relationships
Nanxi takes being an advocate seriously in all parts of her life. Not only does she spend countless hours a week busy with research and teaching, but she is also a mentor for underrepresented undergraduate students at the university, often freshmen and sophomores through the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program.
“This program provides opportunities for students who otherwise never thought about exploring research opportunities,” Nanxi said. “This is a great way to give these students a headstart so they can begin thinking about potential careers or skill sets to hone in on that they wouldn’t be exposed to without this program.”
Informally, Nanxi has mentored a variety of research assistants from underrepresented backgrounds that apply to work in the psychology lab. Throughout her time at MU, she has mentored over 20 students, whether that be for a few months or a few years.
“I feel like overall my mentor experiences have been the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in graduate school,” Nanxi said.
When Nanxi mentors a student she is very hands-on, she meets with them once a week for at least an hour. These meetings are to provide feedback, check-in on their professional development, discuss networking, and form a genuine relationship with them.
Nanxi credits her involvement in psychology and her drive to become an expert in her field to her mentor, Bryan Hendricks. Nanxi met her mentor while taking his course on research methods in psychology at UWM in 2011.
“It wasn’t his passion to have his own research lab and generate his own research,” Nanxi said. “It was his passion to mentor the next generation and the next next generation which he did for 40 years.”
Bryan inspired Nanxi to pursue graduate school and research opportunities through the work she accomplished in his class. They often met before and after class to discuss and analyze data Nanxi collected as well as talk about what graduate school and a career in psychology looked like in the United States.
“Since I’m an international student I didn’t have this prior knowledge,” Nanxi said. “By the time I took Bryan’s class I was a first semester senior so I felt a little behind all of my peers but I really appreciated those opportunities Bryan gave me.”
Nanxi recalls wanting to buy Bryan dinner as a way of thanking him for the advice and support he gave her through her studies, but he wouldn’t accept until she had her doctorate.
“That was what motivated me to pursue my Ph.D., I really wanted to buy Bryan dinner because he helped me so much,” Nanxi said. “For an international student, living in the US, I often feel very isolated. It’s easy to feel like I don’t have the support or tools I need to navigate this foreign system but to have someone who is almost an academic parent to help me was really empowering and motivated me to make it my career’s passion to give back to the next generations.”
Through her involvement with the Graduate Professional Council (GPC), Nanxi became a mentor and advocate for other international students when she volunteered to be the Committee Chair of the International Student Affairs Committee.
“I’ve been an international student for so long but I never really advocated for us, I always relied on other international students to advocate for me,” Nanxi said. “By the time I got to Mizzou during the Trump administration there was a lot of legislation threatening international students. I felt a sense of obligation to step up.”
When she was Chair of the International Student Affairs Committee, Nanxi established the International Student Award that is presented annually to showcase the work of international students and their accomplishments. The GPC then recruited her for their executive board, where she managed hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and budgets, because of her advocacy work for international students.
As Nanxi finishes her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology, she is looking forward to advocating for underrepresented groups through legislation and science policy.