Penn fourth-year student William Niu named a 2024 Hertz Fellow

Niu is among 18 in the country chosen this year for the doctoral fellowship in applied science, engineering, and mathematics

William Niu standing outside in front of a brick wall
Penn fourth-year student Zijian (William) Niu in the College of Arts and Sciences has been awarded a 2024 Hertz Fellowship in applied science, engineering, and mathematics. (Image: Courtesy of William Niu) 

University of Pennsylvania fourth-year undergraduate Zijian (William) Niu has been awarded a 2024 Hertz Fellowship in applied science, engineering, and mathematics by the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation.

The Hertz Fellowship provides five years of funding, as much as $250,000, and the “research freedom to pursue innovative ideas with real-world impact.” Niu is among 18 to receive the fellowship this year. In addition to financial support, Hertz Fellows have access to lifelong programming, such as mentoring, events, and networking.

Niu is majoring in biochemistry, biophysics, and physics as a Roy and Diana Vagelos Molecular Life Sciences Scholar in the College of Arts and Sciences. Starting this fall, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in computational and systems biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Niu was born in Kaifeng, China, but spent much of his early childhood in Shanghai. His family immigrated to the United States in 2010 when he was 8, and he grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts.

Niu recently received a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, a merit-based program that provides graduate school funding for immigrants and children of immigrants to the U.S. He was among the 30 chosen as a 2024 PD Soros Fellow; each receives as much as $90,000 for graduate studies. Niu also received the Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship, as well as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Niu is interested in the intersection of structural biology and machine learning. Specifically, he aims to develop novel methods for imaging proteins and other biomolecules in their native cellular environments and to leverage that data to build computational models for predicting their dynamics and molecular interactions. At Penn, Niu works with Arjun Raj in the Raj Lab for Systems Biology to develop new computational methods for biomedical image analysis, including a deep learning algorithm for detecting tiny diffraction-limited spots in fluorescence microscopy images obtained from spatial transcriptomics. For this work, he was awarded the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship in 2023. Niu has also worked with Sydney Shaffer in the Perelman School of Medicine on investigating the molecular origins of Barrett’s esophagus and its progression toward esophageal adenocarcinoma.

Niu is also a Dean’s Scholar, a recipient of the Roy and Diana Vagelos Science Challenge Award and the William E. Stephens Prize, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. In 2022, he co-founded the student-led Project Lucid to build awareness and confidence for effective science communication among Penn undergraduates. Niu has also been a teaching assistant and peer educator at Penn, a vice president of the Penn Undergraduate Chemistry Society, and a STEM mentor at underserved Philadelphia high schools. In his free time, he enjoys speedcubing, where he solves the Rubik’s Cube and other twisty puzzles as fast as possible.

Niu applied for the Hertz Fellowship with assistance from Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. He is the sixth Penn affiliate awarded the fellowship since the program was first awarded in 1963.