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14/02/2019 - 12:49First batch of the class of 2019 announcedGates Cambridge announces US Scholars 2019

Thirty-four of the most academically outstanding and socially committed US citizens have been selected to be part of the 2019 class of Gates Cambridge Scholars at the University of Cambridge.

The US Scholars-elect, who will take up their awards this October, are from 37 universities including seven institutions that have for the first time produced a Gates Cambridge Scholar (Bob Jones University, SC; Hillsborough Community College, FL; Loyola Marymount University, CA; Medical University of South Carolina, SC; Northeast Normal University, China; Shalom Hartman Institute, Israel; The City College of New York, NY; and the University of Scranton, PA).

They include:

  • Gregory Serapio-Garcia, who will do a PhD in Psychology. Gregory, who did his undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame, will synthesise mobile-sensing and personality data to predict mental illness outcomes and subjective well-being. He hopes to help automate lengthy mental health assessments through computational analyses of social media big data. He says: “I hope to inform the next generation of the world’s best physicians, lawyers, philosophers and educators of both the promise of online social data in transforming mental healthcare and the moral imperative to combat the exploitative use of big data in this proliferating field.”

  • Anna Forringer-Beal who will do a PhD in Gender Studies.  She completed her master’s at Cambridge where she explored how stereotypes about immigrants and sex workers impact data gathering, victim assistance and have limited the scope of the UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015. For her PhD she will construct a genealogy of anti-trafficking law stretching back to the White Slave Panics of the late 1800s with the aim of showing how xenophobic thinking constrains their effectiveness. She states: “It is my hope that this work will refocus anti-trafficking policy to human rights and survivor support as the most effective tools in combating trafficking.”

  • Dhruv Nandamudi who will do a PhD in Biological Science. Dhruv did his undergraduate studies at Yale where he was director of the Yale Wellness Project and helped design and conduct a large-scale study aimed at better understanding the role of stress in student life and lessening its negative impact. Through a combination of neuroimaging and molecular paradigms, his PhD will focus on exploring the neuroscientific relationship between stress and memory control or ‘motivated forgetting’ where people forget unwanted memories, either consciously or unconsciously. He says: “My goal is to better understand the mechanisms guiding the interaction between stress and motivated forgetting in an effort to inform potential treatment methodologies for psychological disorders by enhancing cognitive emotion regulation.”

The US Scholars-elect will study and research subjects ranging from cybersecurity, choral music and technology biases to neurotrauma in low-resource settings and skeletal stem cells.

The prestigious postgraduate scholarship programme – which fully funds postgraduate study and research in any subject at the University of Cambridge - was established through a US$210 million donation to the University of Cambridge from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000; this remains the largest single donation to a UK university. Since the first class in 2001 there have been more than 1,600 Gates Cambridge Scholars from over 100 countries who represent more than 600 universities globally (more than 200 in the USA) and more than 80 academic departments and all 31 Colleges at Cambridge.

In addition to outstanding academic achievement the programme places emphasis on social leadership in its selection process as its mission is to create a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.

The US Scholars-elect will join about 60 Scholars from other parts of the world, who will be announced in early April after interviews in late March, so completing  the class of 2019. The class of 2019 will join current Gates Cambridge Scholars in October to form a community of approximately 220 Scholars in residence at the world-leading University of Cambridge.

Professor Barry Everitt FRS, Provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust, said: “The Trust is delighted to have awarded Gates Cambridge Scholarships to outstanding students from the USA in the first of its two selection rounds for entry in 2019. The US Scholars-elect have been selected to reflect the mission of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s generous and historic gift to the University of Cambridge. Like their predecessors, they are an extraordinarily impressive and diverse group who have already achieved much in terms of their academic studies and leadership abilities and have already shown their commitment to improving the lives of others in a multitude of ways. We are particularly delighted that we were able to offer awards to a large number of PhD scholars.  We are sure that the entire class of 2019 will flourish in the vibrant, international community at Cambridge as Gates Cambridge Scholars and that they will make a substantial impact in their fields and to the wider global community.”

Full bios and photos of the Scholars-elect can be found at  

For enquiries about this press release please contact For questions about the programme please contact

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13/02/2019 - 09:47Creating centres of excellenceMaria Pawlowska has spent the last three years building a network of research excellence centres in Poland.

Maria Pawlowska has spent the last three years setting up a network of research excellence centres in Poland as coordinator of the International Research Agendas (IRAP) programme at the Foundation for Polish Science. The aim of the programme is to attract the most talented researchers from around the world to Poland in order not only to boost research efforts globally, but develop Poland’s applied science base.

The Foundation has been in existence for over two decades and is the largest source of science funding in Poland outside the state budget. The initial funding for the IRAP programme, which runs out in 2023, came from European Union structural funds dedicated to applied science.

Each of the 10 centres, which will cover everything from biomedical science and nanotechnology to neurodegenerative diseases and quantum physics, has a budget of approximately 8m euro (US$9m). Two of the centres are focused on cancer - one on genetics and the other on vaccinations. Some have been going for around a year and the last will be set up in March.

There is an emphasis on partnering with universities around the world. At the cancer vaccination centre, for instance, three quarters of the researchers recruited so far don’t speak Polish. Maria says: “We want to attract world leaders in their research, to be judged on the quality of our science and to look outwards.” She adds that, using international strategic partners (such as the University of Oxford and THE European Molecular Biology Laboratory, who are part of the programme), IRAP units can leverage their recruitment and employee evaluation policies and not only attract the best researchers from around the globe, but retain them too.

Maria has been the person responsible for the day-to-day running of the programme, including coordinating international panels of scientists from leading universities.


Now that the centres are established, her role is to develop them and focus on their long-term sustainability. With their leadership in place, the centres are now looking to attract post-doctoral students, junior principal investigators and others and are offering an attractive starting package with additional funds for the latest equipment.

A key feature of the programme is the need for links with Polish and European society. Over the next five years therefore Maria will be looking at how the centres can collaborate with business. “It’s not just about ivory towers research,” she says. “We want to make sure that 15 years down the line there will be, for instance, cancer vaccinations. This is a long-term investment, not just a one-off project we are doing.”

She adds that, in this way, the centres will help to build the infrastructure and support systems needed to commercialise and internationalise science better in Poland.

Before she took up her current post Maria [2007] was working at the Polish Prime Minister's office on issues related to gender equality and as the science attache for the British Embassy in Warsaw.

Born in Warsaw, she has always had a strong international outlook. She spent part of her early childhood in the US as her mother won a Fulbright Scholarship to study there.

When she finished school, she applied to the University of Bristol to do a joint degree in biology and geology, her passion since she was a young girl being palaeontology. She chose Bristol because the course was unique in Europe and was taught by Professor Michael Benton, a well-known palaeontologist. There were only five students on the course and Maria describes the experience as “incredible”. The research she did for her BSc was published in the journal Science and she went straight to a PhD in Earth Sciences at Cambridge from there.


During her time at Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge Scholar she became increasingly interested in public policy issues and, after graduating, started working with NGOs and making contact back in Poland where she was particularly interested in campaigning on reproductive health and gender issues.

After her husband, fellow Gates Cambridge Scholar Jakub Szamalek [2009], got a job back in Poland as a screenwriter for the game developer CD Projekt, the couple moved back and Maria got a job as a policy expert for the Prime Minister's office while also carrying out workshops and classes on women’s leadership. Maria and Jakub, who is now an award-winning crime thriller writer, have a three-year-old daughter.

Maria says she will not forget her time as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. “It was a life-changing experience being with such inspirational people,” she says. “They made me want to do more with my life.”

She adds that one of the main highlights of her last three years has been participating in meetings with international scientists. “It has been thrilling and intellectually invigorating. It’s a bit like being at Cambridge again,” she says.

If you are interested in finding out more, contact Maria on

06/02/2019 - 13:43A personal commitment to grassroots activismCarlos Adolfo Gonzalez Sierra talks about how his experience of being a Dreamer drives his community activism.

Carlos Adolfo Gonzalez Sierra has recently accepted a new job as Associate Director of ACLAMO Family Centres, a non-profit organisation which provides educational programmes and access to social and health services to Latino and other low-income families in Pennsylvania.

He sees his own story reflected in many of the residents he now serves and works with. “I see my story and myself in many of the children and adults we serve,” says Carlos. “My personal connection to ACLAMO’s work drives me to become a more effective professional.”

When he was eight years old, Carlos [2015] and his family moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic after his father passed away.

Seeing how his mother struggled to provide for the family gave Carlos a deep appreciation of the importance of education as an engine of social mobility. Because of his undocumented status, Carlos felt the only way he could reach higher education was to excel academically.

He pushed himself, taking the most difficult classes and participating in several extracurricular activities. He was president of the Student Council and numerous other student organisations, volunteered in the community and wrestled on the school team. As he was finishing high school, he received a letter from a programme aimed at preparing high-achieving, low-income students to gain admission and full scholarships to top-tier colleges. He applied to eight colleges but was rejected from all eight, which he attributes to his immigration status.

“That was a very dark period for me,” he says. “I had sacrificed so much to learn English and catch up with my peers. I performed better than the vast majority of my classmates in high school. I contributed to my school and my community. Yet society was telling me that my efforts did not matter because I didn’t have a 9-digit number? I felt betrayed.”

From community college to Amherst

His mentor recommended that he go to a local community college and helped him get a place, but he had to pay twice as much tuition because he was classified as an international student. He paid for his studies through gaining several scholarships and working his way through college.

Carlos also found the time to get heavily involved in student life. He was head of the Student Government Association Executive Council, representing 25,000 students, reactivated the Latino student organisation and interned for Pennsylvania’s Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino affairs, the state’s leading advocacy organisation for its Latino residents.

After his first year, he applied to transfer to Amherst College and was accepted. There he majored in Political Science and Interdisciplinary US Latino Studies and chaired La Causa, an organisation which brings Latino students together to celebrate their culture and provides support. He also led student-driven efforts to include more Latino perspectives in the curriculum and to diversify the college faculty.

Carlos’ undergraduate thesis detailed the prevalence of electoral clientelism - the exchange of goods and services for political support - by Dominican expatriates participating in Dominican national politics within the United States.

A trip to Brazil and his thesis cemented his interest in studying the links between social inequality, political participation and representative governance.

After seeing things from a grassroots perspective and being involved in local activism, Carlos wanted to gain policy-making experience so he applied for a fellowship in the US Congress. For six months, he worked as a legislative assistant for then Congressman Michael Honda in Washington, DC. His role focused on legislation around budgetary appropriations, immigration and Latin American affairs.

International studies

Carlos was keen to continue his studies. He applied to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Latin American Studies and was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

His master's focused on understanding the reasons why people in the diaspora get involve in Dominican politics. He says it helped him to better understand the political and economic factors that drive immigration from Latin America to the US. He adds that the Gates Cambridge community provided him with an amazing network of people who provide ideas and support.

Carlos' life since Cambridge has been deeply affected by the changing political scene in the US, but he has remained committed to working for social justice and immigrant rights.

Following Cambridge, he won a Schwarzman scholarship to do a master’s in global affairs in China starting in late 2016. He was based at Tsinghua University in Beijing and was appointed a Youth Panelist to the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity during that year.

He came home in January 2017, just after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. He then faced the very difficult dilemma of deciding whether to go back to China and whether, if he did so, he would be able to return home. Trump had pledged to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, an administrative policy that protected eligible immigrants like Carlos from deportation.

Carlos, who has grown up under the shadow of feeling his DACA status could be withdrawn at any point, waited in the US as he considered what to do, but two weeks into his second semester, he opted to risk returning to China where he finished his master’s.

“I did not want my immigration status to continue to dictate my choices,” he says. “I wanted to reclaim that power and make the choice for myself.”

Community activism

When he returned to the United States, Carlos worked to advance immigrant rights in his home state as the Statewide Capacity Building Coordinator at the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC). At PICC, he managed a statewide grants programme that funded collaborative projects to increase access to immigration law services across the state. He also registered new American citizens to vote, encouraged civic engagement and organised training sessions and other capacity building initiatives to improve the community organisational and advocacy skills of lawyers, the general public and immigrant community members.

There has reportedly been an increase in federal immigration officers in immigrant neighbourhoods since President Trump’s election, including outside schools and courthouses. This atmosphere has made people worried to, for instance, report crimes in case they end up being arrested and threatened with deportation. PICC has proposed guidelines to limit police discretion to take action in such cases and has drawn attention to the risk to public safety of deterring people from coming forward to report crimes.

During his time at PICC, Carlos was also selected as a Commissioner on the Pennsylvania Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, representing Lancaster County on the Commission. The Commission advises the governor on policies and legislation that impact the one million Latino residents in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

At the beginning of this year he joined ACLAMO Family Centres which covers the Norristown and Pottstown areas of Pennsylvania. His role involves general management, strategic planning and public relations. He works closely with Executive Director Nelly Jimenez to improve internal communication and supervision systems. He says his move from PICC to ACLAMO was motivated by a desire to maintain his links with the grassroots. “I wanted to grow professionally and not lose connection to the communities I hoped to empower,” he says.

In addition to education programmes, including literacy and English classes, ACLAMO addresses other issues faced by immigrants, including social isolation, which has a big impact on both physical and mental health. ACLAMO provides spaces where people can come together and build a sense of community. Health programmes also include advice on nutrition and exercise.

Although he is still interested in political advocacy, Carlos thinks that for now it is vital to address the immediate needs of disadvantaged communities. “Once you address their most pressing needs, then people have the ability to engage politically,” he says. He adds: “I enjoy having a direct impact on people’s lives and providing needed services does that. ACLAMO is about much more than direct services. We are dedicated to providing people with the knowledge, guidance and support they need to become self sufficient and feel empowered about their life choices."

05/02/2019 - 10:34Scholar publishes bestselling cybercrime thriller Jakub Szamalek's new thriller novel has provoked a widespread discussion in Poland about the dangers of cybercrime.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has published a bestselling book on cybercrime in Poland.

Jakub Szamalek’s new book, Cokolwiek Wybierzesz [Whatever you choose], was published in January and is already on the bestseller list in Poland.

It is thought to be the first book to seriously tackle the issues of cybercrime in Poland and has provoked a lively debate about the dangers related to internet activity.  It has also brought the attention of Polish film producers, three of whom are vying for screen rights to the book.

The book is a thriller about the death of a tv personality. A journalist investigates and finds that what was billed as an accident is something far more frightening. It highlights the amount of information stored about individuals online and how our every move on the web is tracked.

Jakub [2009], who did his PhD in Classics at Cambridge, focusing on the relations between the Greeks and the indigenous peoples inhabiting the Black Sea region, nurtured his writing ambitions alongside his studies, starting a blog on ancient art in the first year of his PhD.  

His first crime thriller, When Athena looks away, which was published to critical acclaim in Poland, was a crime novel set in ancient Athens, drawing on his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the ancient world.

In 2014 he was named one of the top 100 leaders of innovation in Central and Eastern Europe. The list was compiled by Res Publica, in cooperation with the Visegrad Fund, Google and the Financial Times, as well as dozens of institutions from Central and Eastern Europe.

At the time he was a senior writer at CD Projekt Red where he worked on new video games. Now a principal writer, the games he has worked on include The Witcher, which is based on a book series by Polish science-fiction cult author Andrzej Sapkowski. It is described as one of the most successful Polish products of its type.

Jakub and fellow Gates Cambridge scholar Maria Pawlowska [2007] are married and have a child together.

30/01/2019 - 12:34An interview with Yeo Bee YinYeo Bee Yin talks to Gates Cambridge about her path from master's student to government minister in Malaysia.

Yeo Bee Yin [2009] did her master's in chemical engineering as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. She is now Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change in Malaysia where she has helped to set up a nationwide ban on the import of plastic waste and published a 12-year roadmap that includes a legal framework on eliminating the use of single use plastics in Malaysia by 2030. She spoke to Gates Cambridge about her career path.

Gates Cambridge: How did your interest begin in chemical engineering?

Yeo Bee Yin: I got into chemical engineering by accident. My interest began after I started my bachelor's degree coursework and learnt about thermodynamics, heat transfer, process engineering and optimisation etc.

GC: Did you do a research project as part of your MPhil and, if so, what did you focus on?

YBY: My master’s degree was by coursework. However, there was a small research project involving a 10,000-word thesis. The research was about mathematical modelling for terahertz signals on pharmaceutical tablet coating.

GC: How did the experience of being a Gates Cambridge Scholar impact what you are doing now? You have set up LEAP to promote leadership skills to students and have instigated a dialogue programme between policymakers and young people in addition to setting up tuition centres for the most disadvantages students and food banks. Was that influenced in any way by the focus on social leadership that is linked to Gates Cambridge?

YBY: Being a Gates Cambridge Scholar opened my eyes as I got to know many amazing individuals who, in their respective fields, are impacting the socio-economy of many countries around the world. I was also intellectually challenged through ideas exchanges with the other Gates Cambridge Scholars. I always remember what they told me about when Bill Gates visited Cambridge (unfortunately for me, he did not visit the university while I was studying there) and called on all the Gates Cambridge Scholars to make the scholarship worthwhile by using the funds invested in us to make as great an impact as possible. His words still impact my actions to this day.

GC: Did your experience at Cambridge generally impact the direction you have gone in since? What do you think was most useful about the experience in terms of your current career?

YBY: My experiences at Cambridge helped me to see things in a broader and deeper way. The lectures I attended at Cambridge inspired me greatly. As a matter of fact, I first learnt the concept of sustainability and climate change systematically and in an in-depth manner through the elective subjects I took for my MPhil programme, such as sustainable energy, sustainable water engineering etc.

GC: How did you get involved in politics and what business did you run prior to becoming a politician? Has this also had an impact on the way you do politics?

YBY: I wanted to go back to Malaysia to contribute to my country. I started volunteering for the Democratic Action Party in early 2012 with the sole intention that I wanted to do my best to help to bring systemic change to the country through politics and policy change. It was beyond my wildest imagination then that I would eventually run for office.

GC: You became the youngest state assemblywoman in Selangor in the 2013 elections and won a large percentage of votes. To what do you attribute that?

YBY: I attribute my winning a large percentage of votes to my party’s image and how it appealed to the constituency's voter demographics. It is much more about my party than about me.

GC: You are now a minister with a portfolio that includes science. How much have your studies helped you in this role?

YBY: A lot. Nevertheless, it is actually not about particular fields of knowledge that I have acquired through my studies as an engineering student but the skill of understanding difficult topics and learning quickly as well as the ability to analyse numbers and dissect complicated scenarios.

GC: Have your priorities changed since you entered politics?

YBY: No. I remind myself every day why I am in politics - to do the best I can to make Malaysia a country that is free from corruption and is fair, competitive, prosperous and peaceful. It is my deep desire to see that every child in Malaysia, no matter where they come from, even from the most rural part of Malaysia, or what their family background, race or religion gets an equal opportunity to realise their potential in life.

GC: You have pressed for greater transparency and have faced attempts by others to defame you. What is the main way to counter such political manoeuvring?

YBY: You just have to take it as part of the job and not complain or be affected negatively by it. It also helps to be shrewd in your communication strategies.

GC: What is it like being a woman in politics in Malaysia?

YBY: Just like in many other places in the world, being a woman leader means you are often subjected to prejudice that you are the weaker gender or are judged by how you look. Only through hard work, competency and professionalism can such prejudice be shed. I see fighting prejudice as part and parcel of women leaders’ lives. My advice to young woman leaders is to continue to shine, to uphold your integrity and to move on, far and up. Let the quality of our work speak for our leadership.

GC: You brought out a book earlier this year on your vision for the future. What are the main planks of that vision and where would you like to see yourself in the next five to 10 years?

YBY: Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine that a small town girl like me could play a part in deciding the future of my beloved country. Random episodes in my life accidentally brought me into politics, an arena that people commonly associate with greed, money and power. At the end of 2016, after six years of seeing and experiencing real politics, I wanted to tell the Malaysian public, especially the young, that such a presumption about politics is untrue. Politics is about pursuing dreams, ideals and the belief that our country can and will be better in the future. That is why I decided to write the book. I wanted to share with my readers the nation-building issues that are close to my heart – institutions, education, youth, women, sustainable development and care for the more vulnerable members of society in terms of where we are now and what I dream for them in the future. I launched my book in mid of March 2018.

Malaysia experienced a change of government on 9 May 2018 for the first time since her independence 61 years ago. To everyone’s surprise including myself, I was chosen as one of the 30 Cabinet members of the new Malaysia. I am so grateful that this has given me the opportunity to be part of establishing new foundations for our beloved country.

Although my ministry may not be directly responsible for some of the topics that I have written about in the book, I will still use my influence in the Cabinet to ensure as many of those ideals and dreams are realised and I will constantly keep track of progress made towards them.

There is a saying that “one day is too long in politics”. No one could have imagined that we would be able change the government in Malaysia just two years ago. So, I usually don’t bother to “see myself” in five to 10 years’ time, especially in my political life, as I don’t see what I am doing as a career but as a responsibility entrusted to me. My focus is to do the best in whatever position I hold, big or small, in the interests of the people of Malaysia and our next generations. I will leave my tomorrow to worry about itself. What I need to worry about now is my country’s tomorrow.


27/01/2019 - 23:46From foster care and astronomy to cowboyingThree Gates Cambridge Scholars will talk about their unique personal experiences at an event on Wednesday.

Three Gates Cambridge Scholars will tell personal stories ranging from a year spent at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, cowboying and life in foster care at an event on Wednesday.

The Scholar Stories session will hear from Rebecca Charbonneau, Erik Rudicky and Rob Henderson.

Rebecca's talk, Where the Wired Things Are: Life Amongst the Radio Telescopes in the Mountain, will focus on the year she spent working at NASA and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) before she started her PhD in History and Philosophy of Science. She says: "I am going to focus on the eight months I spent at NRAO, working and living as a historian amongst scientists in the mountains of Charlottesville, Virginia and Green Bank, West Virginia."

Rebecca [2018] will cover the challenges and surprises of living and working in the National Radio Quiet Zone; the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; and life in Charlottesville in the year after the white supremacist rally.

