Alumni weekend hears of Gates Cambridge impact

  • June 12, 2023
Alumni weekend hears of Gates Cambridge impact

The recent Gates Cambridge Alumni Weekend heard from a selection of alumni about what they are doing and how Gates Cambridge helped them in their careers

Six lightning talks on subjects ranging from crop science to anti-microbial resistance and energy policy formed a key part of the Gates Cambridge Alumni event that took place in Cambridge in early June.

The talks were part of three days of activities, including a fireside chat with Provost Eilís Ferran, in the UK and were complemented by similar activities in Washington DC.  There was also a cross-Atlantic panel event on the problems created by financialised capitalism for our health and democracies featuring Paulo Savaget [2015] and Victor Roy [2009 & 2012].

The lightning talks kicked off with Carol Ibe [2015].

Carol said that Gates Cambridge had supported her as a mature student with childcare responsibilities and had contributed to her journey to find more practical ways to improve food security in Africa, where over 140 million people are facing hunger. Before starting her PhD in Plant Sciences at Cambridge, Carol had already set up the JR Biotek Foundation to empower the next generation of African crop scientists. During her time at Cambridge, she worked with her department to organise two 10-day residential programmes over two years for African sciences to come and learn the latest crop scientific research techniques in Cambridge. However, she realised that the majority were returning to their own institutions which had few resources. In 2019, she decided to pivot and hold training workshops in Africa. During Covid their virtual ‘Reach & Teach Science in Africa’ training programme went virtual.

The programme, especially courses on plant breeding data analysis, reached over 10,000 students and researchers across Africa but also in parts of South East Asia in a relatively short time. In 2021 programmes were run in three countries, led by alumni of the previous programmes. By the end of her PhD, Carol had reached 250 scientists (in person) in more than 19 African countries and had raised over 200,000 pounds with support from colleagues at Cambridge.

Carol, whose PhD centred on enhancing rice production through crop interactions with a beneficial fungus, has recently completed postdoctoral research at the John Innes Centre in Norwich and is focused on creating an African crop innovation hub aimed at empowering African scientists to boost the productivity of key indigenous staple crops. It will work with smallholder farmers to understand the impact of climate change on indigenous crops and cropping practices and how this affects farmers’ livelihoods. Since leaving Cambridge, she and a colleague have also created a bioscience mentoring programme for African students. They offer personalised mentoring to prospective postgraduate students. Of the 11 students in their first cohort eight and three candidates are currently enrolled in highly competitive and fully funded PhDs and Master’s degrees in world-leading institutions in the US and Europe, including Cambridge and Oxford. Six of these mentees are brilliant young women from Nigeria and Kenya.

Shobana Sivanendran [2013] spoke of how her career had developed since Cambridge. She had thought she would go into academia after doing her PhD in structural engineering, but following her studies she decided she wanted to have more immediate impact instead. She moved back to Malaysia and worked for a consulting firm that advised the government on issues ranging from microgrids to conservation and prisoner rehabilitation. She now works as an energy consultant in Oxford, advising developers, investors and governments on how to make the transition to low carbon sources and learning from countries which are leading on this agenda. Ultimately, she hopes to return to South East Asia. Her work addresses the ‘energy trilemma’ of power supply which seeks to balance decarbonisation ambitions with security of supply and cost minimisation. Shobana spoke of the need to change mindsets in energy corporations by pointing out the economic benefits of switching to renewables.

Ramon Maluping [2005] from the Philippines spoke of how Gates Cambridge has impacted him both personally and professionally. Ramon lost his sight just before starting at Cambridge and says his family thought he was crazy to continue with his plans for his PhD. He said doing so was the most important decision he has ever made and that he has no regrets. He now works for the Animal and Plant Health Agency, an FAO – UN reference centre for antimicrobial resistance [AMR]. The centre focuses on projects and activities on surveillance and research; international engagement; capacity building; and guidance and standards.  Ramon is part of a team that mentors’ colleagues from low and middle income countries and is looking to help address the resource issues many scientists face in their countries, including in the Philippines, when it comes to improving their laboratory and research capacity.

Ramon also spoke of his own background. His mother died when he was three and he had been working since he was six years old. He was impressed by Gates Cambridge’s focus on social leadership in addition to academic excellence. In 2015, Ramon won the Outstanding Overseas Filipino award and used some of that money to set up a scholarship fund – the Gaudencio And Roberta Maluping Huwarang Mag-aaral Scholarship, named after his parents – to support poor students from the Philippines, encouraged by the Gates Cambridge model of improving the lives of others. He also actively serves as a Gates Cambridge ambassador, promoting the scholarship to prospective postgraduate students in Asia and other parts of the world.

Michael Pashkevich [2017] spoke about his research in tropical ecology since completing his PhD in Zoology on oil palm and biodiversity in Indonesia. Still based in Cambridge, where he is a research fellow, Michael continues to work on oil palm which plays a key role in global food security as well as in the economic infrastructure of the areas which cultivate it. He works with producers to mitigate the ecological impact of the industry by promoting greater biodiversity and working with local researchers and communities as well as industry representatives and other academics in Liberia, where oil palm is relatively understudied. Over the last two years he and his colleagues have been monitoring how oil palm cultivation affects local rainforests in Liberia. This work will result in the first whole ecosystem study in Liberia across all land use systems which will be used to better understand the forest’s ecological complexity and how it is affected by enhanced agricultural cultivation.  

Other speakers included Ryan Geiser [2018] who has recently finished his PhD and spoke of the value of the Gates Cambridge mentorship programme and of being in an open-minded, intelligent community where scholars can speak about all aspects of their lives.  Meena Venkataramanan [2021] spoke about how she had developed her journalism skills since finishing her master’s in English. She began reporting for the Washington Post last year and has since written on a range of issues, from the 2022 Supreme Court abortion ruling to under-reported issues relating to Asian American communities.  Meena said Gates Cambridge had helped her to navigate her interests in journalism and the humanities. She now plans to do an English PhD at Brown focusing on the intersection between contemporary Asian American and African American literature and to continue freelancing journalism.

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