Bright Futures Q&A: Michelle Xu

27. October 2014


OPN: Many people in science initially envision themselves in an academic career. Was that your initial goal? If not, what career trajectory were you envisioning for yourself?

I did not initially consider an academic career because I was told that I was not smart. On one of my first grade tests, I thought that 1+1=11.

As I got older, however, I discovered “grit”, and started to excel academically as well as in sports, art and music. When it was time to pick a college major, I had the option to attend programs in fine arts, business or engineering. The three disciplines, all of which I loved, sat in orthogonal planes. There was no Venn diagram or spreadsheet could help evaluate the pros and cons, so instead I relied on my instincts. Ultimately I wanted to engage in a practical and tangible discipline, so, I picked engineering.

My career goal is to provide solutions that benefit society, such as sensors and computing devices that collect, store, and analyze data to forecast trends and enable preventative measures. Private sector organizations like Intel work closely with the end-users and the products, and so I believe my goals can be implemented and achieved much faster here.

OPN: How did you end up at Intel?

I have a long history with the company—my first job offers after completing both my undergraduate degree and doctorate were from Intel. However, after both offers, I felt I needed to learn more basic science and satisfy my inquisitive mind, so I decided to stay in school. By the time I was a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, I had studied electronics, photonics, control theory, programming, cell molecular biology, chemistry and atomic physics.

While I was contemplating how to apply all that I had learned in my almost 30-year academic career, an Intel manager found and recruited me. This time, I joined the company. Now, I am more knowledgeable and confident, and I am able to better contribute to Intel’s roadmap. I’m glad that I waited.

OPN: What was it like to transition from your lab to a large company like Intel?

It was great transitioning from Berkeley to Intel. I find it very exciting to start a new role in a new setting and to meet new people. Of course, I don’t move just for the excitement; instead, I pursue opportunities. I would be willing to relocate to the middle of a war zone for a good position—I have a very high tolerance for the difficulties associated with transitions like this, so there’s little I’m not willing to do for the right opportunity.

OPN: What is the culture like at Intel? How does it differ from other environments you’ve worked in?

Intel has 107,600 employees around the world, so the company culture is not homogeneous. Just like studying in different academic groups, the departments at Intel can vary greatly. I have held two positions at Intel: research assistant to Intel President Renee James, and engineer in the Intel Data Center Group. The culture in the first group is very professional and office-like, while the engineering group is similar to a university research lab setting.

OPN: What is your typical work day like and how does that differ from other work settings you’ve been in?

I have held two vastly different positions at Intel, so it really depends on the specific role. As the assistant to the president, I started working at 5:30 am and my days ended when I went to bed at 9:00 pm.

Now, as the data center engineer, my days start at 8:30 am. Because my team is distributed around the world, I work around the clock. Also, because I work with physical servers, I often stay in the server lab late into the evenings.

OPN: What are some of your own, personal characteristics that made the move to an industry career look particularly attractive?

I am compassionate, result-oriented, meticulous yet impatient, and ethically-minded. I am grateful that Intel values these qualities, in addition to my technical competencies.

OPN: What advice would you give to others looking to work with a large company such as Intel?

Regardless of whether you work for a large or small organization, it is important that you discover the career path that is best for you as an individual, by following your instinct and finding your passion.

Michelle Ye-Chen Xu is a member of the Intel Data Center Group, where she works in server rack networking and integration. Xu also served as the research assistant to Intel President Renee James. She received her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from University of Toronto, Canada, and was a postdoctoral fellow in atomic physics at U.C. Berkeley, USA. Xu was the President of University ofToronto OSA Student Chapter.


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How to Give a Great Research Presentation

23. October 2014

Andrea Brear

This post is based on content that has already appeared on the Propel Careers website. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.

How many times have you sat through a research presentation either nodding off or squinting at an image on the screen? Giving an effective and engaging research presentation requires proper preparation and practice. Realizing that you are the expert on your own research will help you market yourself and your work and convince your audience of the importance of your research.

