Xavier Gonzalez '18

Category Alumni Spotlight


Authored on October 17, 2022


In our alumni spotlight series, learn about Harvard graduates' most meaningful experiences from college, and how Harvard impacted their professional and personal paths after graduation.

Hometown & Current City: Houston, TX; Stanford, CA

House Affiliation: Winthrop House

Concentration: Mathematics; Secondary in Physics

Current Title/Company: PhD candidate at the Linderman Lab at the Wu Tsai Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University

What was your professional path after college? 

I have managed to stay in school so far; if I'm lucky, this will be my professional path for the rest of my life! I graduated Harvard in 2018, and then began a 2 years Rhodes scholarship. During this period I earned a Masters in Mathematics and Statistics from the University of Oxford. I also interned in computational biology at the Mesirov Lab at UC San Diego and in the Theory Group at the Chan-Zuckerberg BioHub in San Francisco. In Fall 2020, I began a PhD in Statistics at Stanford, where I have joined the Linderman lab, which focuses on computational neuroscience. A highlight of my time at Stanford was serving as the principal instructor in Winter 2022 for the course "STATS 100: The mathematics of sports." I was responsible for delivering the lectures, writing the homework, formulating the final project, recruiting industry experts to deliver guest lectures on sports analytics, managing my team of 3 Teaching Assistants (TAs) and assigning the final grades. I loved the experience, particularly mentoring students on their final projects in sports analytics, which included players on the Stanford varsity volleyball and football teams who wanted to study data from their respective teams. This teaching experience solidified my desire to become a professor one day!

What fills your time now - professionally and personally?

I am doing my PhD under the supervision of Prof. Scott Linderman, who did his PhD at Harvard. We are working on two collaborations. One is a collaboration with a Stanford professor of neuroscience, with the goal of understanding the serotonin system in mice. The other collaboration is with a Harvard professor of statistics and a fellow PhD student who also went to Harvard College. We are trying to create a user-friendly algorithm to allow for statistical error control in the discovery of "interesting regions" (in the brain, for example) that have been flagged by experimentalists. 

I am also spending a lot of time this quarter working as a teaching assistant (TA) for Stats 200: Introduction to Statistical Inference. An unexpected surprise has been that one of my students was my TF (teaching fellow) for a course I took at Harvard!

Outside of research and teaching, I've enjoyed playing tennis and running with the Stanford club teams.

How did your academic experience at Harvard guide you in your post-grad pursuits? 

Majoring in math at Harvard was a blessing. We have one of the best programs in the world, especially in terms of the quality of teachers and students. One of my favorite memories was working with Professor Noam Elkies on my senior thesis. He was an incredibly helpful thesis advisor, and the type of mentor I aspire to be one day. 

What was a favorite class you took and why? 

My favorite course was Math 122: Algebra I. It was my first proof based math course I took at Harvard, and I loved the beauty of algebra. I remember taking a photo of the amazing textbook we were using (Artin's Algebra) when we were studying automorphisms. Artin discusses how we can think of an automorphism as an abstract symmetry, and I thought this was so cool and sent the photo to my best friend from high school. Another plus was while Math 122 was the first proof-based math course I took at Harvard, it was also the last course given by Professor Dick Gross, himself a Harvard alumnus. Professor Gross made lectures exciting with many pertinent and lively anecdotes. His last lecture, attended by many of his former students, was particularly memorable and emotional.

Did you have any research/internship opportunities and/or professor/mentor relationships that were influential? 

Two research opportunities were incredibly impactful on me. The first was getting to research at Professor Ken Ono's REU, then at Emory University, in Summers 2017 and 2018. Ken is an inspirational research mentor. He also attracted fellow students of great ability and instilled an esprit de corps  among us. I don't think I've ever had so much fun, or learned so much, as in the time spent at Emory under Ken's guidance.

The other impactful experience was interning in Prof. Jill Mesirov's computational bio lab at UCSD. Professor Dick Gross, a mathematician at Harvard, always recommended to undergrads in math that they at least get a taste of applied mathematics. I was interested in biology and so ended up interning with Professor Mesirov. I was impressed by the impact of her work on fighting cancer. It was moving to see mathematics employed on such a clearly relevant problem. I was also inspired by the commitment of her lab to reproducible science, which is especially important in today's high speed world.

How did your extracurricular activities impact your Harvard experience? And have they had an impact on your post-grad life? 

Playing tennis defined my time at Harvard, and has been a cherished touchstone since. Coach Dave Fish and Coach Andrew Rueb, both Harvard alumni themselves, were role models of professionalism that I have tried to emulate. And it has been wonderful staying in touch with my teammates, these days mostly by attending weddings. 

Being a peer advising fellow (PAF) was also a sheer joy. Brooks Lambert-Sluder, also a Harvard alumnus, has crafted an incredible program in peer mentoring and deserves so much credit. One moment that made an impact on me is that on the first day of PAF training, he knew all the new PAFs names! He had clearly studied. What a role model of leadership. The PAF program offered a lot of opportunity for growth in character, and I think back a lot on memories from it. A real joy is bumping into my old PAFees (i.e. advisees) all around the world, too!

What is a favorite memory of Harvard House life? 

I loved the student-faculty dinners in Winthrop House. A particular favorite memory of mine was that one of my good friends in Winthrop and I both had taken the same expository writing class, "Why Shakespeare" taught by Dr. Jeff Wilson. So, we invited him to the Winthrop faculty dinner. We had a great time talking with him about Shakespeare, and also getting to know Dr. Wilson better as a person. At the end of the dinner, my friend and I went to a screening of Moana by the Winthrop House Committee. And then at the end of the night, my friend and I had a heart-to-heart. All in all, it was a great time!

What is your favorite Harvard tradition and why? 

What can beat Housing day?! There's so much excitement leading up to the sorting, and it's fun both as a first-year and as an upperclass student.

What advice do you have for someone applying to college?

I would recommend really engaging with your high school. This engagement can mean learning a lot in your favorite course; getting to know your teachers; and really interacting with your classmates and getting to know them well too and learn from them. Sometimes we get in a trap of looking too far ahead or behind, when the real work we need to do is right in front of us, right now. I also think it's really important to get 8 hours of sleep a night. There are diminishing returns to working more, but sleep during adolescence is crucial for neural development.