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Xun Earns K&L Gates Award

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Peter Kerwin
University Communications & Marketing

Ruiran Xun's interests are as diverse as her experiences. The recent graduate left Carnegie Mellon University with a dual bachelor's degree in chemistry(opens in new window) and computer science(opens in new window) and a minor in collaborative piano(opens in new window). She has a love of research, teaching and musical theater, and wanted to engage in all three during her time at CMU.

"I'm incredibly grateful that during my four years at Carnegie Mellon I've been able to participate in a myriad of experiences and consequently form meaningful friendships with people from many different backgrounds," Xun said. "Coming into college, my biggest goal was to delve into my interests and have a more concrete grasp of who I am as a person. I don't think I would have been able to do so at any other school."

Along with her degree, Xun received Mellon College of Science(opens in new window) College Honors(opens in new window) at the 2022 Commencement. She was elected into Phi Beta Kappa — one of the most exclusive honor societies in the world — in fall of 2021, and she was selected as an Andrew Carnegie Society Scholar(opens in new window).

Xun was awarded the K&L Gates Prize(opens in new window), a $5,000 award announced at Commencement given to a graduating undergraduate student who has inspired their fellow students to love learning through a combination of intellect, high scholarly achievement, engagement with others and character.

"As a teaching professor in the Department of Chemistry, I have been advising undergraduates for almost three decades and teaching for almost four decades. I have worked with thousands of CMU alumni and current students," said Karen H. Stump(opens in new window), director of Undergraduate Studies and Labs in the Mellon College of Science and Xun's academic adviser. "Ruiran rises to the top very few of the students I have known during that time as regards to her academic talent, her drive and the breadth of her interests and talents, all of which are underpinned by the most mature ability to manage an incredibly full slate of activities and coursework."

While in high school, Xun became enthralled by chemistry and computer science and couldn't choose which to focus on, so she decided to pursue both.

As she approached her sophomore year at CMU, Xun reached out to Kevin Noonan(opens in new window), associate professor in chemistry. "I said, 'Hi, I haven't taken any lab courses at CMU yet, but I'm really interested in research and I really like what you've done. If you would take me on that would be awesome,'" Xun said. "Essentially, the rest is history."

In Noonan's lab, Xun worked on organic and polymer synthesis that culminated in a paper submitted for publication.

"It is rare to have someone walk into that kind of space and be a true force, always pressing forward and making progress," Noonan said. "Now, she is a co-author on a paper and she determined how to make a class of compounds that are essentially unknown. She accomplished this with only 10 hours a week working through the semesters. I can only imagine what she could accomplish in a full-time role."

Xun learned that she loved applied chemistry and theoretical computer science. Her love of teaching led her to become a teaching assistant (TA) in Principles of Imperative Computation in fall 2019 in the School of Computer Science. After seven semesters as a TA (including summer 2021), Xun will be an instructor of record for the course this summer, co-teaching it with another former TA, Aaron Meyers.

Balancing out Xun's love of chemistry and computer science is her devotion to collaborative musical productions.

It was her high school theater teacher who told her that collaborative piano — a musical discipline that combines performance, accompaniment and pedagogy — was a field of study. When she arrived at CMU, the first thing she did was reach out toSchool of Music(opens in new window) faculty and ask if she could pursue a minor in collaborative piano. The course sequence is typically only offered to piano performance majors.

"I've learned a lot about vocal technique and pedagogy from playing for underclassmen's lessons and coachings, and I've had the opportunity to participate in rehearsals for two of their mainstage operas," Xun said.

Xun has played as a rehearsal pianist for CMU's Scotch'n'Soda Theatre(opens in new window) productions. She quickly learned how the organization works and how to effectively music direct, which involves teaching music to the cast, conducting the pit orchestra and carrying out many associated responsibilities. She has music directed three mainstage musicals with Scotch'n'Soda: "Mama Mia!" in April 2019, "The Rocky Horror Show" in October 2021 and "Rent" in April 2022.

"I've been involved in probably 95% of the Scotch'n'Soda productions since I came to CMU," Xun said. "It's been a wild time. I learned a lot, not only from the musical side of things, but also just balancing being a friend while trying to maintain a sense of professionalism when you're working a show."

Now that she has graduated, she will spend the summer teaching and then will head west to Santa Clara, California, to begin her work with Palo Alto Networks, where she interned last summer.

"I'd like to have a comfortable day job and work in the theater on the side. There are so many good regional theaters in the area, so I think I'm set up pretty well to try that out and see how it goes," she said.

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