Erik Rudicky's talk Cowboying for Fun and Profit will address questions such as how does the stereotypical image of a cowboy stack up against the modern reality? How could cowboying change your life and how could you change the ways in which you cowboy to benefit the environment? And what do you need to do to become a cowboy and what if you wanted to run the show and start your own livestock operation?

Erik [2018], who is doing a PhD in Politics and International Studies, will draw on his experience of horse training in California and livestock management in Florida and Montana and talk about holistic management of grasslands and the economic realities of ranching for first-generation ranchers and farmers.

Rob Henderson's talk, Hide These In Your Locker, is about his experience growing up in California. Rob [2018], who is doing a PhD in Psychology, was born into poverty to an immigrant mother. When he was two, his mother’s drug addiction caused him to be placed into the Los Angeles County foster care system. He lived in seven different homes over the next five years. Since then, he says he has reflected on what qualities enable people to overcome adversity. "From foster care, to a broken home, to military service and then Yale, I have found a couple of answers," says Rob, who has recently signed with a literary agency to write a memoir about these experiences. 

*The event on January 30th begins at 7:30pm in the GSCR. Gates Cambridge Scholars and their guests are welcome. Picture credit: Wikimedia commons and -oo0(GoldTrader)0oo-.


23/01/2019 - 17:09Irina Bokova to deliver Gates Cambridge Annual LectureIrina Bokova, the first female Director-General of UNESCO, will give this year's Gates Cambridge Annual Lecture.

This year's Gates Cambridge Annual Lecture will be given next month by Irina Bokova, the first female Director-General of UNESCO on the subject of protecting our cultural heritage.

The Annual Lecture will take place on the evening of 27th February at St John's College, Cambridge.

Irina Bokova will speak about UNESCO's work on cultural heritage which is underpinned by the idea that heritage belonging to different cultures may represent “outstanding universal value” and should be protected by international law, embodied in the World Heritage Convention.

Heritage is at the frontline of many “modern” conflicts and is under attack by extremists in Mali, Syria and Iraq. The Buddhas of Bamiyan, Palmyra [pictured] and the mausoleums of Timbuktu are all listed by UNESCO as deliberate attacks on culture.

It says: "Cultural heritage is our bridge from the past to the future. Culture and heritage are not about bricks and stones - they are about identities and belonging. They carry values from the past that are important for societies today and tomorrow. Heritage is the way we understand the world and the means by which we shape it."

The organisation sees cultural heritage as playing a vital role in reconciliation and social transformation and says there is a firm link between peace and security on the one hand and preservation of humanity’s heritage on the other.

Bokova's lecture will address the many challenges to world heritage preservation today, including climate change, uncontrolled urbanisation, unsustainable tourism, illicit trafficking of antiquities, illicit poaching and logging and wars and conflict. 

Bokova served two terms as the Director-General of UNESCO, from 2009 to 2017 and was the first woman and the first Eastern European to lead the Organisation. Having graduated from Moscow State Institute of International Relations, she was a Fellow at the University of Maryland, Washington, and followed an executive programme at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She began her career at the United Nations Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria and was elected twice Member of Parliament, serving as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Government's first Secretary for European Affairs.

Before being elected as Director General of UNESCO, from 2005 to 2009 Bokova was Ambassador of Bulgaria to France, Monaco and UNESCO and Personal Representative of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. As Director-General of UNESCO, she was actively engaged in the UN efforts to adopt Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, including quality education for all, gender equality and protection of the world’s cultural heritage. She actively promotes culture as a driver for development, along with science and innovation.

Bokova, who was on the Forbes List of the world's most influential women for 2016, is currently a Member of the Board of Ban Ki Moon Centre for Global Citizens, Honorary Dean of the Humanitas College and Honorary Professor of Peace Studies of Kyung-Hee University, Seoul. She is also a member of the Concordia Leadership Council, New York, a member of the Strategic Committee of the Paris School of International Affairs, a member of Leaders For Peace and Chair of the International Advisory Council of the Beijing Heritage Art Foundation, Beijing.

*The Annual Lecture takes place from 18:00 to 19:30 on 27th February in the Palmerston Room at St John's College. It is open to Gates Cambridge Scholars and their guests. To book your place, click here. 

**Picture credit:  Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria by Bernard Gagnon under Creative Commons from Wikimedia Commons.


21/01/2019 - 13:04Alternative put forward for Planet Nine hypothesisAntranik Sefilian co-authors paper suggesting a new explanation for the strange orbits of objects at the edges of the solar system.

The strange orbits of some objects in the farthest reaches of our solar system, hypothesised by some astronomers to be shaped by an unknown ninth planet, can instead be explained by the combined gravitational force of small objects orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune, say researchers. 

The alternative explanation to the so-called ‘Planet Nine’ hypothesis, put forward by researchers at the University of Cambridge and the American University of Beirut, including Gates Cambridge Scholar Antranik Sefilian [2017], proposes a disc made up of small icy bodies with a combined mass as much as 10 times that of Earth. When combined with a simplified model of the solar system, the gravitational forces of the hypothesised disc can account for the unusual orbital architecture exhibited by some objects at the outer reaches of the solar system.

While the new theory is not the first to propose that the gravitational forces of a massive disc made of small objects could avoid the need for a ninth planet, it is the first such theory which is able to explain the significant features of the observed orbits while accounting for the mass and gravity of the other eight planets in our solar system. The results are reported in the Astronomical Journal.

Beyond the orbit of Neptune lies the Kuiper Belt, which is made up of small bodies left over from the formation of the solar system. Neptune and the other giant planets gravitationally influence the objects in the Kuiper Belt and beyond, collectively known as trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), which encircle the Sun on nearly-circular paths from almost all directions.

However, astronomers have discovered some mysterious outliers. Since 2003, around 30 TNOs on highly elliptical orbits have been spotted: they stand out from the rest of the TNOs by sharing, on average, the same spatial orientation. This type of clustering cannot be explained by our existing eight-planet solar system architecture and has led to some astronomers hypothesising that the unusual orbits could be influenced by the existence of an as-yet-unknown ninth planet.

The ‘Planet Nine’ hypothesis suggests that to account for the unusual orbits of these TNOs, there would have to be another planet, believed to be about ten times more massive than Earth, lurking in the distant reaches of the solar system and ‘shepherding’ the TNOs in the same direction through the combined effect of its gravity and that of the rest of the solar system.

“The Planet Nine hypothesis is a fascinating one, but if the hypothesised ninth planet exists, it has so far avoided detection,” said co-author Antranik, who is doing his PhD at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. “We wanted to see whether there could be another, less dramatic and perhaps more natural, cause for the unusual orbits we see in some TNOs. We thought, rather than allowing for a ninth planet, and then worry about its formation and unusual orbit, why not simply account for the gravity of small objects constituting a disc beyond the orbit of Neptune and see what it does for us?”

Professor Jihad Touma, from the American University of Beirut, and Antranik, his former student, modelled the full spatial dynamics of TNOs with the combined action of the giant outer planets and a massive, extended disc beyond Neptune. The duo’s calculations, which grew out of a seminar at the American University of Beirut, revealed that such a model can explain the perplexing spatially clustered orbits of some TNOs. In the process, they were able to identify ranges in the disc’s mass, its ‘roundness’ (or eccentricity), and forced gradual shifts in its orientations (or precession rate), which faithfully reproduced the outlier TNO orbits.

“If you remove planet nine from the model and instead allow for lots of small objects scattered across a wide area, collective attractions between those objects could just as easily account for the eccentric orbits we see in some TNOs,” said Antranik.

Earlier attempts to estimate the total mass of objects beyond Neptune have only added up to around one-tenth the mass of the Earth. However, in order for the TNOs to have the observed orbits and for there to be no Planet Nine, the model put forward by Antranik and Touma requires the combined mass of the Kuiper Belt to be between a few to 10 times the mass of the Earth.

“When observing other systems, we often study the disc surrounding the host star to infer the properties of any planets in orbit around it,” said Antranik. “The problem is when you’re observing the disc from inside the system, it’s almost impossible to see the whole thing at once. While we don’t have direct observational evidence for the disc, neither do we have it for Planet Nine, which is why we’re investigating other possibilities. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that observations of Kuiper belt analogues around other stars, as well as planet formation models, reveal massive remnant populations of debris.

“It’s also possible that both things could be true – there could be a massive disc and a ninth planet. With the discovery of each new TNO, we gather more evidence that might help explain their behaviour.”

*Reference: Antranik A. Sefilian and Jihad R. Touma. ‘Shepherding in a self-gravitating disk of trans-Neptunian objects.’ Astronomical Journal (2019). Picture credit:  Kuiper Belt's ice cores. ESO/M. Kornmesser.

17/01/2019 - 13:52Sight saving from a grassroots to a global levelTom Johnson talks about how he combines research into the possibilities of stem cell transplantation for optic nerve repair with his clinical work and community action.

When Tom Johnson was a medical student, he built a community organisation that provides free vision screenings and guaranteed follow-up medical and surgical care to people with little or no resources. That organisation, the Student Sight Savers Programme, has served  hundreds of people over the past six years. Tom’s contribution was recently recognised when he was selected as the 2018 recipient of the Reverend Melvin B Tuggle Community Excellence Award.

The Award recognises sustained commitment to the community of East Baltimore by students and faculty at Johns Hopkins University.

Tom [2006] developed the programme with his mentor Professor Harry Quigley in 2012, soon after completing his PhD at the University of Cambridge and spurred in part by its commitment to social leadership. “The Johns Hopkins Medical System is a tremendous healthcare resource, but there is a disadvantaged community living around the hospital that would benefit from improved access to services. An informal survey of East Baltimore community residents identified eye care as one of their primary unmet needs.  I wanted to reach out and help fill that need in my area of expertise,” he says.

Tom recruited fellow medical students and trained them to conduct vision screenings.  He partnered with community organisations to identify areas of need, and identified several experienced clinical ophthalmologists to supervise screenings. Community residents screened through the programme are guaranteed a free follow-up clinic visit at Johns Hopkins and mechanisms exist to provide medical and surgical eye care to needy patients regardless their ability to pay. This work helps address the preventable causes of blindness.

Tom, who is now a Glaucoma Fellow at the Wilmer Eye Institute in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has worked both as a student carrying out screenings and a clinician overseeing students.  Indeed later this year he will become the organisation’s primary faculty mentor. “I’ve come full circle,” he says.

Student health activism

Tom was born in Chicago and grew up there. He developed a keen interest in health at an early age. As a child he spent many weekends at the animal hospital where his father was a veterinarian. But by the time he became a teenager, he decided he wanted to focus on medical care of humans rather than animals.

He did his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University and it was there that he first became involved in student health activism in 2003 as one of the founding members of GlobeMed alongside fellow Gates Cambridge Scholar to be Victor Roy. GlobeMed is a network of student organisations which sends unused medical supplies to developing nations where they are needed and Tom served as Treasurer and Executive Board Member.

While studying biology and neuroscience, Tom’s interests eventually gravitated towards ophthalmology.  At Northwestern, he conducted ocular pharmacology research and, after graduating in 2005, he spent a post-baccalaureate year in Omaha, Nebraska working with Professor Carl Camras, a renowned glaucomatologist. Camras is best known for having discovered the most effective medication currently available for treating glaucoma.

Camras had a huge impact on Tom’s life. Tom says: “I went to Omaha to experience the day-to-day business of treating patients with eye disease, which is very fulfilling work. But I also came to understand the remarkable impact of Carl’s work as a scientist. He made his seminal observations about prostaglandin analogues and eye pressure as an undergraduate. That work led to the development of the eye drop latanoprost which continues to be the first-line treatment for glaucoma even today, more than 20 years after its development.  It has been used by millions of people around the world and has helped preserve an enormous amount of vision."

Stem cell research

Tom had been accepted to medical school at the time he was working in Nebraska, but was by then so excited by the possibilities offered by biomedical research that he deferred his matriculation to pursue further research training.

He was particularly interested in the potential of stem cell transplantation for the treatment of glaucoma. “Regarding glaucoma and neurodegenerative diseases in general, our current therapies are limited to slowing down progression rather than restoring function. We simply cannot bring people’s vision back after it has been lost to optic nerve disease. Stem cell transplantation offers the possibility of repairing the optic nerve, a concept that could revolutionise medicine by reversing the clock on neurodegeneration,” says Tom.

At the time he wanted to start his PhD studies in 2006, there were many unanswered questions regarding the future of government-funded stem cell research in the United States.  Cambridge was ahead of the field in stem cell biology and seemed the place to be. Being awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship sealed Tom’s decision.

Tom’s supervisor at Cambridge was Professor Keith Martin, a neuroscientist, and clinician specialising in glaucoma. Tom began his PhD in 2006 and one year later was accepted to the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge programme which meant he ended up spending two years with Professor Martin and two at the NIH in Washington, DC where he continued to collaborate with Professor Martin.

Tom says he deeply appreciates his time at Cambridge, particularly the emphasis on collaboration. “The number one thing I learned was the importance of working with other people, brainstorming and bouncing ideas off each other,” he says. “So much collaboration happens informally at Cambridge.  There is so much intellectual stirring of the pot.”

He also found the Gates Cambridge community incredibly stimulating. Tom, who served as Vice-President (2007-08) and Social Officer (2006-07) of the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council, says: “Everyone was a stand-out in their field, and it was a diverse community where people were always making connections between seemingly divergent disciplines. Many scholars became friends for life.”

Cambridge also helped changed his future plans. Early on, Tom envisioned himself as a physician in private practice, seeing patients full time. At Cambridge he was convinced that becoming a clinician scientist, with one foot in research and one in patient care, was the right track to pursue.  

Glaucoma Fellow

After leaving Cambridge in 2010, Tom returned to the US to complete his medical training at Johns Hopkins University, earning his medical degree in 2014. He then spent three years specialising in ophthalmology and in the medical and surgical management of glaucoma.  Now that his training is nearly complete, he is eager to get back into the laboratory.

In July he will be qualified as a glaucoma specialist and neuroscientist, and will be co-directing the new Optic Nerve Regeneration Initiative at JHU. This will serve as the central hub for a cross-disciplinary research consortium aimed at achieving the goal of stem cell-mediated optic nerve repair.  He is looking forward to continuing his community work and for the next five years will spend 25% of his time in the clinical care of patients and 75% in his neuroscience laboratory.

Tom says: “It has become clear to me that while it is deeply meaningful to develop relationships with patients that you can care for in the clinic and operating room, biomedical discoveries that revolutionise a field can help people worldwide, and for generations to come.”

11/01/2019 - 10:32Taking on the World Marathon ChallengeGreg Nance is running the World Marathon Challenge to raise money and awareness for a non-profit he co-founded which aims to increase access to education.

Greg Nance [2011] did his first ultra marathon on the Jurassic coast in December 2011 while he was a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge.

He has always been very athletic. Since he was a boy he has been doing open water swimming and has swum in a large variety of settings, from the Persian Gulf to the East and South China seas. He has also been described as a ‘world class mountaineer’.

However, it was not until he was an undergraduate that he took up long distance running, running along the side of Lake Michigan in Chicago. In 2009 he took part in the Chicago marathon and was hooked.

By the time  he got to Cambridge, where he did an MPhil in Management, he was looking for another challenge. An ultra marathon - which is any marathon longer than 26 miles [just over 42 kms] - seemed a good move. He was surprised at how well he did.  Not only that but he realised that doing it was about more than just running and giving himself head space - it could also be used to raise awareness about a cause, something that allies perfectly with the Gates Cambridge mission of having social impact.

Since then Greg has done longer ultras, often in difficult terrain. One that stands out is the  250km ultra he did across the Atacama Desert in South America with his father.

Now Greg is facing a bigger challenge: taking part in the World Marathon Challenge. For this he will be one of 40 entrants running seven consecutive marathons on seven different continents.

The Challenge begins on 31st January with the hardest leg, in Antarctica. It will be summertime there so Greg will run with special crampons on designed for ice and slush. He will also have to wear glacier goggles as the light from the glaciers can be blinding.

To train he is doing shirtless runs in Shanghai, where he is based and where it is currently winter. He is clear that running in the hilly, icy Antarctic terrain will not just be physically challenging, but also psychologically difficult so he has to prepare well. It will be his first time running there, but he is excited as he says one of his heroes is the explorer Ernest Shackleton. “I’m really excited to be following in his footsteps,” he says.

At the finish line there will be a plane waiting to whisk runners - who will include Olympians and world record holders - to the next marathon in Cape Town where it is summer time. “It will be like going from the freezer to the furnace,” says Greg.

After South Africa comes Perth, Australia, then Dubai, Madrid, Santiago in Chile and then finally the warm, flat terrain of Miami, Florida.

Increasing access to education

Greg is seeking sponsorship for his award-winning non-profit, Moneythink, and has already raised around $10K.

He set the organisation up in 2008 with four fellow students while he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. Recognised by the Obama Administration as a "Champion of Change”, Moneythink involves student volunteers across US campuses teaching high school students in disadvantaged areas to make and manage money. Greg, who is chair of Moneythink’s board, is now raising money for an initiative which involves Moneythink providing a platform for financial coaches to help disadvantaged students fill in a form they need to qualify for financial support to get through college.

The aim is to level the playing field for poorer students and increase access. “Filling in the form is a kind of marathon,” he says. “Instead of students dropping out, we can get them to finish line. By running the World Marathon Challenge I am also pushing past my limits and I hope to inspire them to see that it is possible.”

So far Moneythink has helped 15,000 students, but Greg says this is just the beginning. He hopes that by automating the process more Moneythink can reach more people and have a nationwide impact.

Moneythink is also an open source organisation and shares information on what it is doing with other organisations. Its aim is to create “a rising tide” and build a best practice guide. In the next months it is looking at the issues that lead to high drop-out rates among non-traditional students. “We want to build a beyond. The challenge to get to the start line of university is tough, but staying there is also difficult,” says Greg. Moneythink is looking at building partnerships with other organisations so that it can eventually be an end to end provider.


The ethos of Moneythink and the emphasis on mentorship has clearly influenced Greg’s other award-winning start-up, which he founded while he was at Cambridge. The organisation seeks to expand education access by providing "mentorship for the motivated". guides international students, many of them from China, through the university admissions process with a free online library of instructional articles and videos and a digital workspace for face-to-face video-conferences and document reviews.

Greg, who was named  one of the "Top 99 Foreign Policy Leaders Under 33" in 2013 by the Diplomatic Courier, says he has always believed in the power of education and the need for access to be more fair.

He hopes the World Marathon Challenge will help to raise awareness globally about the issue.

After he has completed the Challenge he is taking some time off for the Chinese New Year. For now he is focusing on the start line on 31st January in Antarctica. “The hardest step is getting to the start line,” he says. “After that, if you can figure out how to take the next step you can make any finish line.”

*Greg will document his journey on his Instagram at gregrunsfar. To sponsor him, visit gofundme.gregrunsfar. Picture: Greg running from an Andean volcano. Credit: Myke Hermsmeyer.

10/01/2019 - 11:30Investigating mobile elements in the mammalian genomeRebecca Berrens has been awarded a prestigious fellowship to pursue her research into transposable elements in the mammalian genome.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been awarded a prestigious fellowship at the University of Cambridge to carry out research into the role of mobile elements in the mammalian genome that can cause genetic diseases and cancer.

Rebecca Berrens [2012] has been awarded  the £300,000 Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship which provides her with four years of funding for independent research at Cambridge University Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute [CRUK-CI]. 

She says: "We commonly believe that genetic information in every cell of our body is the same. This is, however, only true for protein-coding genes, which make up 2% of the genome. In fact, 50% of the genome is comprised of transposable elements (TEs) which can change their genomic position. Due to such mobility, TEs can cause genetic diseases and cancer. While in most mature cells TEs are inactive, during early development, the very first embryonic cell divisions, TEs are very active.

"In my project, I will aim to understand the roles of TEs in cellular differentiation. I will develop experimental and analytical methods to investigate whether TEs are transcriptionally active in all or only a subpopulation of cells during embryonic development. These studies will reveal the molecular origins of mammalian development and could pave our way towards identification and treatment of diseases with genetic bases."

The fellowship begins in February and the research builds on Rebecca's current work in CRUK-CI where she has been a postdoctoral researcher since July 2017 in the lab of John Marioni and has been learning and developing single cell RNAseq analysis focusing on long read sequencing technologies.

During her PhD, for which she received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Rebecca studied how the genome controls transposable elements during early mammalian development by so-called epigenetic modifications and small RNAs. In particular she investigated how transposable elements (TEs) are controlled by epigenetic modifications during early development. She focused on small RNAs as primary silencers of TE expression during global demethylation. Her research showed, for the first time, the interplay of different epigenetic players and the diversity of regulation of TE expression in a time-resolved manner. It was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell in 2017. 

She says: "The Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship allows me to combine my knowledge I acquired during my PhD, studying Transposable Elements in early development, and the computational knowledge on single-cell RNA-seq analysis I have acquired in the short postdoc stay in the Marioni lab to study how transposable elements control the genome during early mammalian development.

"This Fellowship will provide me with independence to achieve my long-term goal of establishing a UK-based interdisciplinary research group focused on disentangling the role of TEs in cell fate decisions."

19/12/2018 - 12:04Spider conservationMichael Pashkevich talks about his research into spider ecology in the palm oil plantations of Indonesia.

Michael Pashkevich didn't like spiders when he was growing up, but at 11pm one night halfway into his undergraduate degree he found himself watching a golden orb weaver spider crawling up his arm.

A researcher had asked him if he wanted to help with her research into spiders and had invited him on a nature hike to get him acclimatised. “It was like a baptism of fire. I was torn between fascination and fear. I could see how calculating and intelligent the spider was, how it thought carefully about where to put its legs as it climbed upwards. It ‘humanised’ spiders for me,” says Michael.

Since doing his undergraduate thesis on the impact of deer conservation on a spider community in Louisiana, he has moved on to studying the effect of oil palm plantation management on spiders in Sumatra for his PhD.

