“There’s such a limited amount of time to try things and just explore. That’s something that’s always been a bummer to me: that there’s not more time to just do everything,” Yunhan Xu ’17 says with a touch of exasperation.
Xu has spent her time at Harvard straddling the worlds of STEM and art. As a statistics concentrator with a secondary in computer science, Xu enjoys pursuits that allow her to bring a creative perspective to typically mathematical fields.
Xu began doing so her freshman year, when she worked as a research-assistant for Tadashi Tokieda at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study. She helped Tokieda examine objects and toys that teach children—as well as adults—basic physics and math principles.
“[Tokieda] has been able to so seamlessly and cleverly combine all these things that he’s so passionate about,” Xu says. “That’s what I’m trying to do—exactly.”
Xu explores her artistic side through blind contouring, a sketching technique in which she only looks at the subject and never the paper.
“Your drawing will always be strangely more honest, in a way,” Xu says. She gestures to the stack of index cards she brought in preparation for our interview. “I would consider myself a more type-A personality. I don’t know if you could tell by the notes,” Xu says with a laugh. “Something about this type of drawing is that you have to… lean into imprecision and rely on intuition, because you’re not going to know how the drawing looks until you look down. So I feel like that’s helped me become less tense and excessive.”
Though Xu considers blind contouring simply a hobby, she illustrated a textbook on experimental design for David Glass, a senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School. She has also designed album covers and logos for various friends.
Xu finds that her art complements her scientific endeavors. “I think what I enjoy about pursuits that combine STEM and art is that one will provide you with a unique perspective on the other,” Xu says. “You’ll be able to come up with new insights about things that people within the field have looked at for a long time.”
Xu also has an extensive knowledge of rap and hip-hop. She’s contributed hundreds of comments to the lyric annotation site, Genius, which allows her to “annotate [a song] in the same way you’d annotate a book.”
When asked to name her favorite rapper, Xu sits in silence, thinking. “Oh no, this is so hard. Could I actually get back to you on that?” she asks. Later, Xu writes in an email that, after much deliberation, she has decided on her all-time favorite hip-hop group: A Tribe Called Quest.
Xu spends most of her time, however, annotating books rather than rap lyrics. She is working on using her technological skills at the Library Innovation Lab to solve the problem of link rot, which occurs when a URL points to a broken page. It’s problem for librarians, newspapers, and legal systems alike. This past summer she worked at Google Books, which she counts as “the ultimate digital library.”
Xu credits her love of libraries to her passion to “make sure that knowledge is preserved for future generations.”
“It never fails to boggle my mind that you can read anything for free via public libraries,” Xu says. “My dream job when I was younger was to be a librarian. The books that we did have, I would stamp them.”
Xu will continue to work at Google next year. There, she’ll continue bringing a creative perspective to technical work.
“I really enjoy collaborating with people, other artistic people, and drawing in a way that helps other people or contributes something meaningful or useful,” Xu says. “I’ll just keep doing that on the side for now. We’ll see what happens.”