Have a structure.
Your presentation can be broken down into three basic parts: introduction, results and conclusion. The content and extent of the introduction depends on the composition of your audience. If there are a number of attendees from outside your field, you should include more background to bring everyone up to speed. This is your chance to give some context on the field and how your work fits into it. At the end of this section, clearly state the question you will be addressing throughout the presentation. In the results section, you will provide answers to this overarching question. The conclusion should reiterate the key results and why they are important in order to give the audience members concise and interesting takeaways.

Beautify your slides.
Make your slides as attractive and eye-catching as possible. Use a high-contrast color scheme and make figures, graphs, tables and images as large as the space allows so that people sitting in the back can easily see what’s on the screen. Because the projector may display images differently than your computer screen and because the room may have poor lighting, it's best to prescreen your slides on the projector to make sure the slides are at optimal brightness and contrast. Avoid overwhelming your audience with too much information or boring them with too much text. Try to stick to the "keep it simple" rule when composing a slide: start with a concise title (which should be a statement, not a question,) as little text as possible and a nice diagram or two (no more than three).

Practice your timing.
Take the time to pace your presentation and set up transitions between the slides so that the wording flows nicely. It should sound like a scientific story. One minute per slide is a good general rule for timing, so that you can maintain an engaging pace. Practicing the presentation will help you identify any transitions that need to be smoothed out, as well as determine if the talk is too long or short. In order to make the presentation accessible to a general audience, you should practice it with colleagues in your field as well as colleagues from other subject areas. Be sure to project your voice and speak clearly, and avoid talking too quickly. If you have the opportunity to record yourself, this is a great way to identify ways to improve your delivery—including reducing unnecessary hand/body movements, identifying tics, or excessive use of "um" or "ah."

No matter how much you practice, you can’t anticipate everything. The projector may not work properly, someone's cell phone may ring or the fire alarm may go off. A well-prepared presentation will help you deliver the talk with ease and deal with any unanticipated issues.

Andrea Brear is an intern at Propel Careers. She has her Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology from Brandeis University, USA.


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Painlessly Managing Your Workload

2. October 2014

Arti Agrawal

I felt like I had spent the whole summer working without a vacation, and still my to-do list seemed endless. After spending a few days feeling frustrated and stressed at my lack of progress, I started reading up on how people manage to get it all done. It turns out there are a few tricks for managing your workload that I found very useful:

Take baby steps. When faced with a large task, I used to try to find a big block of continuous time to complete it. It was a challenge to block out such long slots in my schedule. Even when I managed to find the time, after a few hours I would get tired and lose concentration. This made the task take longer and caused me more stress. A better technique is to plan to do a smaller portion every day, and assign multiple sessions to the task. That way, you’ll come to your work with fresh eyes and operate at peak efficiency each time. Tasks get done faster with less mental pain!

Figure out your prime working hours. I find that if I work late into the night, I make more mistakes and wake up tired and cranky, so there isn’t much point in imitating my night owl colleagues. For me, the best time to work is immediately after I wake up, when I feel the most refreshed and focused. Figure out when you can concentrate best and do the most difficult or important work at that time.

“Open the file.” Sometimes I simply cannot motivate myself to complete an unwanted or boring task, so I procrastinate too long and get into trouble. Often, the hardest part is just getting started. This approach aims to address the problem. The idea is that if you get yourself to metaphorically “open the file” and jump into the project, you tend to work on it. Before you know it, you’ve made some progress.

Stop firefighting. I found that I was constantly dealing with tasks marked “urgent” and could not get anything done on other projects that were important to me. Color-coded, prioritized lists and turning off my email helped somewhat, but I needed more. To that end, I found the Eisenhower Decision matrix really useful. It helped me learn to prevent long-term projects from reaching the “urgent” state, and focus on what really mattered to me. It introduced an element of strategic thinking into my planning process.

Take a walk. Sometime the stress from work or other tasks can seem overwhelming. It becomes difficult to find energy and motivation, every task seems harder than it should and even ideas for research seem to dry up. You need inspiration and fresh air! Timely breaks, especially those spent walking or exercising outside, can wake your brain and freshen your mind. It helps calm the nerves and sparks creativity.

Arti Agrawal ( is a lecturer at City University London, U.K., in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her blog, visit

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