Michael is part of the insect ecology group in the Department of Zoology. It is doing large-scale manipulation experiments with the aim of growing oil palm in ways that may benefit biodiversity without interfering with crop production. He says that there are many positives that accompany any negatives about the palm oil industry. Although the expansion of the industry has resulted in well-reported deforestation problems, Michael says oil palm plantations produce four to 10 times more oil per land unit than other oil crops and require fewer pesticides and fertilisers. “Palm oil is here to stay, so we are learning to grow it in a way that is more friendly to native animals, but also doesn’t sacrifice crop yields. We’d like to grow oil palm so that the beneficial functions of animals are protected and used to help crop production. For instance, protecting native pollinators will benefit oil palm pollination. We’d ideally like a win-win situation for both biodiversity and crop growth,” says Michael.

He began his PhD in 2017 and spent six months of this year in Sumatra collecting specimens. So far he has a collection of 10,000 spiders which he needs to identify. The spider community in the region is very diverse. Michael is looking in particular at the impact of maintaining trees around rivers when plantations are replanted. These conservation areas around waterways are called “riparian buffers” and help improve water quality; may reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and conserve animals and plants which might not otherwise survive in oil palm plantations.

Michael is collecting spiders in three locations – within riparian buffers, just outside the buffers and deeper into the plantation where the effect of the buffers will not be felt. He is interested in measuring how buffer quality – such as the types of trees planted within the buffer – contributes to conservation and to find out more about the benefits that buffers provide.

Early life and undergraduate studies

Michael was not always interested in ecology. In fact, he wanted to do genetics when he was at school. Born at an airforce base in Maryland, his family moved to Louisiana and then Japan for two years where he began school. When the family moved back to Louisiana he was eight. He loved maths and Biology at school and became interested in genetics. He also became involved in sustainable development and joined an environmental club where he helped to replant trees.

In his last year of school he worked on a sustainability project run by the local city council which involved students creating, implementing and measuring recycling initiatives and rolling them out in different parts of the city. It was his first introduction to policy work.

Michael [2017] applied to study Biology at university and initially sought out universities in the north of the US. For financial reasons, however, his parents encouraged him to look more locally. He was accepted to Loyola University in New Orleans on a full scholarship. It was to prove a good choice.

Having started with an interest in genetics, Michael attended a class on ecology halfway through his first year which was to change the course of his studies. The lecturer who took the class was inspiring and the fact that Loyola was a liberal arts college meant Michael's mind was open to different ways of thinking about scientific issues. He started to focus more on ecology. He was invited to take part in research on spiders and, although he was not a big fan of spiders, he was keen to work with the person leading the research. Just before a research trip, she invited him on the natural history hike where he encountered the golden weaver spider. It was a turning point for Michael.

A week later he went on an environmental research trip to Central America. The aim was to learn about scientific research methods on the ground, but during a 12-hour delay on the way back Michael had the time to draw up the proposal for his undergraduate thesis on how human-disturbed landscapes affected spiders, in particular how attempts to curb deer hunting in Louisiana had affected the ecological food chain. More herbivorous animals in certain areas had an impact on a host of other species, including the spiders who lived on the plants the deer were eating. The honours thesis project occupied the last two years of his degree.

Michael really enjoyed being involved in research and knew when he finished his course that he wanted to continue to research spiders in the tropics. He also wanted to experience studying in a different country. During his course he had done an exchange with Edinburgh Napier University and had found out more about doing a PhD in the UK. He liked the UK approach with its focus on independent research and Cambridge's insect ecology group seemed the best fit for his interests.

Michael, who has been a social officer on the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council, says he would not have been able to do his PhD without the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. He says he is committed to producing research that has a tangible application. He has also been involved in science outreach for several years, working in the US on trying to get under-represented groups interested in STEM subjects and in Cambridge he has done public engagement work at the Zoology museum. He hopes to continue his work on ecology, to keep working in the tropics and to contribute to sustainable agriculture.

18/12/2018 - 11:31Award for feminist magazineFeminist magazine co-edited by Marina Velickovic wins UN award.

A feminist magazine co-edited by Gates Cambridge Scholar Marina Velickovic has won an award from the United Nations Population Fund in Bosnia and Hercegovina. 

The award from the UNFPA is bestowed on individuals and civil society organisations that oppose social stereotypes, eliminate prejudices against marginalised groups and, through various activities, make a significant contribution to the promotion of human rights. 

Awards were granted in four key UNFPA priority areas at a ceremony held on December 13th at Tarčin Forest Resort and Spa in Bosnia and Hercegovina as a part of an annual UNFPA meeting with partners.

The award for Bona, the magazine Marina co-edits, came  in the category “Adolescents and youth, with the focus on sexual and reproductive health”. It was selected for its reporting on current topics - in particular an issue on reproductive health, for its content quality, as well as its writing on personal experiences on related topics, which the UNFPA say contribute to the empowerment of young people, primarily girls and women.

Bona is a magazine for feminist theory and art. Every issue has a theme. Marina said: "This award means a lot to our small, but diligent editorial team."

Marina [2017] is doing a PhD in Law, analysing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as a site of knowledge production and looking at how different narratives are produced there, incorporating Feminist critiques, Critical Legal Studies and Third World Approaches to Law to explore where the blind spots are with relation to gender and ethnicity.

13/12/2018 - 17:02Reading the Earth through its rocksMarcela Gomez speaks about her research into fossils and about her role as director of the museum of the Colombian Geological Survey.

When she was a teenager, Marcela Gomez went to a book fair in Bogota with her father and sister. Her father, a chemistry professor, needed to buy some books for his class so took his daughters to the science section where Marcela found a book on stratigraphy, a branch of geology concerned with the study of rock layers and layering. “It caught my attention,” she says. “It was about how life left a print on rocks and how somehow you can read the earth like a book. It inspired me to want to study and understand the Earth.”

Decades later, she is now adviser to the General Director of the Colombian Geological Survey, helping to implement new legislation on the country’s fossil heritage.

Marcela [2004], who did a PhD in Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, studying a fossil which she had brought to the UK from Colombia, has one foot in the world of public policy and the other in research.

Her new role involves giving advice on how to protect Colombian heritage. She is also involved in UNESCO groups on world heritage and on the prevention of illicit trafficking of heritage. She says: “Fossils are now viewed as part of our heritage and not just scientific objects. They have a cultural meaning. This is a new page for me in the study of fossils.”

Childhood and undergraduate studies

Marcela was born in Bogota. Both her parents were professors of chemistry and she attended a private school. She studied the violin at a national conservatoire from the age of four until the end of high school. That made for an intensive week. School ran from 7am to 4.30pm and then Marcela had music classes until 7pm. She also had school on a Saturday until midday and in the afternoon would go to concerts. She also performed regularly as a member of the orchestra and choir.

However, she never saw herself as a professional musician and was always more interested in science.  Her family, unlike many in Colombia, was not religious and therefore an interest in how life evolved and in the history of the earth was natural.

Marcela opted to do a degree in Geology at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia when she left school. Towards the end of her five-year degree, she studied palaeontology - the way life is preserved in rocks and how rocks could be used to understand life in ancient environments. She did her undergraduate dissertation on palaeontology in the region of Villa de Leyva north of Bogota, a region where she continues her fieldwork to this day.

After finishing her degree, she knew that she wanted to continue with her studies. Just as she was graduating, Marcela attended a palaeontology conference being held at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. There she met Dr David Norman, who was to become her supervisor. She mentioned that she wanted to do a PhD and was encouraged to apply to Cambridge. After an interview, she was told that she could do the PhD if she passed an English exam. She applied for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship and recalls spending weeks on the application.  When she heard about the result, she had already started classes in Germany after being given a DAAD scholarship to attend a university there.

Fossil study

For her PhD at Cambridge Marcela focused on a fossil which she had come across in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia – she later named it Acostasaurus pavachoquensis. The fossil is named after a Colombian priest, the father of palaeontology in Colombia, who discovered it in the 1960s and gave it to the university. It lay abandoned in the university for decades until it was recently studied and found to have characteristics which differ from other similar fossils.

Marcela had been fascinated by the fossil as an undergraduate as it came from the region she was studying. She brought the fossil with her to the UK to study and did a CT scan of it, creating digital models of the internal parts of the animal - a marine reptile from the Mesozoic era. The creature lived at the same time as the dinosaurs, but was not a dinosaur. Its body was three metres long and its head one metre in length. Other similar animals have been found in Colombia which are larger.

Marcela finished her PhD in 2008, but did not get receive her doctorate until the following year. At Cambridge she met her husband, who is a British palaeontologist and she took a job at CASP, a not-for-profit geological research organisation affiliated to the Department of Earth Sciences. She stayed there for a few years, working on the Siberia Project Project.

Marcela became pregnant in 2010 and the family moved to Colombia in 2012 where her husband got a job in a private university. Marcela worked for a time in an oil and gas company, but resigned after a year. Soon after, she got a job teaching at the same university as her husband and, after two years there, she was appointed director of the museum of the Colombian Geological Survey in Bogota.

Fossil heritage

She has now been in the job for around three years and has been able to continue her research and be involved in policy issues, including a campaign to get a law passed to protect Colombia’s geological and palaeontological heritage.

The president approved the law in July. It includes regulations on excavation and fossils. “In the past anyone could excavate, and take away, what they found,” said Marcela. “It was a hole in the law, but now we have some rules, for instance, fossils cannot be taken outside the country and people cannot come and excavate without permission. It also means we know more about who is doing research, what the research is and we know where the fossils are.”

Alongside the new law, Marcela says there needs to be an education campaign, which she hopes, will help to encourage more people to study palaeontology. As part civil servant, part researcher, she is also involved in engaging with the public about palaeontology.

Marcela says her experience at Cambridge, including the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, has stood her in good stead in her new role. “People talk a lot about future leaders, but it is a bit abstract and you don’t know how you will get there as a student. However, being in a place where you are taught to work hard, check your work is rigorous and to argue confidently is critical to becoming a leader in later life. I got to the position I am in because I am able to think critically and give my opinion.”

She adds: “Cambridge is not just about acquiring knowledge. It is about being critical, rigorous and thorough and about asking the questions that move things forward.”

*Picture credit: Alejandra Cardona of the Colombian Geological Survey

11/12/2018 - 11:52The future of UK foreign policySharmila Parmanand will respond to the inaugural Fabian International Policy Group Christmas lecture on the future of UK foreign policy.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar is taking part in an all-female panel discussion on the future of UK foreign policy at the Palace of Westminster tonight.

Sharmila Parmanand is taking part in the Fabian International Policy Group event and responding to the inaugural Christmas Lecture given by former UN Deputy Secretary-General Lord Mark Malloch-Brown.

Lord Malloch-Brown's lecture will consider some of the big trends shaping the world today and what it means for the UK. In the context of what is happening with Brexit, it will also explore the challenges and opportunities for the country, and address the key question of what kind of ‘global power’ Britain should aspire to be. In addition, it will set out a future strategy and agenda for the UK’s foreign policy.

Sharmila [2016], who is doing a PhD in Multi-disciplinary Gender Studies, will join fellow panellists, including Helen Goodman MP, Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Minister, Brexit expert Georgina Wright from Chatham House and Leslie Vinjamuri, Head of the US and the Americas Programme at Chatham House to respond to the speech.

Sharmila Parmanand is former Director of Policy and Advocacy at Visayan Forum Foundation which works for the welfare of marginalised migrants in the Philippines. She is also a debating champion and coach and is co-chief adjudicator for the European University Debating Championship 2019 taking place in Athens. 


05/12/2018 - 15:15Inoculating people against fake newsMelisa Basol's research investigates how to counter the misinformation spread in fake news about immigrants.

The events of 2016 have prompted a lot of reflection around the role of fake news in the votes in the UK and US, particularly attitudes to and manipulation of attitudes to immigration. Melisa Basol [2018] was just finishing her undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Aberystwyth at the time. There she had become deeply interested in decision-making processes, including its heuristics and biases.

While considering what to do next, she came across a paper Dr Sander van der Linden on inoculating public opinion about misinformation against climate change. She started thinking about how effective inoculation theory might be in the context of Brexit and specifically, in relation to misinformation about immigration. She wrote to Dr van der Linden about her proposal and soon began her MPhil in Social and Developmental Psychology at the University of Cambridge.

For her MPhil she looked at attitudes towards immigration and whether these could be changed and people could be protected from misinformation that posited that immigrants posed an economic threat to the UK.

For her PhD, for which she received the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Melisa has been drilling down into inoculation theory. It dates back to the 1960s and has its origins in Cold War fear of propaganda. The idea was that certain political views were like a virus and that the way to counter that and to build attitudinal resistance was to create a vaccine using a weakened form of the virus and enough information to protect a person from misinformation.

The fake news virus

Melisa says that it is very difficult to fight back against individual fake news articles once they have been released. “Fake news is like a virus,” she says. “It spreads fast and deeply. It jumps from host to host and is very difficult to dismantle once the ideas are out there. At the Social Decision-Making research lab, we have been working on something called pre-bunking. The idea is to equip individuals with the skills they need to detect misinformation."

As a member of the Social Decision-Making Research Lab at Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, she has been working on plans to generalise a ‘bad news’ game created by Jon Rozenbeek and Sander van der Linden. It is an online choice-based game that encourages the players to walk in the shoes of a “fake news tycoon”. Players learn about the six most common strategies used to produce and spread fake news.

The lab has just won a £50K WhatsApp Research Award for Social Science and Misinformation to have the game ready to use before next year’s Indian elections. They are trialling it on a demographically representative sample of people in India to make sure the intervention works.  The aim is to investigate the psychological mechanisms behind  the spread of misinformation on messaging applications such as WhatsApp in non-Western countries. The researchers hope to further explore the extent and longevity of attitudinal resistance conferred through choice-based  interventions.

The award has come about because Whatsapp is concerned about sharing of misinformation on its Indian platform, which has resulted in violent attacks, and has been looking to not only make it more difficult to do so, but to develop a model that can be trusted.

In addition to working on this project, Melisa is investigating cross-protection – the extent to which attitudinal resistance to one issue can be extended to linked topics - and she is investigating how inoculations against misinformation can be spread with the hope that, by outpacing the transmission of misinformation, “herd immunity” can be established.

Picture credit: Nick Saffell

03/12/2018 - 11:25Using ancient DNA to document past sea ice changeStijn De Schepper wins 2.6m Euro grant to document past climate change.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been awarded a 2.6m Euro grant to develop ancient DNA as a new tool for documenting past sea ice change.

Stijn De Schepper will use the European Research Council Consolidator Grant to establish a cross-disciplinary research group of paleoceanographers and molecular ecologists. 

His project AGENSI - A Genetic View into Past Sea Ice Variability in the Arctic will develop, test and apply ancient DNA as a new tool for documenting past sea ice change to better understand what is driving past Arctic sea ice and climate change.

Stijn, who is researcher at NORCE Climate and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen, Norway, said: "I am truly excited that I will be able to pursue my research idea to use ancient DNA for sea ice reconstructions. It is great to see that this novel approach that has the potential to significantly advance the field of paleo-sea ice research is being recognised as ground-breaking. Receiving this grant gives me the freedom to pursue fundamental paleoclimate research."

Stijn [2002] did his PhD in Geography at the University of Cambridge with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. It focused mainly on Pliocene microfossils from a drill core in the North Atlantic which was collected by the International Ocean Discovery Programme, a large international marine research collaboration. Over the course of his PhD he discovered several species new to science. He also did a pilot study to understand the Pliocene history of the North Atlantic Current and its influence on climate.

While in Bergen he has led a nine million Norwegian kroner [£880,000] international project investigating the history of Arctic sea ice during the warm Pliocene. 

*Picture credit: The ice highway by Ian Mackenzie from Ottawa, Canada c/o Wikimedia Commons.

27/11/2018 - 15:13A more diverse stand-up communityGates Cambridge Scholars have contributed to a more diverse stand-up comedy scene in Cambridge and more widely.

When Callie Vandewiele (2014) arrived in Cambridge she had been performing improv comedy in the US for four years. She couldn’t find an improv group in Cambridge so a friend suggested she try stand-up. Her first gig was in October 2013.

Since then not only has she performed across the UK - from Norwich to Cardiff - and in the US, but she has played an influential role in opening up the Cambridge comedy scene to a more diverse group of stand-ups.

Callie loved stand-up comedy from the offset. Her first gig was at a political comedy night at Queen’s college. “It was just three to four minutes putting my toe in the water, but it was addictive. I went from that to seeking out every comedy night I could find in Cambridge for the next year,” she says.

Her comedy style is mainly narrative – rooted in story telling and life experience. She comments on everything from online dating and sexual politics to being an American in the UK.

At the time she started there were very few women doing stand-up in Cambridge. While most sets are fairly short, in 2016, she did an hour-long routine at the ADC in 2016. Last year, however, she took a year out to finish her PhD in Latin American Studies focused on traditional Guatemalan textiles.

To address the lack of diversity in the Cambridge comedy scene, Callie co-founded the Newnham Smoker with Chris Waugh and James Wilkinson. The first feminist comedy night, in Cambridge, it is based at Newnham college and aims to provide women, queer and non-binary people with an introduction to stand-up. The Newnham Smoker runs semi-regular workshops and hosts trainers from the London comedy scene to offer a supportive environment for a diverse range of new stand-ups to develop their skill sets. 

When the Newnham Smoker first started Callie and the other founders received regular online abuse, but that has subsided as the Cambridge comedy scene has opened up.

Gates Cambridge stand-ups

Over the last four years over 30 people have done stand-up for the first time, or at a very early point in their careers, at the Newnham Smoker. They include several other Gates Cambridge Scholars. One is Cansu Karabiyak, who competed in the BBC New Comedy Award heats and has performed in Cambridge and London. Cansu founded Laugh 4 Change, a charity that puts on stand-up gigs to raise funds for refugees, after returning from volunteering in refugee camps in Greece in December 2016. Cansu [2016] is doing a PhD in Medical Science focused on finding new ways of treating neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease.

Another scholar who got into stand-up through the Newnham Smoker is Annika Pecchia-Bekkum [2014], who did a PhD in Medicine. She also took part in a stand-up workshop, run by Callie, through the Gates Cambridge Learning for Purpose initiative and learnt how to write different types of comedy.  Her comedy is mostly story-telling based on her life, for instance, her childhood and transition to adulthood and her experience of being homeschooled in Utah. “Before I came to Cambridge I was very shy,” she says. “Comedy was a way for me to connect with people and feel more comfortable interacting with groups. It has greatly impacted my life.”

She admits that she still gets stage fright, but also that she loves the buzz of performing and having to think quickly and adapt her material to the audience on any given night.

Since she began, she has experienced being the only female on the roster and describes it as isolating and daunting. However, she adds that more and more female comedians are coming forward thanks to the work of people like Callie and the Pembroke College-based founders of the comedy club ‘Stockings’. She is also proud to be part of an expanding group of Gates Cambridge stand-ups. “There’s a really vibrant comedy community at Gates Cambridge. A lot of people attended the Learning for Purpose workshop,” says Annika. “I have to thank Callie - she has helped to create a very welcoming, non judgmental atmosphere where people can develop their stand-up skills.”

Using comedy to tackle social issues

Other Gates Cambridge scholars who have got into stand-up at Cambridge include Wesley Hazen [2013] who did an MPhil in Criminology. He did an open audition for Footlights which kickstarted a sideline in stand-up which balances his day job. Wesley says he had always enjoyed comedy, but Cambridge gave him the chance to take to the stage. His comedy is based on one liners and some narrative from his personal life, including a traumatic event a few years ago when he was shot in the leg in a drive-by shooting in the US. The shot fractured his fibula down to the calf. He says doing stand-up has helped him to process the experience. It also provides a counterbalance to his work as a Word Processing Technician with the Texas Legislative Council for the Texas State Legislature and widens his social network.

Mohammad Shomali’s comedy aims to tackle Islamophobia. He also got into stand-up through Footlights. He discovered the power of telling jokes at home, though. His brother has muscular dystrophy and Mohammad realised early on that comedy could help raise the family mood.

Mohammad [2016], who is an imam, performed for Footlights a few times before being invited to perform at comedy clubs and colleges across Cambridge. At one point he was doing three shows a day. “I had read a lot about comedy and had always wanted to do it,” says Mohammad. 

His comedy hero was George Carlin. He loved the way Carlin mixed philosophy and politics into his routine. “His comedy had a message. I wanted my comedy to be funny and to have something behind it too,” says Mohammad.

A lot of his routine focused on the everyday experiences of someone from the Middle East who is living in the West and played on stereotypes of the other. “Comedy is the best way to communicate without causing any hard feelings,” he says.

At the time Mohammad was doing an MPhil in Muslim/Jewish relations. At one point he was invited to perform at a Jewish celebration. “Comedy brings people together. If you were talking about the issues in another forum only certain groups of people would be interested, but everyone comes if you talk about them in stand-up because everyone enjoys laughing. People were very open. I loved it,” says Mohammad.

He adds: “My comedy aims to help bridge the gap between my community and the wider Western
community. ”

Although he was asked to tell a joke in his Gates Cambridge interview, Mohammad hasn’t had much time to do stand-up since he started his PhD which is focused on Islamic law and minority human rights. Nevertheless, he says he does use his comedy skills in his teaching and public speaking. One course he teaches is Islamic history and philosophy at the Islamic College in London. “The topic can be a bit dry so I use a bit of comedy,” he says.

The Gates Cambridge Scholars have provided a more international, diverse outlook to the Cambridge comedy scene, but the experience of doing stand-up has also had a positive impact on them. Those who have taken up stand-up say that it has enriched their lives.

Callie adds that doing stand-up can also build personal skills and confidence. She hopes the Newnham Smoker, now co-run by Charlie Stokes, has contributed to a more diverse comedy scene not just in Cambridge but beyond and that Gates Cambridge Scholars have played their part in this. “It’s hard to imagine being a stand-up if you look at the stage and never see anyone who looks like you or comes from a similar place as you,” she says.

*Photo of Callie: credit Alex Kong.

20/11/2018 - 20:17The politics of historyMarcus Colla talks about how decisions about destroying or rebuilding landmarks reflect the political manipulation of history.

Architecture is imbued with history and destroying symbolic buildings or attempting to bring them back to life for political reasons cannot resolve past conflicts, according to Marcus Colla [2015].

His research focuses on Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, when the country was divided between the East and West. But he is also interested in how the debates that happened then, particularly those among historians, are reflected in current discussions about the past and what they show about the politicisation of Germany’s history and of history generally.

Marcus’ research looks at the afterlife of Prussia in post-war Germany, and specifically the conflict between nationalist and socialist narratives in Germany in the Cold War period of the 70s and 80s. It was a period when the ‘Prussian-Renaissance’ was a hot topic and there was a contest between two different Germanies - the Western Federal Republic and communist East Germany - to claim the Prussian past as their own.

Marcus has contacted historians of the time who are still alive as well as descendants of those who aren't. He is keen to examine the legacy of Prussia in both East and West German memory and in particular how changing attitudes to Germany’s history have affected architectural policy and debates around the reconstruction of old Prussian buildings. “What fascinates me most of all is the intersection between political legitimation, historical narrative and historical memory. Historical memory has long been a key tool of regimes in legitimising their rule. But what regimes claim to be the inheritors of, and what they explicitly reject from their history, must in some sense be conditioned by existing public memories,” says Marcus.

He came to study this period after visiting Germany on a scholarship during his undergraduate degree at the University of Tasmania. At the time Marcus went to the site of the City Palace in Berlin which was a big crater. The Palace had been demolished by the Communists in the 1950s and there was a debate about rebuilding it. He became fascinated by the conflict between memories of the past and contemporary Germany and how architecture reflected a sense of identity.


Marcus grew up in a small town in northern Tasmania thousands of miles away from Germany in a very different culture.

The second in his family to go to university, he attended a farm school until he was 12 where many of the children were the offspring of farmers. From there he got a scholarship to a Catholic High School. At school he became heavily involved in music, playing in several bands, and it was only just before university that he became more focused on his academic studies, particularly theatre, media, creative writing, politics and history. He read hundreds of books at the time.

He won a full scholarship to the regional campus of the University of Tasmania and spent the first two years there before moving to the main campus in Hobart, the capital city. It was in his second year that he won a scholarship to travel to Europe and had his first encounter with Germany and the German language. It gave him a deeper appreciation of and interest in European history. He also did a summer school in Cambridge at the time. He returned to Tasmania and studied German through a free languages diploma which he did alongside his honours studies.

Marcus’ honours dissertation was on the demolition of the City Palace. After the reunification of Germany there was talk of rebuilding the palace, with its demolition viewed by some as a communist attack on German heritage.  Marcus wanted to look at the demolition period and at how the reconstruction plans were justified. Similar debates had taken place in other parts of Germany since reunification and different decisions were taken. For instance, in Leipzig the university church was demolished by the communists in 1968. Instead of reconstructing the church a new university building was made with a hologrammic imprint of the church’s outline in it.

Once he had finished his honours degree Marcus took a job at the University of Tasmania working in the Faculty of Arts dealing with student issues around enrolment. He worked there for nearly a year before starting an MPhil in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge.


His MPhil built on his previous dissertation and investigated how Prussia and Prussian history was understood in East Germany in the 1950s as an antecedent of National Socialism. His interest was in the political manipulation of history, using the story of the City Palace as one of many case studies.  “It is impossible to recreate a unified view of the past. History does not lend itself to reduction,” he says. He adds that seeking to rebuild such a symbol does not necessarily represent a move forwards.

Marcus proceeded from his MPhil to his PhD which is on the much broader question of the Prussian legacy and the politics of history in Germany. He says:  “I am looking at the extent to which changes in historical self-perception were related to targeted historical management practices. By this I mean practices of memorialisation and education and the treatment of historical buildings and artefacts.”

He finishes his PhD next Spring and has already published a prize-winning paper on architecture and conflict in the Central European History journal and another in the Journal of Contemporary History. More are in the pipeline. Marcus plans to stay in academia after finishing his PhD and to broaden his research to encompass how history has been manipulated and abused in other settings.

14/11/2018 - 12:59Four scholars named in list of US innovators and leadersFour Gates Cambridge Scholars are highlighted in this year's Forbes 30 under 30 lists.

Four Gates Cambridge Scholars have been named in the Forbes 30 under 30 lists this year, highlighting up and coming leaders and innovators in a range of areas, from healthcare to science.

Three of the Scholars were named in the healthcare list.

Joshua Cohen [2012], who is currently an MD/PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins Medical School where he is working in the laboratory of Bert Vogelstein, was included in the list for his work on developing diagnostic tests that detect cancer early by sensing fragments of DNA in the blood. Joshua's interest in working on cancer grew as a result of working as a counsellor at Camp Kesem during his undergraduate years. The camp serves children whose parents have cancer. At Cambridge he did an MPhil in Computational Biology.

Stan Wang [2011], who did his PhD in Surgery under Nobel Laureate Sir John Gurdon, was listed alongside his fellow co-founders of Cellino, a start-up which uses lasers to modify stem cells in order to make it far more efficient to create the types of cells that are needed for new, innovative cell therapies.

Sukrit Silas [2011], who did an MPhil in Pathology, was listed for his role in co-founding the company BillionToOne. It came about after Sukrit, working in the Stanford laboratory of Nobel Laureate Andrew Fire, discovered how bacteria use CRISPR, which is part of the immune system, to learn to attack viruses that are made of the genetic material RNA. The company has raised $2.5m and is developing diagnostics for the conditions beta thalassemia and Down's syndrome.

Also recognised by Forbes in their science category is Chris Boyce who is currently Assistant Professor at Columbia University. His research group investigates the fundamentals of multiphase flows to spark developments relevant to energy, health and the environment. By harnessing the power of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computational models, they seek to gain insights into complex systems with unprecedented detail. Chris [2011] did his PhD in Chemical Engineering.

*Picture of cancer cells by Dr Cecil Fox, c/o the National Cancer Institute

10/11/2018 - 11:40Mothers: the hidden story of the struggle for equalityAnna Nti-Asare-Tubbs speaks about her research into the role of mothers in the struggle for race equality in the US.

The stories of the mothers of influential black thinkers and activists are powerful, but have been little studied, says Anna Nti-Asare-Tubbs [2017].

As part of her PhD in Sociology, she is researching the stories of the mothers of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Junior and James Baldwin - Alberta King, Louise Little and Emma Berdis Jones - and plans to turn them into a mainstream book so they are more widely known and their influence and impact given the acknowledgement they deserve.

Louise Little, for instance, was born in Grenada. Her own mother became pregnant after being raped by a Scottish man when she was just 11. Louise later moved to Montreal and joined Marcus Garvey’s pan-African movement which believed in black self reliance. She wrote for the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s newspaper. After meeting her husband Earl, she moved to Michigan where Malcolm X was born. The family were pursued by white supremacists due to their activism and their house was burnt down.  Malcolm X’s autobiography recounts the state of constant terror his family lived in at the time he was born. When he was six Earl was widely rumoured to have been murdered by the white supremacist group the Black Legion. The death, however, was officially recorded as a suicide so Louise did not receive any insurance, leaving the family destitute. Her children were later taken into care and Louise was put in an asylum for 25 years. She died at the age of 91.

During the course of her research, Anna has seen letters which have never before been published which Malcolm X wrote from prison to his mother where he speaks of what his mother was trying to teach him. “Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King Jr all credited their mothers in different ways throughout their lives. However, scholars have chosen to ignore that,” she says.

Anna’s research is strongly linked to her own activism on race and gender issues. Married to the mayor of the city of Stockton in California, she has recently devoted a lot of energy to doing a comprehensive survey of Stockton’s women which will inform policy and investment decisions.

Work on the report began in June 2017. Anna organised countless meetings, bringing the right people together and making the case for why hard data on women was needed to back up policy work.

The report was co-authored with San Joaquin County Data Cooperative using data from the local census. Focus groups and individual interviews were set up and huge efforts were made to get the survey out to as many women as possible, including the most disadvantaged single mothers. Anna also helped to raise the money needed to do the survey. The report was completed in April and the findings are freely available. Anna says they can be used by a wide variety of policymakers and outside investors, including those who might be looking, for instance, to invest in affordable childcare, access to reproductive health advice and support for victims of domestic violence.

Observing the world

Anna had a nomadic childhood and her experience of moving around as a child meant she always felt like she was ‘the other’, observing different cultures, including in the US. It made her deeply aware of issues around gender and race.

She was born in Albuquerque in New Mexico. Her parents were international law lecturers and the family moved around the world, living in a number of countries, from Estonia, Russia and Dubai to Mexico, Azerbaijan and the US. Anna’s parents made a point of sending their three children to local schools so they could learn the culture and language of the country they were in. “It was incredible to see the world that way,” says Anna. “I was a very curious child and loved to sit and watch everything happening around me. I loved learning. I was a proud nerd.”

In her teens the family moved back to the US to Wyoming and when they moved again Anna went to boarding school in Indiana. She did advanced Physics and Maths, but also loved reading and writing. When she got admitted to Stanford she opted to do a degree in medical anthropology which merged science and social sciences and focused on the interaction between culture and health. “My mum said I should do anthropology because I loved observing the world. My dad wanted me to be a doctor,” she says. “The course meant I could keep hold of many of my passions.”

Anna did a four-year honours course, finishing with a thesis on sex education in the US based on research of young people’s experiences of sex education. It investigated how a country’s approach to speaking about sex education directly affected young women’s health. The research got her interested in reproductive rights and in intersectional feminism, although she had already noticed gender inequities as a child.

Anna’s research work on sex education started in her second year when she won a grant to do research on an independent project. The same year she led a class on women’s health which included trips to the state capital to talk about women’s health. She also took part in  fundraising activities for women’s health clinics in San Francisco.

Anna was active in black politics too. She was co-president of the Black Student Union in her second year and sought to link her student activism to the broader racial equality movement.

Gender studies

Anna’s work on sex education made her realise she needed to deepen her knowledge of feminism so she applied to do an MPhil in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge. She was drawn by the university’s multidisciplinary approach to the subject. Her dissertation focused on the ways in which intersectional feminist theory being taught in high school could respond to the need for culturally relevant pedagogy.

Anna complemented her research with teaching black feminist theory to 16- and 17-year-old students of colour at a high school in Stockton, California.  It was around the time of the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. “I wanted to bring black feminist theory to younger populations. From my teaching I could see how it changed students and made them aware that they had agency, despite being told that they didn’t,” she says. “For them gender and race theory was about their day to day survival. It wasn’t academic.”

The students petitioned for her to stay at the school and she was offered a full-time job after completing her MPhil. She stayed for two years and taught a course on ethnic studies and black feminist and chicano literature which students could use for a college credit.  Anna says the experience was personally enriching . “The students taught me and they surprised me a lot,” she says. “Especially the young men. They were so excited to learn about black feminism. It taught me not to make assumptions about boys and about the value of giving them opportunities to become better men. Young men are really important to the larger movement for race and gender equality and they must be included. They want to be told the truth.”

Anna decided after two years that she wanted to return to academia and she moved to the Sociology Department for her PhD. She wanted to focus on the different ways communities of colour claimed education when it was denied to them and in particular on the role of mothers. She was influenced by the mothers of the young people she had been teaching and by her husband’s mother who was a young single parent. Anna’s husband Michael is mayor of Stockton and says he would not be who he was if it were not for the decisions his mother took when he was a child.

Michael has been mayor for the last two years. Anna has tried to mould her role as the mayor’s wife into something she can be proud of.  She has looked to align that role with her research interests.

“When I went to debates no-one was talking about women,” she says. “There was a lack of focus on gender equity. I told my husband that we have to do something for women. That was the seed of the report on women.”

Over the last year Anna has been based in the UK doing her PhD and has been coordinating everything remotely. She is now firmly focused on her fieldwork, doing interviews in the US. Anna hopes to publish her research as a mainstream book along the lines of Hidden Figures. It will be her first non-fiction work  - she is currently editing her first novel. She plans to finish her interviews with family members and friends in the next few months and to start writing by March. “Tracing the stories of these mothers tells us so much about American society,” she says. “Mothers are not given the credit they deserve.”

02/11/2018 - 12:22Charting the experiences of women in AntarcticaMorgan Seag's research involves taking oral histories of the first women in Antarctica and examining the process of their gradual inclusion.

How have women integrated into everyday life in Antarctica over the past decades? What strategies have they used to succeed in male-dominated environments and how can polar science be more inclusive and representative?

These are some of the strands of Morgan Seag’s research into the evolving role of women in Antarctica. She is conducting interviews with women from the first generations to work in Antarctica to build up an oral history of the move from exclusion to inclusion. She says the story of women’s integration in Antarctica varies a lot according to which country they originally came from and is linked to national social and political contexts. In the USSR the first women were allowed to work on Antarctic vessels in 1956. In the US no women were allowed to work on Antarctic research stations until 1969. In the UK it was 1986.

The first women to work in Antarctica were mainly scientists and they were initially only allowed in certain places at certain times of year with one of the reasons given that there were no facilities for them. “This was underlied by masculinist ideologies: beliefs that certain types of achievement were inherently masculine, and fears that women’s presence would lead to jealousies and a collapse of morale,” says Morgan [2016] who became interested in women’s role in Antarctica after working there for two seasons running.

She says the first female scientists to stay through the winter in Antarctica were seen as ‘maiden aunt’ figures, with their treatment circumscribed by questions of morality and sexuality. Through her oral histories, Morgan is looking at how those women managed to succeed and thrive. “Women have made tremendous contributions. Some of the attributes they needed to do this were unrelated to their scientific abilities. They had to be able to navigate a male-dominated culture,” says Morgan.

She began her interviews just after the Harvey Weinstein story broke and says the #MeToo movement has impacted her research. “A lot of women who got their PhDs several decades ago are reflecting on their experience now,” she says. “A few years ago, many of my interviewees didn’t think gender had been relevant to their careers. Now, some are less certain. One wondered if she and her peers had to put on blinders to gender-based challenges in order to survive as women in science at the time. The interviews are inspiring, but they can also be challenging.”

Cultural encounters

Morgan’s fascination with the role of women in Antarctica is part of a long-held interest in how diversity and inclusion take shape in different spaces. Morgan was born in New York and her family moved to Kansas when she was nine as her father is a film maker and was making a film there. The change from a metropolitan city to the more conservative, traditionalist Kansas gave her an early interest in cultural encounters, inclusion and empathy.

“I was a city kid, very urban. In New York my parents helped found an independent public school which had a different more child-centred philosophy. There were no grades and it was flexible in defining the curriculum, with an emphasis on semi-structured play and exploration. New York taught me to love learning and pursue my dreams; Kansas taught me to explore difference with empathy,” says Morgan. The family moved back to New York when Morgan was older and she went to middle and high school there and developed her interest in earth and environmental science. In her high school yearbook she said her ambition was to see a volcano, tornado and Antarctica. It was to prove prescient.

West Africa

She applied to major in earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania. However, very quickly she realised that she was better suited to social sciences and switched to political science. She had worked in the study abroad office in her first year and enrolled in an exchange programme in Senegal. She describes the six-month programme as “hugely formative”. In Senegal she joined the university dance troupe. “I was the only non-West African and non-native French speaker. It was an incredible way to build friendships. We communicated through our shared passion for dance,” she said.

When she returned she did a minor in African studies and French, determined to go back to West Africa. When she finished her degree she returned to West Africa and worked for an education consultancy. The experience made her acutely aware of the layers of politics involved in her being a white American woman in Ghana. “I was not sure if I was doing more harm in that role than good,” she says. She went back to New York and reconsidered how she could make a positive contribution.

She started working for an African Film Festival in New York, encouraging cultural encounters between African film makers and American audiences. Funding gaps at the nonprofit meant she needed supplemental work. She worked nights at a restaurant, and eventually her father revived her childhood dream of working in Antarctica by sending her Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World. Herzog’s film is about people working in Antarctica. It started Morgan thinking and she began researching how to find jobs for non-scientists in Antarctica.

She spotted a job for a dish washer so she applied, got the job and soon found herself at the McMurdo Station, which caters to around 1,200 people in the summer months. She loved her three months there so much that she returned the following year as a head dish washer, this time for six months. She was keen to push herself and experience living outdoors in a field camp. “I had fallen madly in love with Antarctica and I wanted to learn to live outdoors and to see a more remote part of the continent,” she says. “The setting was spectacular. McMurdo is located on a volcanic island that’s covered in ice, with an open crater that puffs a steady plume of steam across the sky. In the opposite direction you can look across McMurdo Sound to a massive mountain range. The sunsets are so colourful. The wildlife, including penguins and killer whales, is incredible.” However, due to funding issues Morgan was unable to get to a field camp.


So instead she decided to apply to Cambridge because of the depth and breadth of research on Antarctica covered by the University. As with her earlier work in Ghana, her interest was in diversity and in how more inclusive cultures are created. “Most people in Antarctica work through a national programme. Every national programme imports both infrastructure and ideas into this otherwise uninhabited space,” says Morgan. “That includes ideas of what Antarctica is and who should be there, doing what. My interest is in how these ideas have manifested in different national programmes, and how those organisations have gradually become more gender inclusive.”

She notes how an increase in the number of women coming to Antarctica has made a difference, building a critical mass of women whose presence has shifted gender norms on ‘the ice’. She adds, though, that the oral histories she had done may be biased towards those women who succeeded. Tracing those who dropped out, including any who left due to the masculinist culture, is harder.

Morgan is tracing the movement to greater inclusion alongside her work as co-chair of the international council of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists where she focuses on diversity and inclusion in Polar research.

Morgan is interested in how international collaboration can push dialogue on inclusivity in Polar research forwards. This summer she was a panellist at a bi-annual research conference of Arctic and Antarctic researchers. “I want to connect my historical research with what is happening today so that it is not just about understanding how things were, but about positive change,” she says.

The issues that come up today include those around encouraging more women into STEM careers and tackling sexual harassment and creating lasting cultural change. “This work is about social justice,” she states. “It’s also about getting different perspectives and imagining spaces anew – and about doing better science.”

26/10/2018 - 11:11Making connections on the situation in GazaMona Jebril has been invited to join the network of evidence and expertise at the University of Cambridge's Centre for Science and Policy.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been invited to join a body which connects science and policy as a result of speaking at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

Mona Jebril, who recently completed her PhD in Education, was invited to join the network of evidence and expertise at the University of Cambridge's Centre for Science and Policy.[CSaP]. 

CSaP is working with the Research for Health in Conflict project to bring eight fellows from the Middle East and North Africa region to Cambridge and London later this term.

Mona says exchanging views and expertise with policymakers helps her to support development efforts in Palestine and the MENA region and she hopes it may inform her own future research.

Mona spoke at the Festival of Ideas in the session  War in the Middle East: Living Through Extremes about her research findings, highlighting the multiple ways conflict has affected mobility of academics, academic freedom and attempts to reform the higher education system.

In a Q & A before the event, she said: "The political situation in Gaza is difficult and unpredictable. This is reflected in several ways at Gaza’s universities, including the occasional bombardment of university campuses or buildings nearby which has caused the destruction of facilities and disrupted academic activities.

"The factional atmosphere in Gaza also affects academia. For example, students spoke to me about their annoyance about factional celebrations and posters on campus. Factionalism also affects the fair distribution of grants and scholarships and impartial recruitment at Gaza’s universities.

"In the context of occupation, the majority of my research participants said that higher education reform was not a priority for them in terms of something they would protest about. This is because they felt they should focus on other issues such as Palestinian unity, the siege, Israeli settlements and the protection of Al Aqsa mosque.

"The political situation in Gaza has had a critical impact as the blockade and deteriorating economic conditions have sometimes created violence and a lack of trust among Palestinians themselves."

24/10/2018 - 10:23A radical approach to scienceAlex Quent is organising an Open Science Day which aims to enable researchers to make science more open.

A Gates Cambridge scholar is organising an Open Science Day which aims to change the way science is done.

Alex Quent [2017] has invited researchers from brain sciences and neuroscience to the 20th November event at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. The event will discuss open science practices, enabling researchers to make science more open. 

Alex says: "After what a lot of attention has been focused on what is commonly referred to as the replication crisis, I think there is a general consensus within the scientific community that science should be more open, but sometimes this is easier said then done. Therefore, the event will offer a wide range of talks covering the practical side of moving to more open science."

There will be a talk by Varsha Khodiyar, Data Curation Editor for the Nature Research journal Scientific Data, on how to prepare data so that it can be meaningfully shared; another by Johan Carlin from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit on standard formats for brain imaging data; another on open neuroimaging by Michael Hanke from Otto-von-Guericke-Universität Magdeburg); a talk on what is special about using large public datasets by Rogier Kievit from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit; and another on how a researcher can deal with a high number of requests and questions and practising open science without feeling overwhelmed by Edwin Dalmaijer from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.

Alex adds that the event also aims "to envision a future of open science and to discuss how we can shape our institutions and the change the culture". It will therefore address new conference formats such as the pre-registration poster and will ask what science utopia would look like.

Alex himself will give a talk about open lab/notebooks. He says: "For roughly a year now I have been keeping an open notebook and where I upload most things I do for my work. I will talk about note keeping in general (that it is important for your future self to understand what you did and why you did it), open notebooks in (cognitive) neuroscience/psychology and my experiences so far with having an open notebook." 

He adds: "Open notebook science is a more radical version of open science which goes far beyond just sharing publications (open access) and data because one tries to make as many parts and aspects of the research process as possible publicly available. Regular or even daily updates about research ideas and uploading the bits of codes one uses to solve a problem or to analyse data are what open notebook science is about. On one hand the dissemination of scientific knowledge is accelerated, but it also allows other researchers to understand the development and evolution of a project much better. This is especially true because typically only a fraction of what you do for a project ends up in a paper. On the other hand, it also helps other researchers to find solutions to similar problems they might face. For me, open science is about reproducibility and open access but also about inclusivity, cooperation and mutual support. As a Early Career Researcher I want to be an example and part of new generation of scientists that foster change, which is why I adopted this radical approach to science."

For the full programme click here.

*Picture credit: and renjith krishnan


23/10/2018 - 10:03Tapping the potential for scienceMutum Yaikhomba talks about his research into how energy is harvested in the human body and the need to tap the potential of students in North East India.

Mutum Yaikhomba’s story is a tribute to the value of blue skies research. As an undergraduate he benefited from being given the freedom to experiment and explore at IISER Pune, where he was in one of its early cohort of students and where he was able to combine different disciplines to further his research interests. He is now reaping the rewards as he deepens his research into proteins in the academically rich environment of Cambridge, where he can access world-leading researchers and benefit from interdisciplinary communities like Gates Cambridge.

He is keen for his story to inspire other students, particularly those from his home state of Manipur in North East India which suffers from poor investment and infrastructure and whose human potential, he believes, is not being fully developed.

Yaikhomba’s PhD in Biological Science focuses on understanding the way that energy is harvested from food in the human body. It could help doctors treat a range of diseases caused when the process of breaking down food into energy doesn’t work.

Based at Cambridge’s MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit, Yaikhomba [2017] has been using cryo-electron microscopy to look in close detail at the process of how food is broken down into smaller components and how these intermediates are then used to synthesise ATP, a chemical energy molecule that cells use for their fuel needs. For example, the protein mitochondrial complex I uses the energy from one of the food breakdown intermediates to pump protons (hydrogen ions) across a membrane. This build-up of protons then goes through another protein (ATP synthase) to synthesise ATP, the energy currency in cells. “It’s like storing water in a dam high up which is then pumped through a turbine to create power. My interest is in how the pumping mechanism works,” says Yaikhomba.

He is exploring how mitochondrial complex I works and says this could help scientists to understand a range of mitochondrial diseases which are caused by the pump not working. Yaikhomba says he has benefited hugely from the resources, scientific legacy and stimulating, entrepreneurial environment of Cambridge. He states: “I am working in a place where Watson and Crick made their discoveries about DNA which has influenced the whole field of molecular biology. I have access to amazing people, including Nobel Prize winners. I went to a venture creation weekend at Judge Business School to learn more about entrepreneurship and won the first prize. I am working in a very collaborative environment with a lot of resources and a world class supervisor and in a place which is focused on developing potential. The opportunities are enormous. Cambridge is in fact a living legacy.”

Overcoming obstacles and prejudice

Yaikhomba has not had the easiest route to Cambridge and has faced systematic discrimination from an early age. He was born in Manipur in the North East of India. The state is bounded by Nagaland to the north, Mizoram to the south, Assam to the west and Myanmar to the east.

From 1980, the Indian government referred to Manipur as ‘a disturbed area’. That meant it was subject to laws which gave the military extraordinary powers to detain and shoot to kill individuals who they deemed a threat. Human rights organisations reported a number of abuses at the time, including disappearance and torture. Violence and blockades were the norm. One blockade lasted for two months and the state was effectively shut down.

Because of the political insecurity, it was common for those families who could afford it to send their children away to be educated. At the age of nine, Yaikhomba was sent to a boarding school in Mysore in southern India. In his first school or hostel he was one of several students from Manipur, but the hostel was closed and Yaikhomba had to move to another one where he was the only student from Manipur. There he was subjected to relentless racist bullying by the other students and staff. “It was like a paradigm shift,” he says. He was forced to do menial tasks that the other students didn’t have to do. He was subjected to physical violence, called names repeatedly and mocked about how he looked, his accent and how he dressed. “It was systemic discrimination to make me feel inferior and it has stayed with me my whole life,” he says.

He didn’t tell his parents because he thought it was normal. “I had internalised it all because it was my daily reality,” he says. However, eventually he met someone he felt he could confide in who told him it was not normal. He started telling his mother some of the things that were happening. His parents soon withdrew him from the school and sent him to another school in a different region of southern India which, although not devoid of discriminatory attitudes towards the North East, was much better.

Yaikhomba had always been good at exams and he loved to ask questions. The emphasis at the new school was on science and he excelled. He applied to the new Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune and was one of only two students from North East India out of 110, who joined that year. The under-representation of people from his region, general prejudice and a lack of awareness of the bias they face is a symptom of the uphill battle they face in the Indian education system, says Yaikhomba. One comment from a fellow student sums up the attitude. He told Yaikhomba: “You’re from the North East. Behave accordingly.”

A passion for science

Yaikhomba overcame this through his passion for science and became involved in research at an early stage - something which helped his later application to Cambridge. He says he was lucky to be at IISER as it evolved and developed. Everything was geared around science with inspiring external academics coming in to speak. He rotated around different laboratories and in his last two years had a very supportive supervisor, who gave Yaikhomba the freedom to do blue skies research in areas such as crystallography.

“It is very rare in India for undergraduates to participate in research along with their course work. It meant I could explore all the branches of science. I was a chemistry major, but spent a long time doing biology. This has been important in an age of interdisciplinarity,” he says. To study proteins, for instance, he uses chemistry and physics to freeze and observe protein particles and mathematical algorithms to average them out.

During his time at IISER Pune, Yaikhomba studied the role of a particular protein in regulating the movement of bacteria. He discovered that the N-terminal domain of the protein had different chemical characteristics from other parts which could bind with DNA purely based on biochemical aspects of the protein. A part of Yaikhomba’s results contributed to the research work reported in PLOS Genetics.

Yaikhomba would like to see other students from his region benefiting from the kind of educational opportunities he has had. He says the North East region is home to 50 million people, but has sent only two PhD students to IISER Pune in 10 years - a worrying statistic. He adds that there is a general failure in his country to recognise and invest in the potential of the region which needs to be addressed. He hopes that his example will help to show the value of tapping that potential.

19/10/2018 - 14:58Scholar speaks at Grand Challenges meetingCarol Ibe attended the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation meeting in Berlin following her second annual training workshop and symposium for African research scientists.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar was invited to take part in the annual Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Grand Challenges meeting in Berlin this week.

Carol Ibe [2015] spoke about her PhD research in Plant Sciences and her non-profit  organisation JR Biotek Foundation in the Crop Research Track Session of the Grand Challenges meeting. She also participated in a comprehensive Leadership and Management Skills Course sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the lead-up to the Grand Challenges meeting. Grand Challenges is a family of initiatives fostering innovation to solve key global health and development problems.

Carol’s research focuses on the association of rice roots with beneficial and detrimental fungi, and how these interactions may be modified and/or optimised for practical agricultural applications.  She set up the JR Biotek Foundation in 2013 to develop and provide high-quality scientific laboratory training and teaching resources to Africa-based research scientists, lecturers and students. Her participation in the Grand Challenges meeting follows JR Biotek Foundation's second annual hands-on Molecular Laboratory Training Workshop and the UK-Africa Food Security Symposium, which took place at the University of Cambridge from 3rd-12th September 2018.

The workshop brought together 17 PhD researchers from six African countries (Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Benin Republic) to participate in the hands-on scientific laboratory training course, and subsequently joined 80 other research and non-research professionals in the symposium. With support from the Department of Plant Sciences and partners from the university, 15 PhD students were fully sponsored to participate in the workshop held in Cambridge.

The workshop was designed to provide Africa-based researchers with both theoretical and practical knowledge in core molecular biology concepts, laboratory techniques and applications in agricultural research. The event included a keynote lecture from Professor Sir David Baulcombe on 'The application of biotechnology for disease resistance in crops in Africa (and other regions)' and a presentation from Dr Nicola Patron from the Earlham Institute in Norwich on 'The application of new bio-engineering technologies in crop agriculture'.

Lectures on plant physiology and general molecular biology laboratory techniques were presented by postdoctoral researchers and PhD students from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences including Gregorious Reeves, a Gates Scholar/PhD student, and this was followed by a day of training on bioinformatics and statistical analyses as well as an academic writing masterclass.

Carol said: "I studied microbiology at an African university that lacked modern teaching and research laboratories. We relied heavily on theory-based learning, mostly using teaching materials and methods that did not meet the global standard. This problem is limiting the ability of many intelligent students in Africa to compete globally and to contribute to the sustainable development of their countries through research and innovation, and these are the problems we are looking to solve through our training and capacity-building initiatives."

The UK-Africa Food Security Symposium brought together delegates from universities, research institutes, NGOs and businesses from Africa and the UK to exchange knowledge and develop new partnerships to help address food insecurity in Africa. The symposium included a keynote address by Dr Debisi Araba, the Regional Director for Africa at The International Center for Tropical Agriculture, and panel sessions highlighting the challenges contributing to food insecurity in African countries, and how effective and equitable partnerships between UK and African researchers can help solve the problems.

There were two interdisciplinary panels on how effective and equitable regional (Africa-Africa) and international (UK-Africa) research partnerships can address food insecurity in Africa and how international partnerships can be leveraged to build capacity for research conducted by African researchers in African research institutions, especially in universities across the continent. The symposium ended with the Bio-innovation for Africa pitching competition where individuals and teams of African PhD students presented their business/start-up ideas that were all designed to find solutions to the problems faced on the continent. The contestants of the competition were all participants in the hands-on scientific laboratory training workshop that was hosted at the Department of Plant Sciences the week before the symposium. The winning team won a prize of £1,500 for their sustainably produced seeds enterprise EcoSeed, which the two PhD students from Benin Republic had started with money they had saved from their scholarships.

Carol created the ‘Bio-innovation for Africa’ pitching challenge to encourage African scientists to become proactive in finding solutions to the many challenges faced on the continent, especially in agriculture. She said: "By investing in training and research capacity building in Africa, we will enable a larger research community who can solve food insecurity and other problems on the continent, as well as mentor the next generation."

*You can watch the video on JR Biotek's work here.

17/10/2018 - 13:34The science of hallucinationsColleen Rollins explains her work on how the brains of people with schizophrenia construct hallucinations.

Colleen Rollins has long been interested in how the brain works and in mental health so it is appropriate that she is studying hallucinations in patients with schizophrenia.

“As someone interested in how the brain works, hallucinations are an intriguing phenomenon,” she says. “Through them it is possible to probe our perception of how we make sense of our reality.”

For her PhD in Psychiatry she  is aiming to develop a biological model to show how the brains of people with schizophrenia construct hallucinations.

Colleen [2017] is looking at structural and functional brain scans, using software to study the different features of the brain and whether they vary in people who experience hallucinations and those who don’t.

She is particularly interested in the role of one fold or sulcus in the frontal lobe of the brain which is highly variable between individuals. Some people don’t have the fold at all, while for those who do the length of it varies. Previous research shows that the length of the fold relates to the brain’s capacity to monitor reality and distinguish between internal information and external information.

Colleen is looking at what the fold might contribute to hallucinations, studying the brains of those who experience hallucinations and using computational modelling to measure the fold in the frontal lobe. Because of its variability the fold is difficult to measure in brain scans and computer software doesn’t always recognise it is there. Colleen is thinking of working with computer scientists to address this issue.

She is also looking at the functional connectivity of the brain and how it relates to hallucinations. “I am interested in how the brain regions connect to orchestrate hallucinations. This has opened up more questions than answers, for instance, how do hallucinations relate to brain connectivity and cognitive capacities.”

An early interest in mental health 

Colleen was born in Ottowa, Ontario. A curious child, who loved observing the world, doing puzzles and reading books, she was always interested in understanding how things work and human behaviour, especially abnormal variations.

Growing up she had personal experience of mental health issues it was no surprise that she developed an interest in how the mind works. An important role model was her uncle who was a prison psychologist and encouraged her throughout her studies.

At school from the age of 15 Colleen volunteered at a local mental health centre, working in a coffee kiosk where she interacted with patients and their families every day. She also spoke often to psychiatrists who worked there.

By the time she left school it was clear that she wanted to study neuroscience. Colleen enrolled at McGill University where her uncle encouraged her to get involved in research early on. In her second year she was working in a laboratory testing auditory plasticity in rats. She was awarded a research scholarship over her second summer vacation to study computational brain anatomy. Over her time at McGill she developed an interest in using computational tools to characterise and quantify alterations in brain anatomy related to different disorders of the brain.

Other research projects she was involved with included a data-led study of the higher risk of schizophrenia for those living in urban environments, a research project identifying genomic regions bound by proteins and a study using transgenic mice to look at risk factors for Alzheimer’s, such as obesity, smoking and hypertension. The latter study formed the basis for her final-year thesis for which she modelled obesity in transgenic mice and how differences in brain morphology contribute to Alzheimer’s.

At McGill Colleen also got involved in a collaborative mental healthcare group of researchers from different disciplines. “It reflected that mental healthcare is a phenomenon which intersects lots of different categories - from social work to psychiatry and health. We wanted to bring people together to have a direct impact on mental healthcare,” she says.

Colleen brought her interest in using neurotechnologies to solve mental health issues to the group which has evolved into a start-up company, Aifred Health, that is working to improve treatment efficiency with machine learning. She continues to work with the start-up and is also keen to ensure her research on mental health extends to her personal life and she practises rock climbing, acro yoga and life drawing to balance her busy work schedule.  


When she finished her degree, Colleen was split between wanting to continue in academia and doing a medical degree so she could become a practising psychiatrist.

She applied to Cambridge to study Psychiatry, having heard of the Gates Cambridge programme and because she wanted to experience studying in a different country, having done an exchange to Glasgow in her third year.

In addition to her work on brain structures, she wants to explore cultural variations in approaches to hallucinations. She had long been fascinated by the balance between positive symptoms of schizophrenia such as altered states of reality and the negative ones such as depression. “In the West hallucinations tend to have more negative connotations as opposed to somewhere like India,” she says.

She has just completed a review of the literature on brain structure and hallucinations across populations.

“There is no imperial study of the neural correlates of hallucinations in different cultural settings,” says Colleen.

She adds that her work could have wider implications than for schizophrenia alone. “Hallucinations are a hallmark feature of schizophrenia, but there is an increasing recognition that hallucinations occur in other illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” she states.

Her review and meta-analysis is currently under review for publication.



15/10/2018 - 23:22Japan invites scholar to take part in government programmeJessica Fernandez De Lara Harada has been invited by Japan to attend a governmental programme.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been extended an invitation by the Japanese Government to participate in a prestigious programme to promote understanding of Japan in the world.

Jessica Fernandez De Lara Harada [2016] was invited by Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to participate, alongside other Latin American representatives, in the  ‘Strengthening the dissemination of information about Japan by members of the Nikkei Community in Latin America’.

The invitation is presented to individuals, who are descendants of Japanese, and whose achievements contribute to deepening and promoting knowledge and understanding of Japan in the world.

This year it was extended to representatives from 15 countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay and Venezuela. Recipients come from a myriad of backgrounds, ranging from journalism, law, architecture, community organisations and academia.

The highlights of the programme were a visit to the Imperial Highnesses at the Residence of Prince Akishino and to the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, H. E. Kotaro Nogami, at the Prime Minister's Official Residence, as well as a formal dinner hosted by Japan's Ministry of Foreign  Affairs's Director General of Latin America and the Caribbean, Takahiro Nakamae.

Most of the events were held at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' main quarters in Tokyo. Intellectuals, researchers and representatives of political, business and cultural circles presented lectures and led semi-formal discussion meetings.

Additional activities included a visit to technology and innovation hubs, to the Japanese Overseas Migration Museum in Yokohama and to the  prefectures of Kanagawa, Iwate and Miyagi which have cultural heritage of outstanding value but have also faced the challenge of natural disasters.

Japanese migrants in Mexico

Jessica was selected to participate in this programme based on her doctoral research on 'the life stories, experiences and trajectories of Japanese migrants and their descendants in Mexico from 1897 to the present', and her involvement with the Japanese and Nikkei communities in Mexico. Her doctoral research also allowed her to work on the Survey of Nikkei Communities in Latin America commissioned by the Japanese government.

Jessica is conducting this survey in Mexico as main researcher under the coordination of Shozo Ogino, recognised as the chronicler of the Japanese colony in Mexico.

Jessica says: "I am honoured to have been selected to participate in this impressive programme and would like to express my gratitude to the Embassy of Japan in Mexico, in particular to Ambassador Yasushi Takase and Consul Kazuyoshi Shimizu, to Shozo Ogino, and to former recipients of this scholarship, in particular to Taro Zorrilla, for their trust, advice and support. I am also very grateful to the Japanese and Nikkei communities in Mexico for allowing me to learn more from their histories. Participating in this programme has offered me valuable insights on some important aspects that my doctoral research seeks to  address."

Jessica's doctoral research is concerned with understanding the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion of 'foreign' migrants and their descendants in the context of a place like Mexico. Mexico has traditionally been conceived as an emigrant country, particularly to the US, but less attention has been paid to the role of foreigners in the building of Mexico's modern nation state. Jessica says Japanese people are a particularly interesting type of 'foreigner' as they do not fit into the national narrative of mestizaje. Mestizaje is a foundational discourse of the Mexican state and national cultural identity that posits the origins of Mexicans in the mixing of indigenous and Spanish colonisers.

Jessica's research aims to contribute to broadening current understanding on how foreign minority groups have negotiated their position in the discourse of mestizaje to confront its dynamics of racism, inequality and its colonial legacy. She is also interested in understanding how Japanese migrants and their descendants have organised to create communities and how those communities have worked to serve as a bridge between Mexico and Japan.

Personal history

Jessica's visit to Japan has given her insights on Japan's policies towards communities of Japanese people in Latin America, the experiences of these communities in different regional contexts, and has also allowed her to connect with a part of her own personal history. Jessica's maternal great grandparents emigrated from Fukuoka, Japan, to Mexico in the beginning of the 20th century and survived many of Mexico's upheavals, including the Second World War.

She says: “The Second World War particularly affected Japanese people who were harassed, persecuted and concentrated in Mexico by both the United States and Mexican governments, resulting in many of them being dispossessed of their properties, freedom and citizenship rights. Despite this, they became honourable Mexicans by working hard to improve their lives while making a contribution to the progress of Mexico.”

09/10/2018 - 17:25How to predict the success or failure of a new retail businessKrittika D'Silva leads study which uses social media and transport data to predict a new retail business' likelihood of success.

Researchers led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Krittika D'Silva have used a combination of social media and transport data to predict the likelihood that a given retail business will succeed or fail. 

Using information from 10 different cities around the world, the researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, have developed a model that can predict with 80% accuracy whether a new business will fail within six months. The results will be presented at the ACM Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp), taking place this week in Singapore.

While the retail sector has always been risky, the past several years have seen a transformation of high streets as more and more retailers fail. The model built by the researchers could be useful for both entrepreneurs and urban planners when determining where to locate their business or which areas to invest in.

“One of the most important questions for any new business is the amount of demand it will receive. This directly relates to how likely that business is to succeed,” said lead author Krittika [2016], a PhD student at Cambridge's Department of Computer Science and Technology. “What sort of metrics can we use to make those predictions?”

D’Silva and her colleagues used more than 74 million check-ins from the location-based social network Foursquare from Chicago, Helsinki, Jakarta, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Singapore and Tokyo; and data from 181 million taxi trips from New York and Singapore.

Using this data, the researchers classified venues according to the properties of the neighbourhoods in which they were located, the visit patterns at different times of day, and whether a neighbourhood attracted visitors from other neighbourhoods.

“We wanted to better understand the predictive power that metrics about a place at a certain point in time have,” said Krittika.

Whether a business succeeds or fails is normally based on a number of controllable and uncontrollable factors. Controllable factors might include the quality or price of the store’s product, its opening hours and its customer satisfaction. Uncontrollable factors might include unemployment rates of a city, overall economic conditions and urban policies.

“We found that even without information about any of these uncontrollable factors, we could still use venue-specific, location-related and mobility-based features in predicting the likely demise of a business,” said D’Silva.

The data showed that across all 10 cities, venues that are popular around the clock, rather than just at certain points of day, are more likely to succeed. Additionally, venues that are in demand outside of the typical popular hours of other venues in the neighbourhood tend to survive longer. The data also suggested that venues in diverse neighbourhoods, with multiple types of businesses, tend to survive longer.

While the ten cities had certain similarities, the researchers also had to account for their differences.

“The metrics that were useful predictors vary from city to city, which suggests that factors affect cities in different ways,” said Krittika. “As one example, that the speed of travel to a venue is a significant metric only in New York and Tokyo. This could relate to the speed of transit in those cities or perhaps to the rates of traffic.”

To test the predictive power of their model, the researchers first had to determine whether a particular venue had closed within the time window of their data set. They then ‘trained’ the model on a subset of venues, telling the model what the features of those venues were in the first time window and whether the venue was open or closed in a second time window. They then tested the trained model on another subset of the data to see how accurate it was.

According to the researchers, their model shows that when deciding when and where to open a business, it is important to look beyond the static features of a given neighbourhood and to consider the ways that people move to and through that neighbourhood at different times of day. They now want to consider how these features vary across different neighbourhoods in order to improve the accuracy of their model.

*Photo of Regent Street. Credit: toastbrot81

04/10/2018 - 20:29Studying the adolescent brainFrantisek Vasa's research focuses on understanding how different parts of the brain are linked and what happens when those connections break down.

Adolescence is a critical time for the development of the human brain. The brain undergoes a lot of change in adolescence and it is when a lot of psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression and schizophrenia emerge. This is presumably the result of abnormal development which may be caused by a range of internal or external factors.

Frantisek Vasa [2014] is interested in how different areas of the brain are linked and communicate with each other and what the impact is on brain function, cognition and disease when the connections break down. To understand disease, he has been studying healthy brain development.

For his PhD, for which he received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, Frantisek designed a new method to study changes in connectivity in the adolescent brain using scans of brain structure. His research showed how the healthy adolescent brain strengthens certain connections while pruning others. "It's like the extra branches of a tree. The brain needs to prune some connections in order for others to thrive," he says.

Describing the brain as "the next big frontier", he says magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) combined with powerful data analysis methods allows researchers to harmlessly study human brains in unprecedented levels of detail.

His research is mentioned in the current issue of Research Horizons magazine.

Language shock

Frantisek came to the field of brain development through a curiosity for physics and maths. Born in Prague in 1989, the year of the Velvet revolution, his family moved to Geneva when he was nine after his mother took up a job at the European Broadcasting Union. Frantisek attended the International School of Geneva. As he didn't speak French or English, the move was a "language shock" for him and he carried a dictionary around with him for the first year. His language struggles meant he threw himself into maths, which he was already good at. That led onto an enthusiasm for science.

Frantisek knew he wanted to do something related to science or engineering when he finished school, but he wanted to keep his options open so he applied to Cambridge to study Natural Sciences. He didn't get accepted so he started a physics degree at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).

He was only there for a few weeks, however, when he was involved in an incident which resulted in post-traumatic stress. This gave Frantisek his first personal taste of mental health issues and led him to drop out of his course. After recovering he reapplied to university in the UK, this time to the University of Edinburgh to study mathematical physics.

While he was at Edinburgh, Frantisek worked at some of the city's arts festivals in the summer including the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where he came across a book about Alzheimer's by David Shenk called “The Forgetting: Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic”. This was his first real encounter with neuroscience and it made him think about the brain in a different way.

Brain connections 

While Frantisek enjoyed his undergraduate degree in physics, he realised he wished to apply his theoretical knowledge to help address problems in medicine. He applied to Imperial College to do a master's in biomedical engineering, which had four specialism streams. Frantisek chose neurotechnology. "I found lectures on topics such as brain-machine interfaces fascinating", says Frantisek. During his master’s he became interested in brain networks - the idea that connections between brain cells are responsible for behaviour and cognition. "The brain can be represented as a mathematical graph with the nodes representing brain cells. The patterns of connections in the brain network can then be studied using mathematical tools from graph theory – the same tools used to study friendships between people in a social network, or the flow of traffic in a transport network." says Frantisek.

The aim of his dissertation was to combine data on brain connectivity from MRI with a computer model to attempt to simulate brain function. This meant he could combine his quantitative background with his newfound interest in the brain. It was also exciting to be involved in an emerging field of research.

When he finished his master's Frantisek found a research assistant position at the Department of Radiology at the University of Lausanne. Whereas the computer modelling he carried out during his master's had been quite theoretical, his work at Lausanne was focused on the other side of the equation – the brain data used in the modelling process. "The ability of the computer model to simulate brain activity depends on the brain scans it is using, so I wanted to learn more about that MRI data", he says.

He studied changes in brain connectivity in people with 22q11 deletion syndrome, a fairly rare genetic disease linked to a significantly higher chance of developing schizophrenia and psychosis. The aim was to understand changes in the brain networks of patients with this genetic disease in order to gain insight into the development of schizophrenia in the wider population.


Frantisek then applied to Cambridge to do his PhD in the hope of working with Professor Ed Bullmore, a leading expert on brain networks, who became his supervisor. Professor Bullmore leads a large Wellcome Trust-funded project, the Neuroscience in Psychiatry Network, which is researching how the adolescent brain develops into early adulthood. So far, 2,300 healthy volunteers aged 14 to 24 years have been recruited by the University of Cambridge and University College London for analysis through behavioural questionnaires, cognitive tests and medical and socio-economic history. Some 300 adolescents have also had their brain anatomy and activity scanned millimetre by millimetre by MRI. The project has been described as one of the most comprehensive 'circuit diagrams' of the teenage brain ever attempted. 

During his PhD, Frantisek published two papers - one on the adolescent development of brain structure and a more methodological study on the statistical comparison of brain connectivity between healthy and diseased groups, which he used to compare healthy brains and those of patients with schizophrenia. Now finishing a short post-doctoral position at Cambridge, he is writing up another paper on adolescent development of brain activity and function. 

“This last chapter would not have happened without Gates Cambridge support,” says Frantisek, adding that he very much enjoyed his experience as a Gates Cambridge Scholar and is keen to reflect its mission of improving the lives of others in his own work. He would like to keep studying the brain using MRI, while gradually moving towards having a more direct impact on people's mental health. He has also been involved in community work while at Cambridge, giving outreach talks to prospective students about careers in research. This came about as a result of his experience teaching physics during his undergraduate degree. He says: "Gates Cambridge is amazing. I have immensely enjoyed being part of the Gates Cambridge scholar community and taking part in events such as the Day of Research and the Biennial. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity, which has had a lasting impact on me."

24/09/2018 - 17:57Creating a Classics communityBenedek Kruchió is co-organiser of a conference on ancient Greek novelist Heliodorus which updates a unique Cambridge conference.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar’s fascination with an ancient Greek novel, which highlights the complexity of late Greek culture, has provided the springboard for the first major conference on its author, Heliodorus, for 20 years.

The Heliodorus in New Contexts conference will take place in Cambridge in December, 20 years after the publication of the papers presented at the last comprehensive conference on the author, also held in Cambridge.

The conference has been put together by Gates Cambridge Scholar Benedek Kruchió [2017] and Dr Claire Jackson from the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge.

The 1997 Laurence Seminar, whose papers were published in a collected volume of research on Heliodorus the following year, helped to crystallise emerging interest in the ancient Greek novel. Although interest in the ancient novels in general, and Heliodorus in particular, has increased in the interim, that conference and its published papers have remained unique in scholarship on the Greek novel: there have been no further symposia and no edited volume or English-language monograph devoted to Heliodorus exclusively.

Before the 1980s, the general consensus in academia was that the classical period was the peak of Greek literature and what followed was poor quality and decadent. For Benedek, though, Heliodorus, who probably lived about 800 years later than Socrates, is one of the most an extraordinarily fascinating texts in ancient Greek literature. “A lot of people used to think that the cultural pinnacle of Greek antiquity was a time when the Greeks were dominating the Mediterranean region and not influenced by other cultures; in fact, scholars used to think that this supposed cultural purity was essential to the greatness of the Greeks,” he says.

“Heliodorus’ work shows why the later period is a good example of the fascinating interaction of cultures in late antiquity and of the artistic potential of cultural and ideological plurality.”

While scholarship on Heliodorus has been growing in popularity and visibility, with the first Greek-English edition of Heliodorus - John Morgan’s Loeb - close to completion, Benedek and Dr Jackson felt scholars lacked a platform to simultaneously bring together future plans for the direction of the field. The December conference aims to bring together the 1998 generation of academics and other established scholars with younger Heliodoran scholars to form a community which can stimulate new work and ideas about this novel.

The conference, which is funded by St John’s College and the Faculty of Classics, will focus on Heliodorus’ novel Aethiopica, described by the organisers as the "ultimate Greek novel in many respects" and the culmination of ancient storytelling. They argue that Heliodorus’ work has had a strong influence in shaping the development of the medieval Greek romance and the early modern novel. Nevertheless, Benedek says there is still a lack of comprehensive and holistic discussion of the Aethiopica’s complex aspects and its wide-ranging implications for narratology, philosophy, religion and cultural identity.

Contributors will come from across the Humanities and will focus on themes such as Byzantine and early modern reception of Heliodorus, the novel's relationship with earlier narrative genres, its place within a late antique context, and Heliodorus’ visual culture.

The organisers have asked all contributors to submit their papers before the conference in December so they can be discussed thoroughly at the symposium and published soon afterwards. “A conference volume on Heliodorus would provide a snapshot of the state of the scholarship at a pivotal point,” says Benedek. “A lot of people work on Heliodorus. However, it would be good to encourage scholars to devote more time and energy to this extraordinarily complex work, which not just deserves but even demands it. The last edited volume on Heliodoran studies was published 20 years ago. We felt something needed to be done and that this was the perfect place and the perfect time.”

Early years

Benedek, who was born in Hungary and moved to Vienna as a child, came to study Classics by a circuitous route. He developed an early love of ancient culture through Latin and Greek studies at school and went on school trips to Italy and Greece. He loved Greek literature in particular and was fascinated by the abundance of sources from such a distant time.

However, when he finished school, he was undecided about what to study at university. He went to Budapest to study Chemistry in his first year, but realised he missed the Humanities. So he switched to the University of Vienna and the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz and took Classics and Bassoon Performance Studies. After two years, he realised that his strength lay more in the Humanities than music, although he still plays bassoon at Cambridge and is the graduate representative of St John’s College Music Society.

Having finished his BA degree a year early, Benedek spent the last year of his undergraduate studies reading a lot of Greek and Latin texts, including all the extant Greek novels. Among them was Heliodorus' Aethiopica. His fascination with the novel was ignited. Benedek says he was drawn to the text by two things. The first is the novel’s sophisticated narrative structure: the Aethiopica  starts in the middle of the action, crucial information is withheld from the reader for a long time and they are filled in on important points via embedded narratives. “The aims and past of the main characters are only revealed gradually, and the narrative often has multiple layers, even featuring stories within stories within stories within stories,” says Benedek. “The Aethiopica  is a narrative puzzle that is very confusing at first.”

The second factor is the multicultural background of the novel. It is thought that the book was written towards the end of the fourth century AD by a person from modern-day Syria in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman empire. It tells the story of an Ethiopian princess who is given to a priest by her mother because she is white and the mother is afraid her husband will accuse her of adultery. The girl, is taken by her first step-father to Egypt, where she is adopted by a Greek priest, who takes her to Delphi. The main storyline of the novel involves her journey back to Ethiopia (via Egypt) and culminates in her attempts to convince her parents of her identity. The protagonists encounter people from numerous cultural backgrounds, and linguistic diversity plays an important role in the novel.

Benedek did his master’s in Germany at Humboldt University of Berlin, where he did outreach work with high school students - many of whom came from schools in underprivileged areas - reading and discussing Greek and Roman literature with them.  During his years in Berlin, he also developed an interest in formal logic and ancient philosophy, studying the works of Plato and Aristotle with Professor Stephen Menn.

On completing his master’s, he knew he wanted to stay in academia, but was undecided as to whether he should do a PhD on a literary or philosophical topic. He successfully applied for a Humboldt Research Track Scholarship, which gave him one academic year to decide on a topic, flesh out his PhD proposal and win a PhD scholarship. A year into his PhD, he applied to Cambridge where a lot of the cutting edge research on Greek novels was taking place and where he had spent the academic year of 2016/17 as a visiting student whilst he was still affiliated with Humboldt University. He was keen in particular to study under Tim Whitmarsh, who is now his supervisor. He says he is very grateful to the Gates Cambridge Trust for enabling his studies.

When he started his PhD, Benedek says he was driven by a desire to make an impact in a relatively understudied field. He says: “I was convinced I could contribute in a meaningful way to the scholarship on Heliodorus, particularly with regard to the way the reader experiences the narrative structure of the novel.” The conference provides him with the opportunity to extend the scope of this impact and participate in shaping the future of Heliodoran studies.

*More information on Heliodorus in New Contexts:

12/09/2018 - 13:04Gaze-controlled applications win Microsoft grantPradipta Biswas' research wins backing from Microscoft's AI for Accessibility programme.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has won a $15,000 grant from Microsoft for his work on human computer interaction, intelligent user interfaces and inclusive design.

Pradipta Biswas won the AI for Accessibility grant for his work for the Intelligent Inclusive Interaction Design Lab at the Centre for Product Design and Manufacturing at the Indian Institute of Science.

The lab recently began a collaboration with Microsoft Research India through a funded project, led by Pradipta, on developing Gaze-Controlled Applications for eInclusion of users with Severe Speech and Motor Impairment. The project involves the use of the newly released Microsoft Windows 10 gaze tracking API.

Pradipta's work focuses on analysing ocular parameters of children with severe spasticity. The team also involves JeevithaShree DV (PhD student) and Kamal Preet Singh Saluja (RA) from the I3D lab.

Their initial findings were reported in a paper in Ophthalmology journal and at a demonstration at a recent ACM Designing Interactive Systems conference. The team is developing new gaze-controlled software for communication and social inclusion for people with severe disability. The I3D lab is also deploying a similar set of gaze-tracking software for the automotive environment through a funded project with Faurecia Services Groupe, France and for military aviation through a funded project with Aeronautical Research and Development Board of India's Ministry of Defence.

At the University of Cambridge, Pradipta [2006], who did a PhD in Computer Science, led a research team at the Department of Engineering which developed a computer control interface that uses a combination of eye-gaze tracking and other inputs. The aim was to help people with physical impairments and others who cannot use a mouse or touchscreeen to perform complex computing tasks at speed.

06/09/2018 - 18:44The beauty of mathsYufei Zhao, awarded a prestigious Future of Science award by MIT, talks about his maths research and how he mentors other students.

Yufei Zhao won the MIT School of Science’s Future of Science Award over the summer. It is a prestigious award based on his research contribution to the field of combinatorics - as well as his mentorship, service and outreach.

Recently, Yufei and three undergraduates solved an open problem concerning the number of independent sets in an irregular graph - a problem which was first proposed in 2001. Understanding the number of independent sets - subsets of vertices where no two vertices are adjacent - is considered an important key to unlocking many other combinatorial problems.

Yufei’s other recent research achievements include a contribution to a better understanding of the Green-Tao theorem, which states that prime numbers contain arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions. It won the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics’ 2018 Dénes König Prize, given biennially to an early career researcher for outstanding research in discrete mathematics.

In addition, Yufei coached the winning MIT team in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition, an annual mathematics contest for undergraduates in North America.

An early love of maths

Yufei [2010] says he has loved maths for as long as he can remember. He was born Wuhan in central China and lived there until he was 11 when his parents migrated to Canada.

His primary school education in China gave him a very good, rigorous foundation in maths. “In China being good at maths is encouraged and a badge of social pride,” he says.

It took him a while to adjust to the cultural differences in Canada. That included learning English and adapting to the more relaxed approach to education in Canada. In China he had no free time to explore other interests; in Canada he used that time to explore his interest in maths at his own pace. Maths was not dependent on language abilities and was something he loved, was good at and could do on his own at home.

His school in Toronto were happy for him to progress at his own pace. When he went to high school he started to take part in maths competitions and summer and winter camps where he met like-minded students from other parts of the country. Eventually he won a coveted place on the Canadian team for the International Mathematical Olympiad for three years running, travelling to Greece, Mexico and Slovenia for competitions.  “It was a happy time. Maths was my primary interest. I was reading maths books and solving problems,” he says.

Majoring in maths

He was overjoyed to be admitted to MIT to do his undergraduate degree. “It was the place for maths nerds,” he says. He knew several students in the Olympiad who had gone to MIT. He also encountered some Olympiad colleagues at Cambridge where several were Gates Cambridge Scholars.

Yufei knew he would major in maths, but it was popular at the time to do a second major. Computer science was very popular and seemed like a good career option. Yufei graduated four years later with bachelor’s degrees in both maths and computer science, although he says his interest is in theoretical issues rather than the applications of computer science.

MIT gave him his first opportunity to undertake research. In the summer vacation after his second year he took part in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates programme in Duluth, Minnesota. “It was in an isolated spot and so the focus was totally on maths. It kicked off my research career,” says Yufei. 

He worked on a research problem in graph theory concerning independent sets, which led to a publication.

The experience motivated him to get more involved in research projects. Over the summers while he was at MIT he also helped coach high school students to take part in maths competitions and became deputy leader of the Canadian team, coaching them in the 2008 International Mathematical Olympiad in Madrid.


As he neared the end of his degree, Yufei applied to the University of Cambridge to do a one-year MASt course in Pure Mathematics. He was keen to explore a different kind of maths programme and get a different perspective. He began the course in autumn 2010 as a Gates Cambridge Scholar and describes the experience as “eye-opening”.

His focus was on combinatorics, a branch of mathematics dealing with combinations of objects belonging to a finite set in accordance with certain constraints, including those of graph theory. Yufei says he has always been interested in combinatorics and that his professors at Cambridge helped to shape his current research programme on extremal combinatorics - a field of combinatorics which studies how large or how small a collection of finite objects, including sets and graphs, can be if it has to satisfy certain restrictions. Yufei took a few courses in the subject at Cambridge which he really enjoyed. “It’s a subject that spoke to me more than most with its problem-solving aspect stemming back to my days in maths competitions,” he says. “I am motivated by the beauty of solving intriguing maths problems.”

At Cambridge he took part in Gates Cambridge community events and was a frequent visitor of the Gates Cambridge Common Room. He has also attended alumni events.


Yufei returned to MIT for his PhD in 2011 to study extremal, probabilistic and additive combinatorics which involved understanding how to use graph theory to better comprehend prime numbers and the links between graph and number theory. During his PhD he did some teaching. He says he loves collaborating with other mathematicians and that he learns a lot from the students he works with. “Younger students often find things more quickly, but a lot of the challenge in maths is coming up with good questions to explore. So older and younger mathematicians complement each other and this leads to new ideas,” he says.

After his PhD Yufei did post-doctoral studies at the University of Oxford where he was the Esmee Fairbairn junior research fellow from 2015 to 2017 and spent a semester at the University of California, Berkeley’s Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing as a research fellow.

Yufei returned to MIT in 2017 as an assistant professor and continued his research. He has also been mentoring students and attending conferences where his work has been well received.

Looking back, he says Cambridge was very influential on his current research trajectory. “It exposed me to a new kind of maths I had not encountered before and which I was very much attracted to,” he says. “I met leaders in the field who I still talk to to exchange ideas. It had a huge impact.”

*Picture credit: Joseph Lee


28/08/2018 - 21:00Coding start-up aims to boost quality of computer educationRiaz Moola's edtech start-up has raised enough money to rebrand and expand its coding education mission.

A computer science education start-up founded by a Gates Cambridge Scholar has raised the funds needed to expand its coding education mission into code review with the aim of helping millions of aspiring developers around the world.

HyperionDev was founded by Riaz Moola as an online coding bootcamp based in South Africa. It has since scaled to reach 40 countries. After meeting its latest fundraising target it has rebranded as CoGrammar while retaining the name HyperionDev for its online coding bootcamp product. This product enables students to study online to change careers to software development in under six months.

The edtech startup - incubated by the London Co Investment Fund, the University of Cambridge’s Social Ventures and Edinburgh University’s Launch.ed programmes - received investment offers from four UK and US-based venture capital funds in its last round of funding. 

The new influx of capital has enabled CoGrammar to scale to a team of 40, including top start-up talent from the likes of GetSmarter, which was acquired by 2U for USD $103 million. It also means it can launch a new Code Review service geared towards businesses and educational institutions. CoGrammar will source, train and seamlessly integrate expert code reviewers into coding bootcamp education programmes globally. CoGrammar says human review of code is essential to ensure aspiring developers understand how to write code that isn’t just correct, but is fluent and at an industry quality level. Coding education providers can integrate review of their students’ work via the CoGrammar API which integrates Artificial Intelligence and a team of expert code reviewers employed by the company to review code at rapid speeds.

The latest round of funding comes after HyperionDev won first prize in Facebook’s Innovation Challenge, securing $230,000 in funding from Facebook in addition to several grants from Google and the Python Software Foundation.

Riaz, who is CEO of HyperionDev, says: “We are grateful for the support of our new backers which have allowed us to set our sights on tackling a more ambitious vision - setting the global standard for code review. CoGrammar enables education brands around the world to integrate on-demand mentorship and code review into their coding education programmes at an affordable cost, making effective software development education scalable. We make this possible through a new career path - copywriter for code - which we’ve created in the African market. From September 2018, we’ll be accepting applications for our first cohort of CoGrammars."

Riaz [2014] did his MPhil in Advanced Computer Science at the University of Cambridge. He started HyperionDev while he was an undergraduate and developed it during his master's. Cambridge's Judge Business School helped to incubate it in its early days. The social enterprise was the result of Riaz's experiences at university in South Africa where he was confronted by the huge differences in educational opportunity, particularly in his own subject, Computer Science. Inspired by recent MOOC platforms such as Coursera, he created an online course platform adapted to Africa which paired tutors - typically Computer Science graduates - with students trying to learn programming through a low-bandwidth, text-based resource. The aim was to lead a national initiative to revolutionise the fields of Computer Science and software development in South Africa. While in the UK he developed the international reach of the platform.

25/08/2018 - 01:00From undergraduate to biotech bossChandler Robinson's MBA at Cambridge helped him start a biotech company to develop a potentially life-saving drug. That drug has is now in Phase III trials and has been acquired by a major company.

Just months after completing his MBA at the University of Cambridge Chandler Robinson started a biotech company and sold a potentially life-saving drug that he worked on as an undergraduate, which is now being fast tracked by the US and Europe after a successful Phase Two trial. Earlier this year the company he sold it to, and whose board he was on for two years, was acquired by Alexion Pharmaceuticals. Alexion has commenced the last stage of development to bring the drug to market.

Chandler [2009] completed his MBA in 2010 and in the two-year period after was able to develop, manufacture and sell the potentially therapeutic drug known generically as choline tetrathiomolybdate, which has characteristics which make it attractive for use in the treatment of Wilson’s Disease.

Wilson's Disease is a rare inherited condition characterised by the body’s inability to metabolise copper. If left untreated, the disease leads to liver and brain damage and results in death at an early age. Chandler was previously on the board of Wilson Therapeutics, the Swedish company that bought the drug. At the time he was also juggling his business interests with his medical training and his work for a non-profit organisation which he founded at Northwestern University to promote undergraduate research.

Chandler, who is from Columbus, Ohio, is the youngest of five children, born into a family that values education. He admits that his career path has in no way been planned and says it is the result of being open to following his interests and being willing to change course. Chandler was initially a maths major at Northwestern University. He says it was only when he met chemistry professor Tom O’Halloran that he added chemistry as a second major. He graduated summa cum laude and won several awards in chemistry and maths.

But it was Chandler’s experience in doing research with Professor O'Halloran while an undergraduate that was to have a huge impact on his future career. Even though he was an undergraduate, he was placed in charge of the crystallography for his project. Because the lab he was in was not a crystallography lab, he had to train himself in that area. He was able to form a protein crystal of TM [tetrathiomolybdate] bound to a copper chaperone and his group became the first to show how tetrathiomolybdate binds copper and copper proteins - a theory which had only been mooted before. He and his group’s results were published in Science.

Undergraduate research

As an undergraduate, Chandler also founded and raised funds for the American Undergraduate Research Society, a non-profit, which is now in its fourteenth year. It supports undergraduate research by organising regional symposia and by providing research and travel grants. The symposia are sponsored in large part by private companies and participating universities and are held in professional settings such as hotels, museums and university-related buildings.

After Northwestern, Chandler headed to the London School of Economics on a Fulbright Scholarship where he received a master’s in Health Economics and Health Policy. He also accepted a part-time job at Bear Stearns investment bank to gain more experience in the business world. He didn’t neglect his studies, though, and won his programme’s prize for best masters dissertation. He was offered a full-time job at Bear Stearns after finishing his course, but turned it down to start medical school at Stanford.

While in medical school, Chandler again managed to do other work on the side. He was in charge of finance and fundraising at a Stanford-affiliated free healthcare clinic in a deprived area of San Jose for one year, and also volunteered at the clinic. Between first and second year, he also took a few months to work at Onyx Pharmaceuticals to gain biotech experience. He found it so interesting that he applied, in the middle of his second year of medical school, for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to pursue an MBA.

By the time Chandler received his MBA degree in 2010, an opportunity arose for him and a group in Chicago to acquire the rights to the drug he had researched as an undergraduate. The group included his professor, Tom O’Halloran, and Andrew Mazar who was Chief Scientific Officer. The company the group formed was called Tactic Pharmaceuticals and Chandler was the CEO. By the middle of 2012, Tactic had applied for and received orphan drug status from the Food and Drug Administration for its use in the treatment of Wilson’s disease, trademarked the drug as Decuprate, completed a manufacturing campaign and partnered with Medical Need Europe AB, a company based in Sweden. The EU partnership enabled the company to make the drug available to patients within Europe.

Shortly after the EU partnership was forged, Chandler and Tactic sold the rest of their worldwide rights to Decuprate which is also known as WTX101. This meant Chandler could return to Stanford to complete his medical training. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I could do an MBA and become CEO of a company,” he says.

Since then Chandler has completed his medical training and co-founded another medical company, Monopar Therapeutics, an emerging biopharmaceutical company focused on developing drugs to improve clinical outcomes for cancer patients. He is now CEO of the company and is also currently on the board of Northwestern University's Chemistry of Life Processes Institute.

In April 2018, Alexion Pharmaceuticals acquired Wilson Therapeutics for $855m after WTX101 successfully completed a Phase II clinical trial.

*Picture credit: Alex Kong


24/08/2018 - 12:32Children's stories as objects of powerThandeka Cochrane talks about her research into children's literacy projects and how they can undermine local community knowledge.

What role do the stories children hear as they grow have in building a sense of identity? Thandeka Cochrane [2015] says children’s stories are crucial to self-formation. She is interested in how literacy projects in southern Africa are undermining local community knowledge and imposing western ideas on the most vulnerable.

Her PhD in Social Anthropology investigates the interaction between oral and written children’s stories in rural Malawi.

“I am very interested in the ways in which knowledge and epistemological practice are part of the epistemic violence of development practice,” she says. “Teaching literacy through children’s stories seems good, but there is very little discussion about what is happening in the space in which the stories circulate and stories are fundamental to creating a person’s framework of knowledge. As such they are objects of power.”

Thandeka's fieldwork, for which she lived with local women in two different Malawian villages for 18 months, involved lots of interviews with local people about what they think about stories and about what is being taught through the stories. “It became very clear to me that oral stories passed down through families are moral scripts and teach children how to be a good human, how to be in a community. Parents and grandparents teach children the stories in their own languages. School lessons may be taught in another language. The oral stories create bonds and the community owns that knowledge. Yet oral stories are disappearing and knowledge hierarchies are being formed. This is cutting parents out of the didactic process.”

She contrasts this with the growth of home education in the West and the emphasis on parental involvement. She feels children’s literacy is a relatively neglected area of research.

Growing up

Thandeka’s interest in social justice began at an early age. Born in Cape Town, she grew up in Pietermaritzburg and Cape Town in a family which was very socially conscious. Her mother is a German pastor who moved to South Africa to fight apartheid and her father is South African and was a professor of theology.

Thandeka spent a year in Germany when she was nine and her mother was working in a village there. After apartheid ended she went to a German school which included South Africans on bursaries as well as German-speaking students. The bursaries were funded by the German government which wanted to support non-white education. The school classes were taught in English and German.

When she was 16 Thandeka spent a year in the US - six months in high school in Boston and six in a school in Berkeley as well as some time travelling across the US. Her father was on sabbatical doing research at the time. Thandeka says it was “a rude awakening to the rat race”. Her German school, set in “the village mentality” of Cape Town, was academically good and her future seemed assured. She found the US system much more competitive. The Boston school in contrast was an Ivy League feeder school. While she was in the US she also went on her first political protests against the Iraq war.

Thandeka says the experience opened up her eyes to the world outside Cape Town.  So when she finished school, she took a gap year to go to work in England and the US and to think about what she wanted to study at university. She knew it had to be something that would have a positive social impact. Having grown up in South Africa in a socially conscious family and seeing social injustice every day, she says it was impossible not to feel this way.

Thandeka returned to South Africa to Cape Town University where she majored in English, Politics and Social Anthropology. During her course she did an exchange at the University of Amsterdam where she enjoyed discussing political issues. She says: “In South Africa we didn’t talk about politics as it was too upsetting. I realised in Amsterdam that I could talk to my peers about things that matter.”

A friend had introduced her to the Model UN Society and Thandeka took part in the United Nations International Student Conference in Amsterdam. On her return she decided to set up something similar in South Africa and created Model UN conferences from scratch, training all the chairs. The first Model UN conference at her university was held in 2010 and is now a regular event. “People are really excited to talk about international politics and to debate real issues,” she says. Thandeka did her thesis on political philosophy and social theory, investigating the rise of modern individualism. “I’ve always hated individualism and been attracted by the philosophy of ubuntu which celebrates community and the idea that we are who we are through other people,” she says.

From Politics to Social Anthropology

After completing her undergraduate degree she applied to do an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual Theory at the University of Cambridge. The course was based in the history department and, as Thandeka had not done much history and the course seemed so exciting, she stayed at Cape Town University for an extra year doing history. During that year she got involved in an early literacy project pilot in a township. “It was an amazing experience and had a big influence on what I am doing now,” she says.

The MPhil, for which she won a Commonwealth scholarship, was very academic and theoretical and Thandeka found that quite frustrating. She focused on the impact of the Scottish Enlightenment in the Cape of Good Hope. After that experience she wasn’t sure if she wanted to continue in academia, but she decided to give it one last chance.

When she had applied to Cambridge, she had also applied to do Social Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam so she decided to try that. Her dissertation involved three months’ field research at early childhood development centres in rural Malawi. She was interested in exploring the impact of the centres, mostly run by international NGOS, on rural communities. “It seemed to be about imposing ideas about what is good for a child. The local volunteers often had different ideas, but were basically told that everything they thought was wrong,” she says. The volunteers were given a three-day training workshop with the threat that funding would be withdrawn if they did it wrong.

Thandeka recalls one of the European women involved was very keen on promoting  literacy through Grimm’s fairytales. Yet at the same time parents were being told by westerners that witchcraft and magic were problematic. “I started seeing books as part of the development machine and questioned what literacy meant when it was not about stories in people’s own language, when the stories were not about them and the pictures were of things they didn’t recognise,” says Thandeka.

Her Dutch supervisor encouraged her to apply for a PhD on the basis of her thesis, which won best thesis prize. She applied to Cambridge because she says she likes “to fix things”. “Cambridge was like an unfinished project for me,” she says. Thandeka was also drawn to the Gates Cambridge scholarship and its focus on community. Between finishing the master’s and starting the PhD she returned to South Africa for a year, working on a project to build an alternative encyclopaedia on South African history and taking part in the Rhodes Must Fall occupation.  When she returned to Cambridge she did so with a renewed political commitment and became involved in the Decolonise Cambridge movement.

Her PhD has built on her master’s work. She is now writing up, but is keen to deepen her work on oral literature in the future and to work on a project to produce books in local Malawian languages. She says: “Oral stories are part of epistemic justice. They build a sense of identity and history and agency. After all, if you do not know who you are and what your values are how can you fight for them?”

*Photo: Thandeka with Fannie Ngirwa, whom she lived with for eight months during her fieldwork.
17/08/2018 - 13:08Transforming supramolecular complexesDerrick Roberts is lead author on a paper on research which has succeeded in transforming the structure of a supramolecular complex in three different ways.

Researchers have, for the first time, succeeded in transforming the structure of a supramolecular complex in three different ways, according to a new paper.

Gates Cambridge Scholar Derrick Roberts [2012] is co-lead author with Dr Ben Pilgrim on the paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society which relates to his research while at the University of Cambridge.

His research focused on metal-containing supramolecular complexes. Organic ligands self-assemble around metal atoms to form molecular cages of various sizes and shapes. Researchers have been able to change a complex’s shape by changing either the metal or the ligand, but until now they have not been able to create a particular shape by design.

The newly published paper describes the creation of a supramolecular complex that converts between three different shapes - a tetrahedron, helix and prism.

Derrick, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the Karlinska Institute, says: “Switching between the structures allows us to make use of all their properties on demand.” For instance, prism-shaped complexes can make holes in cell membranes and mimic artificial ion channels; helical complexes can interact with DNA; and tetrahedral cages can trap reactive chemicals. He describes this as making the complex "like a Swiss Army knife”.

The research, led by Professor Jonathan Nitschke at the Department of Chemistry, first combined iron atoms and nitrogen-containing ligands to form a tetrahedral complex. Cyclooctyne was added, which attached to a reactive portion in the centre of each ligand, slightly bending it and enabling the complex to change its structure - mainly to a helical structure.  

To change it back to a tetrahedral structure, the researchers boosted the bonds between the ligands and the metal atoms at the corners of the tetrahedron.

Finally, the researchers used anion templating to convert the complex into a prism structure, adding a salt containing PF6 anions.

16/08/2018 - 10:59Tackling male violence through arts educationWill McInerney talks about his work developing an arts education framework to tackle male violence which draws on US and UK perspectives.

Will McInerney disliked the formal education system as a child. “I would much rather have been outside playing basketball,” he says. “I struggled in school for a long time. I found it hard to square the job of learning with the process of school. I am an example of someone who had more potential than I was able to discover for a long time due to an outdated system that did not encourage creativity. I have deep first hand experience of school not working and I can see this repeated with the students I now work with. I want to be part of the solution.”

Will [2018] has spent the last few years helping to create powerful spoken word poetry education programmes which tackle the root causes of conflict in society. This autumn, the boy who disliked school begins his PhD in Education and will work to develop an arts education framework to tackle male violence which draws on US and UK perspectives.

North Carolina

Will was born and raised in a rural part of North Carolina. His father is a carpenter turned property manager and is mother was a preschool teacher and now works for an organisation that promotes teachers’ employment rights.

After years of feeling disconnected from school, the turning point for Will came when he failed to get into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where his sister and both parents went. “That rejection made me reflect. I thought I am responsible and I can do better,” he says. He accepted a place at North Carolina State University, but was unsure of what he wanted to study. Wanting to challenge himself, he initially focused on the “hardest, best programme” they had, which was engineering and he worked hard and was top of the class, developing his academic resilience. At the same time he was working in a local electric company.

However, after two years he realised that he did not want to be an engineer in the long run. Through a friend, he had discovered poetry and at 18 had joined a poetry group. “I found a community with which I had a real connection,” he says. “It gave me a platform to speak about deeper issues.” He started reflecting on his upbringing and his parents’ emphasis on the importance of making the world a better place.

Poetic journalism and arts activism

Will transferred to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and began to take an interest in issues relating to peace, war and defence. In 2009 he travelled to the Middle East and studied Arabic and by 2011 he was doing freelance journalism, reporting on violence and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa. He also co-created a project to document the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions using spoken word poetry which he felt could tell more complex stories than journalism was able to. This led to a radio series on the NPR network starting in 2011 where he was described as the ‘poetic journalist’.

Meanwhile, before he graduated in 2011 he and his poetry group had created a non-profit organisation which used spoken word and hip hop arts education to deliver peace education to underserved youth who were at risk of dropping out, discrimination and violence. Will, who was executive director of the organisation for two and a half years after he graduated, says: “We were using poetry to promote constructive conversations to help young people re-engage with school and express themselves.”

He adds that the organisation was in the right place at the right time: spoken word poetry was an emerging art form and the organisation was able to take some talented artists into schools. “We developed our own pedagogy for teaching poetry and we got results,” says Will. “We got people who were disengaged with education, as I had been, back into the classroom, using a more dynamic, engaging form of poetry education and addressing issues of peace and conflict.”

One example was a 10-week after school programme they ran attended by many students who had failed English the year before and needed to make up their credits. Many who had stopped coming to school started turning up for class. “Their teachers noted a mind shift. Their grades were better,” says Will. “There was a change of mentality and attitude because the programme was the first time they felt they had been heard.”

Will says the experience inspired him to want to be a teacher and to work on education reform. “I loved teaching and having that tangible impact, but I needed to work on changing fundamental parts of education policy in order to have a bigger impact,” he says.

Male violence

The majority of his students were young men and he started noticing a pattern of  behavioural problems being raised. The poetry education had a powerful impact, helping them to rethink notions about what it meant to be young men and encouraging emotional intelligence. “Most men don’t commit violence, but most violence is committed by men. I felt there were ways I could be part of the solution,” says Will.

He teamed up with a professor who got funding for a programme examining male violence using spoken word poetry - the University of North Carolina Men’s Project. Together he and Will created the curriculum which brought together Will’s arts education for peace work and traditional men’s programmes. For two years Will ran and taught on the programme for undergraduate and graduate students at the university. He also returned to journalism, doing another NPR poetry journalism radio show about conflict.

Wanting to deepen his work, Will won a Rotary Peace Fellowship to the University of Bradford in the UK to do a master’s in conflict resolution with a focus on peace education. “It was a powerful opportunity to take a step back. I was jumping around doing lots of stuff at the time and rarely had time to reflect,” he says. “And I wanted to have the highest impact possible.” The two-year course, which he began in 2016, included three months’ field experience in Australia on the UN’s HeForShe initiative and at the University of Cambridge where he worked with Tim Archer on masculinity, violence, and peace under Dr Hilary Cremin.

His master’s thesis laid out the educational framework for a spoken word programme to prevent male violence. He worked with educators to address the challenges of male violence prevention programmes and look at how inserting poetry into them could give them greater impact.

Cultural differences

For his PhD, which he starts in the autumn, he will further develop the framework, partnering with men’s violence prevention programmes in the US and the UK to experiment with their students and curricula and get feedback. He is interested in exploring cultural differences in tackling the issue.

“I have a lot of passion to enhance and innovate the US system, but I realise that there are a lot of great organisations in other countries doing work on male violence prevention. I am very much interested in learning more from a global perspective,” says Will. “I know that a one size fits all approach doesn’t work so I want to partner with organisations on the ground. My interest is in how we can develop a framework that allows for the most impact, but has room for educators to input their own cultural norms.”

He adds: “The approach is about writing and listening to poetry, about the thinking behind the creative process. The aim is to help men to challenge their apathy and emotional ignorance so they can develop empathy and admit their vulnerability. I want to help them find the courage to do this work in a culture which doesn’t support them thinking about these things.”


09/08/2018 - 15:13An enterprising mindAndrea Cabrero Vilatela talks about her experience with start-ups, biomechanics and smart clothing.

Andrea Cabrero Vilatela was born into an entrepreneurial family and developed a strong interest in science while at school. In the year and a half since she earned her PhD from the University of Cambridge she has managed to combine business and science, co-founding a company which embeds different nanomaterials in textiles to make smart clothing, such as sports shirts that monitor the wearer’s breathing rate. The company builds on her academic expertise in nanotechnology and engineering and her experience of working with multiple start-ups at Cambridge.

Earlier this year she had to make the very difficult decision to close the company. She is now using her experience to mentor and advise other start-ups and plans further entrepreneurial ventures in the future.

An enterprising family

Andrea [2011] was born and raised in Mexico City. All of her family, including both of her parents and two sisters, are entrepreneurs. Her two sisters are in start-ups in the natural, healthy food industry, specifically avocado and guacamole food products with no preservatives; her father owned and managed a plastics factory and her mother is a nutritionist who developed an online programme that plans balanced meals for industrial cafeterias and houses and designed and led a national educational programme to teach children about the importance of balanced eating and physical activity for a healthy lifestyle.

At school Andrea was always curious about how things worked and was naturally drawn to science. She taught maths on a voluntary basis in disadvantaged rural communities near her home and also began teaching sciences at school. At first this was for her friends’ siblings, but she was soon offered payment for her services and formalised her teaching.

By the end of high school she knew she wanted to study science or architecture. A family friend who became Andrea’s mentor, Professor Mauricio Terrones, advised her to do Engineering Physics since she liked to travel. She followed his advice and was awarded a scholarship for academic excellence at the Universidad Iberoamericana.

During her four and a half years of undergraduate studies Andrea did a lot of academic and dance teaching. She also worked in the nanoscience and nanotechnology laboratory of her university, doing fundamental research, and she also did several internships, including at Rice University in the US, the Potosino Institute of Science and Technology in Mexico and at the National Institute of Optics, Astrophysics and Electronics, also in Mexico.

In 2008, during her third year, she had the opportunity to do industry-funded research at the Department of Material Science and Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge, doing microrheology and themodynamic tests on oil and water when different types of carbon nanotubes were added. It was Andrea’s first experience of doing research with industry. The research was during the academic term and Andrea still had to attend lectures back in Mexico so she negotiated with her university to let her do online lectures. It was at this time that she fell in love with Cambridge. “It was like a magical town to me,” she says.


In part because of that experience, but also because the course was interdisciplinary and involved coursework, research and collaboration with industry, she applied to do her master’s in Micro and Nanotechnology Enterprise at Cambridge. She started in 2011, just after getting married, and was awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship to do her MPhil. Her master’s was very intense and it was not until her PhD that she got involved with the community side of the scholarship, helping to pilot and lead what became the Gates Learning for Purpose professional development programme.

Andrea’s MPhil dissertation project involved testing carbon nanotube fibres in extreme environments. For the PhD, for which she was awarded a scholarship from the Cambridge Overseas Trust and the Mexican Institute of Science and Technology, she moved to the Department of Engineering and shifted her research to working with graphene. “The focus was on optimising the growth and transfer of electronic grade graphene,” she says. Her research was part of efforts to develop graphene applications in flexible electronics, such as organic LED and liquid crystal devices.

During her PhD in Engineering, she also became more involved in a number of different entrepreneurial activities, including working with different start-ups. She volunteered for Simprints, the digital fingerprint ID company co-founded by Gates Cambridge Scholars, doing work to develop a world-class HR function. She was also director of operations at Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club and volunteered at start-up Sparrho, doing marketing work.

Making an impact

Andrea finished her PhD in 2016 and has since published papers on it. When she finished she knew she didn’t want to continue in academia. She wanted something faster-paced and with larger impact. Andrea and her husband moved to London where she began a programme called Deep Science Ventures, an intensive, six-month venture creation programme that supports high-performing scientists and engineers to start companies with the potential to make a big impact, providing funding, facilities and a batch of exceptional potential co-founders. During this programme, Andrea co-founded Continuum Technologies, a smart clothing company.

The company attracted investment and started working with a professional sports team. Andrea’s co-founder then left and she continued on her own. She successfully pitched to Nokia, winning the Nokia Open Innovation Challenge at the end of 2017 and was awarded an Innovate UK grant. Her husband, who is a biomedical engineer, started helping part time as the work became more intense, but Andrea started to reflect on what she wanted in the long term. In order to secure further investment, investors wanted her to commit for several years. “Considering the new reality of the company and the team, do I want to continue on this path??” she asked herself. She made one of the most difficult decisions she has had to make and decided to close the company.

She still has the patents and feels she could start the company up again, maybe with more of a team next time to diversify skills and share the journey. For now she has gone back to teaching, which she missed. She is also working part time with a friend in a start-up in Cambridge and has started doing part-time work with a US start-up which wants to enter the European market. The company is developing new technologies with graphite and advanced graphite materials so it aligns with Andrea's previous work. She says: “My experience with Continuum Technologies is invaluable. I am now using it to help contribute in other teams and I will probably draw on it in the future to start a new venture."

06/08/2018 - 14:27Dr Silvia Breu (1976 – 2018)Alumna and celebrated rower passes away

Gates Cambridge is deeply saddened to learn of the death of Dr Silvia Breu.

Silvia, who was diagnosed with cancer last year, died peacefully at the Arthur Rank Hospice in Cambridge in the early hours of 3 August 2018 with her husband Christian at her side.

Silvia graduated with PhD in Computer Science from Newnham College in 2013 and was an active member of the Gates Cambridge community.  After a postdoctoral position at Christ Church, Oxford, she returned to Cambridge and for the last year taught at Queens’ College.

She was especially well known and respected for her deep passion for rowing, and she represented the University in the winning Blondie boat in 2011.  She coached, coxed and brought success to numerous clubs, including the Cambridge University Lightweight Rowing Club, the College boat clubs of Sidney Sussex, Wolfson, Churchill, St Edmunds and St John’s, Anglia Ruskin University, and the town club XPress.

Gates Cambridge sends its condolences and warmest wishes to Silvia’s family, friends and the many people whose lives she touched.

12/07/2018 - 18:22Arts activistScholar-Elect Siyabonga Njica talks about his PhD which will explore the role of exiled artists in South Africa’s liberation struggle.

“Circumstances made me who I am.

Hands held high in a pleading beggars position,

Grieving, nonetheless believing that the privilege will someday listen

To the pledges of my people,

Please give them something to believe in...

Circumstances made me who I am.

Now rise above your circumstances.”

What is the role of artists in the struggle for social justice and liberation? Siyabonga Njica has always been interested in how oppressed peoples have historically reflected on the meaning of freedom – from the blues in black America to the work-songs of unskilled labourers in South Africa - and, more specifically, how the arts and culture became a premium nation-building tool that galvanised the international community against apartheid.

His PhD in History, which he begins in the autumn, will explore the role of exiled artists in South Africa’s liberation struggle. He says: “I am interested in reimagining how we think about South Africa’s recent past in order to reveal how exiled South African artists became key cultural players at the height of intellectual diasporic engagements between African, Caribbean and North American artists in the second half of the twentieth century. My research aims to promote the teaching, learning and understanding of African people’s creative and intellectual contribution in their fight for freedom and social equality.”

Siyabonga’s research interests link to his own arts activism. A well-known poet in South Africa, he has also been involved in student movements which are part of the ongoing response to the legacy of the apartheid system in South Africa. Siyabonga was born in 1994 in the township of Gugulethu in Cape Town - a black residential area that was established to accommodate migrant workers and families who were forcibly relocated from Cape Town’s inner city under the Group Areas Act during apartheid.

He is the eldest of three children, all of whom grew up without a father figure, and he feels the responsibility to be a good role model for them. Siyabonga was raised by his grandparents, mother and two aunts. His father was incarcerated when he was born and Siyabonga [2018] later moved in with him following his release in an effort to know him better. Three years later, however, his father died suddenly. Of his father’s influence on him, Siyabonga says: “My father is said to have had a remarkable mind. I remember how he was always curious and interested in my education. He would often ask that I read aloud to him. People say that I have inherited his thirst for knowledge.”

Siyabonga started writing at the age of 15 and his first poem, “Circumstances made me who I am” [from which the extract above comes], became very popular in poetry circles around Cape Town. His poetry critically examines the contradictions of South Africa’s post-apartheid state and what it means to be ‘born free’. He says his creative work was always linked to his political activism. At school, he was also President of the Representative Council of Learners. “I consider my activism and the creative arts as one, they compliment each other,” he says.

His school, Cape Town High School, previously an all-white school under apartheid, was an inspiring place in which to learn and Siyabonga was encouraged to continue his education. He says: “I sat by the window during History class and would incessantly stare at the University of Cape Town shuttle service as it drove past our school premises to their satellite arts campus, Hiddingh. Our History teacher always intimated that we should imagine ourselves in those shuttles and work towards admission to what is still considered the best university on the African continent. I was emboldened by his vision for our lives and would occasionally visit the university campus with a handful of questions about what it took to be admitted.”

Cultural ambassadors

Siyabonga continued his arts activism at the University of Cape Town and made quite a name for himself as a poet and budding guitarist. He co-founded two poetry collectives called Vocal Revolutionaries and Whispers of Wisdom. The former enabled his commitment to arts education and community development to flourish whilst the latter helped him to hone his virtuosity as an artist. Vocal Revolutionaries was dedicated to creating programmes that cater to youth through arts education, reading clubs and scholarship opportunities. “We realised that there weren’t many facilities or coordinated efforts in schools and organisations for young students who didn’t want to study the sciences. Our mandate was to provide a platform that nurtured creative talent in the townships,” he says.

The real breakthrough was when they were able to raise the money to travel and tell their stories abroad. Siyabonga represented the group at the international Brave New Voices poetry festival for four years up to the summer of 2016. “We were the first representatives from the African continent and cultural ambassadors for the literary arts,” he says.

Siyabonga was also involved in student activism at the University of Cape Town. Together with other student activists sensitive to the arts, he led poetry and music sessions that followed heated political discussions by student-led gatherings aimed at fostering a culture of debate and critical thinking. “Under the banner of ‘Imbizo’ we were using the arts to grapple with major political issues in South Africa such as the unresolved land question which remains a thorny issue and is at the heart of much public discussion and debate in South African politics today.”

For his first degree, Siyabonga majored in anthropology and gender studies. He chose anthropology because he was interested in ethnography and first-person narratives – improvised approaches to writing that complimented his creativity as a poet. He says he chose gender studies because “working with a gender lens can illuminate knowledge in new multifaceted ways”.

Siyabonga then moved on to do an honours degree in African Studies after his undergraduate course and became more interested in the links between literature and jazz music in South Africa’s liberation struggle. He says: “In the summer of 2016 I was privileged to take up a writing fellowship at Emory University on the history of South African jazz music and literature in the liberation struggle. This preliminary inquiry led me to the illustrious Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York, where I came across a rich archive of South African exile activity. My encounter with this archive impressed upon me a sustained interest in how South African artists have counterpoised the injustices of apartheid and reflected on the idea of freedom through creative imagination.”


In 2016 he applied to the University of Cambridge to do an MPhil in African Studies. He chose Cambridge because its course had an emphasis on interdisciplinarity and the Centre of African Studies library has a rich archive on the black diaspora. “African Studies became the most suitable place to do a project which considered music and literature as modes of knowing and the UK became the ideal place to read my MPhil because most of the exiled artists that I trace in my work either settled or spent time here. Engagement with the South African diaspora is important and we should recognise that the struggle against apartheid was not just about what happened in the armed struggle or at the negotiation tables, but what artists articulated on canvases, in theatre, on typewriters, gramophones and through their camera lenses,” says Siyabonga.

He has been tracing the cultural activity of two South African artists exiled in the UK in the 1960s: the Drum magazine writer Bloke Modisane and Blue Notes jazz musician Johnny Dyani. While at Cambridge he has also become interested in the work of the Black Cantabs Research Society which aims to research and make visible black Cambridge alumni across the university. He currently serves as resident artist and cultural coordinator of the Black Cantabs Research Society.

In the autumn he begins his PhD as a Gates Cambridge Scholar and he says he was drawn to the scholarship programme due to the value it places on social impact. His research will extend his master's work on artists’ contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle and will also consider their impact today. “I am interested in art as a lens for South Africa to re-imagine its recent past and in the role of art in political struggles from the decolonisation movement to the Fallist insurrections [#RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall] in South Africa today,” he says.

05/07/2018 - 19:14Asking the fundamental questionsVincentius Aji Jatikusumo on his journey to Cambridge and a PhD investigating the process of DNA synthesis.

Vincentius Aji Jatikusumo likes asking questions. At school there was never time for the teacher to answer them all, but as a PhD student he has complete freedom to ask as many questions as he wants. Indeed, academic research is about asking questions and asking the right questions is what leads to progress.

Vincentius’ research focuses on a fundamental question - how life happens. He studies the process of DNA synthesis and seeks to understand the molecular machinery of eukaryotic DNA replication. “It’s a fundamental scientific question. Without replication cells will not be able to survive and propagate, but there is so much we don’t know about it,” he says. He approaches this through the structure of biology. “My research is focused on understanding DNA synthesis, how it begins, and trying to understand the architecture of the system. There are exciting developments happening in this area, especially with the development of cryo-electron microscope (cryo-EM), and Cambridge is an exciting place to be with access to amazing facilities and experts.”


Vincentius [2015] was born in Surabaya in Indonesia and spent his first six years there. As his parents were doctors, the family moved around - from Surabaya to Madiun to Batam. His father is a gynaecologist and his mothers is an ear, nose and throat doctor.  Medicine runs in the family. Vincentius’ maternal grandmother was a nurse. She died before he was born, but on her deathbed she told Vincentius' mother to use the money the family would save on her care to educate their children. He and his sister therefore grew up with an understanding of the importance of education. "Although I have never met my grandmother, her presence was very strong. She has been a big inspiration to me."

Although his parents talked a lot about their work at the dinner table and were keen for him to succeed at school, Vincentius says they did not expect him to follow in their footsteps and do medicine. Nor did they focus heavily on his grades. Instead they took a broad view of his education. “What struck me from hearing about their work was that in order to make other people happy you have to make yourself happy and that there are many ways to make people happy,” says Vincentius.  “The important thing for my parents was to do your best and be kind.”

Vincentius was a curious child, always wanting to know why things are the way they are. He read avidly, learning to read before he attended kindergarten, and would pick up random books just to learn about different subjects or viewpoints. He says the ability to understand opposing views is vital as a scientist and scholar.

Vincentius was also interested in writing and wrote his first article - on football - at 10 and sent it to a national newspaper where it was published.

He attended junior high school in the city of Batam and at 15 he realised he wanted to go to university in the UK.  “I was inspired by the great scientists such as Darwin and Newton who have come from the UK,” he says. He told his father who said it would be very difficult to get into a UK university from Indonesia because of its different education system. He advised Vincentius to plan ahead and do his research. He discovered that his father was right and that Indonesian qualifications would not be accepted at UK universities. Singapore was an hour away by ferry and Singapore qualifications were recognised in the UK. His parents decided they could pay to send Vincentius there to do his A Levels.  

He stayed with a guardian in Singapore for four years while he attended high school. It was hard work - he says the Singapore system is very demanding and he was taught wholly in English. It was worth it, however, because it paved the way to his dream of studying in the UK. “It would not have happened if it wasn’t for the support of my parents,” he says. 

Vincentius describes himself modestly as an average student, although one who was passionate about maths and science and loved learning. Other interests include reading, jazz music and football.


He applied to several UK universities, all of them towns with good football teams, and was very happy to be accepted to Newcastle University which has an excellent reputation for genetics. Being someone who is interested in how things work, Vincentius wanted to explore DNA inheritance and how the study of genetics has evolved. In Indonesia, he says, the subject is a fairly new one. “Studying genetics in Newcastle was a culture and science shock,” he says. “In Indonesia doctors don’t tend to ask why their patients have certain diseases, let alone asking about their genetic predisposition to it. Genetics opens up new questions.”

In his undergraduate's final year Vincentius had to do a research project and he chose to study crystallography, the experimental science of determining the arrangement of atoms in crystalline solids, to understand more about the process of cell division. He ended up in Dr Owen Davies’ laboratory where he managed to define novel interactions between two synaptonemal complex proteins.

From this taste of research, he knew that he wanted to pursue his studies on graduation and Cambridge University was the obvious place to apply. Vincentius had spent his second year summer vacation studying the genome editing system CRISPR/Cas9 at Cambridge as an Amgen scholar and been very impressed by the university. Researching Professor Luca Pellegrini’s laboratory in the Department of Biochemistry, he realised that one of the publications linked to it was written by Dr Owen Davies who had done his post-doctorate at Cambridge. It seemed like serendipity.

Vincentius is now entering the final year of his PhD and says, using biochemical and biophysical data, his research has provided some clues about how DNA synthesis is being initiated in humans. “What is missing is an understanding of the architecture of the protein system, which would then provide a more complete picture,” he says. “If we know what happens when everything is going right, we could understand a lot of genetic diseases. As we progress there are more and more questions to be answered. At my Gates Cambridge interview I didn’t promise we would be able to cure cancer. I only know that there are more interesting questions to answer, which can help us to understand the human biological system better. That’s what keeps me going.”

He is not sure whether he will stay in academia after he completes his PhD, but he hopes to continue in science and to keep asking questions. "Gates Cambridge and my time at Cambridge have taught me a lot. I hope it will inspire many other outstanding Indonesian students to dream bigger and to be more global. My path was not necessarily straightforward, but I hope more bright Indonesian students will apply and come here. To study at Cambridge is an important step towards developing and fulfilling students' academic potential."​

He adds: "The wonderful thing is that this is not the end for me, but the beginning of something bigger. I am excited by what lies ahead and hopefully I can contribute more to helping the people around me and back home in Indonesia."

03/07/2018 - 08:02A musical story of survivalTala Jarjour is holding an event in Cambridge to launch her new book on music, emotion and survival in Aleppo.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar is holding an event in Cambridge to launch her new book on music, emotion and survival in Aleppo.

The event for Tala Jarjour's book Sense and Sadness will be held at Trinity Hall next week.

The book is described as "an innovative study of music modality in relation to human emotion and the aesthetics of perception". It is also a musical story of survival, with Christian traditions under huge threat as a result of the war in Syria. 

Focusing on chant at St George's Syrian Orthodox Church of Aleppo, Tala puts forward the concept of the emotional economy of aesthetics, which she says enables a new understanding of music modality.

Chant is one of the most historically and musically distinctive features of the Syrian Orthodox tradition and Tala, who is currently a visiting fellow at Yale, has commented on how writing her book feels like she is chronicling a tradition that may not be the same for long.

An interdiscipilnary study, the book combines insights from musicology and ethnomusicology, sound and religious studies, anthropology, history, East Christian and Middle Eastern studies and the study of emotion. Drawing on imagination and metaphor, Tala brings to the fore overlapping, at times contradictory, modes of sense and sense making, portraying events, writing, people, and music as they unfold together through ritual commemorations and the devastating, ongoing war in Syria.

Tala [2005​], who grew up in Damascus, did her PhD in Music at Cambridge on music and religion in the Middle East. 

*Sense and Sadness is published by Oxford University Press. For more information, contact Tala on Picture credit: Tala with Gates Cambridge Provost Barry Everitt.


22/06/2018 - 13:37Creating a circle of trustAmy Zhang talks about her research on how people can better manage their online discussions through collaborations with people they trust.

Amy Zhang’s research goes to the heart of the biggest communication issue today - trust. Her PhD investigates how to help end users better manage their online discussions. The emphasis is on collaboration. While the internet has brought us an onslaught of information, it has also made us more connected. The trick is to know what information to trust.

Under the umbrella of this broad subject, Amy has been involved in projects to build tools to address issues such as misinformation and information overload.

The PhD Amy [2011] is doing at MIT builds on her MPhil in Advanced Computer Science at the University of Cambridge where she led her first research project, using data analytics to design an online tool to create real-time neighbourhood profiles.

After leaving Cambridge, Amy went to New York to work at a start-up.

She began her PhD in Computer Science at MIT in 2014. The scope is broad, but one area she has been looking at is misinformation, including fake social media posts. She says: “Social media is becoming more and more important in our lives and it affects society, from democracy to our interpersonal relationships. It also raises a lot of interesting questions around research ethics and the ethical design of social media sites.”

She adds: “A lot comes down to trust and reputation. Having a better understanding of the context behind what has been posted and having better digital literacy depends on people having the tools they need. People can’t track the source of every bit of information they receive every day. We need to design tools to help people lean on each other and those they trust. What makes us trust something and believe it is credible? One thing is when it is shared by someone we trust.”

Amy is looking at how posts on social media can show information related to the context of the article, such as the source, who it is citing, how many references there are to the site and its tone. “That makes it harder for people to be subjected to spamming attacks from organisations that use names that sound like a known news site,” she says.

She is also looking at how sensationalist, clickbait titles which are misleading about the content they are linking to could have their headline replaced with something which better reflects that content. “Some contextual information could be published by news sources as metadata,” she says. Algorithms could then read the data. However, she adds that information that is harder to verify might need more of a human input, such as a friend or a fact-checking source.


During her PhD, Amy has also been involved in building tools for emails and chat groups like Slack to address information overload and harassment. She has spent nearly two years interviewing people who have faced harassment via email. Their experiences are very different, she says. Some were targeted by bots; others by people they know or ex-partners; others by large mobs of strangers.

She has built a tool which allows people’s friends to moderate their inbox for them. They can forward groups of emails to trusted people to vet. Another initiative is in response to sudden distributed denial of service-type attacks on individuals’ email where they are bombarded with thousands of emails in a short period, making it impossible for them to communicate. The Squadbox tool Amy has helped devise can filter away emails from unknown people during an attack which can then be waded through by trusted moderators.

The tool was rolled out recently after a pilot study last year. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Amy. “Many do something similar by giving their password to a friend or partner to clean their inbox, but this makes it easier.” She is also looking at possible applications to social media.

On information overload, Amy has been designing tools that can summarise large group conversations, boiling them down to the essential summaries to save people time wading through text. This could be used for large discussions on civic platforms, Wikipedia talk pages, internal work communication and the like, she says. Another project looks at how to reimagine mailing lists and email interfaces so that people can better manage what emails they get and how they get them as well as how and to whom their emails get sent.

Amy describes her time at Cambridge as “transformative”. Even before she reached Cambridge, Amy was making waves. She was featured on the hoarding outside Rutgers University when she was awarded the scholarship. The hoarding read: “Rutgers scholars are among the brightest in the world. Meet one of this year's highest achievers, scholar-athlete Amy Zhang, winner of a prestigious 2011 Gates Cambridge Scholarship”.

Of her time at Cambridge, she says: “It was my first experience abroad and my first time leading my own research project. It got to learn what research is all about and realised I really enjoy it.” She also met her fiance Johnny Hu [2011], a fellow Gates Cambridge Scholar who is now at Harvard, through the scholarship programme. “My time at Cambridge changed my life,” she says.

21/06/2018 - 13:05The future of social mobilityMichael Meaney wins education prize for his essay on Massive Open Online Courses.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has won an essay prize at a prestigious conference at the University of Oxford and has been awarded the Oxford Scholarship in Comparative and International Education.

Michael Meaney submitted his essay on MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] to the 2nd Oxford Symposium in Comparative and International Education held in Oxford this week.

The theme this year was the complex intersections between education, uncertainty and the changing nature of society and entrants were asked ‘how can we, through education, best shape and sustain a society that is at once plural and cosmopolitan, prosperous and inclusive, fair and responsible, and cohesive?’

Some 150 delegates from around the world took part in the symposium. The event aimed to question what role education might play in the face of ever changing external influences that threaten the nature of society and the shared futures of citizens; what might be expected of teaching as social divisions increase; and how to better understand and document the transitional experiences of children and young people.

Some 650 papers were submitted in the essay competition, 28 were selected for presentation and Michael's was one of five awarded best essay prizes.

His essay, The Future of Social Mobility? MOOCs and Hegemonic Design Bias, concludes that MOOCs could play an important role in meeting demand for higher education, but are not doing this currently because they are serving the already well-educated and most universities are not embracing their potential for reducing social inequality. He writes: "If proper design considerations are made in creating future MOOC content, these institutions of higher education could make a momentous contribution to society by truly democratising learning. As MOOCs remain nascent, they are highly malleable and not entrenched in any specific way that would prevent a direction change. Whether MOOCs are able to shift in the right direction is now up to the universities producing them.​"

The essay will be adapted for submission to the Cambridge Faculty of Education Working Paper Series, as well as for publication in a journal.

Michael [2016] is doing a PhD in Education.

*His presentation can be viewed here. Picture: Michael at the event with fellow Cambridge PhD student Meghna Nag Chowdhuri.

18/06/2018 - 13:18Bridging local and global communitiesThe first annual Lauren Zeitels Memorial Lecture brought a network of Gates alumni together for an alumni weekend in Boston to pay homage to Lauren's inspiring legacy.

The inaugural Lauren Zeitels Memorial Lecture celebrated the life and legacy of an inspiring Gates Cambridge alumna and aimed to encourage her peers to continue to work towards improving the lives of others.

The lecture took place on 2nd June at the Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, MA, USA. 

Lauren's life tragically ended in an avalanche in March 2017. Lauren’s family, friends, colleagues and mentors were joined at the lecture by Gates Cambridge alumni spanning more than a decade of Gates Scholars. Among those who spoke at the lecture were Gates Cambridge Provost Professor Barry Everitt, MGH Physician-in-Chief Dr Katrina Armstrong, Co-Founder and CEO of Thread Dr Sarah Hemminger, Gates Cambridge Alumni Association Co-Chair Dr Rebecca Saunderson and Lauren’s father Dr Jerrold Zeitels.

Professor Everitt commenced the lecture with a brief overview of Lauren’s time as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. "Gates Cambridge Scholars are selected on the basis of three criteria: academic excellence, the capacity for leadership in whatever domain that can be expressed, and a commitment to improving the lives of others, and it seems to me that Lauren was the very embodiment of those qualities,” he said.

Dr Armstrong’s lecture detailed the Pathways Service which was founded by Lauren and her co-resident Victor Fedorov, who also passed away in the avalanche. Residents in this programme utilise a combination of innovative clinical and laboratory tools to diagnose and treat some of the hospital’s most complex patients. 

Dr Hemminger spoke on Lauren’s involvement in Thread, a non-profit that creates support networks for underperforming teenagers in Baltimore who face significant barriers outside of the classroom. Lauren was heavily involved with Thread during her MD/PhD programme at Johns Hopkins and made a profound impact on the lives of the youngpeople she mentored, her fellow volunteers and Dr Hemminger herself.

“My life has been forever changed from having known Lauren, and it’s helped me become a more full person,” Dr Hemminger stated. “I’m more comfortable in my own skin and confident in who I am, and that confidence led to me deciding not to take that job at the NIH. And that decision has led to Thread being a community of 2,000 people who transcend all kinds of lines of difference and come together in the most unique ways. That wouldn’t have happened without Lauren,” she said.

Dr Saunderson [2012], who had co-chaired the GCAA board alongside Lauren and who considered Lauren a close friend, praised Lauren’s tireless dedication to serving others and challenged attendees to live in honour of that memory.

In closing, Dr Saunderson remarked: “What this lecture means is that the legacy of Lauren will live on. That we not only celebrate her life, but we continue to execute her vision of the organisation. That through commemorating her, we connect alumni, and in doing so, we have the chance to do something that can improve the lives of others.”

Finally, Lauren’s father, Dr Jerrold Zeitels thanked the speakers and the community for coming together to celebrate Lauren’s life and lasting impact.

Beyond the Memorial Lecture, GCAA-organised events over the weekend served to introduce Gates alumni from different cohorts to one another and to celebrate the achievements emerging from the alumni community. 

The weekend began with welcome drinks at the home of British Consul General, Harriet Cross, who hosted and met with Gates alumni. Other events included a panel led by Todd Tucker [2012] that discussed some of the issues covered in Todd’s newly released book Judge Knot: Politics and Development in International Investment Law.

*Picture and words: Alex Kong.

14/06/2018 - 20:56Democratic developmentPapa Momodou Jack's research will focus on access to healthcare in Ethiopia.

Papa Momodou Jack wants to change how development is practised in the sphere of public health by bridging the divide between scholarship and policy and shaping interventions that acknowledge the different social, cultural, political and economic contexts in which it takes place.

As part of his PhD in Geography, Momodou [2018] will look at access to healthcare in Ethiopia, focusing in particular on the Community-Based Health Insurance (CBHI) scheme which draws from a scheme in Ghana which he has previously studied.

He says: “I’m interested in how Ethiopia, which its diverse population, complex history of ethnic marginalisation and low-income status can succeed when the model has problems in Ghana.” His thesis will use a mixed methods approach to examine the role of ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status in explaining differences in health outcomes under the CBHI scheme in Ethiopia. It will analyse regional variations in health outcomes in Ethiopia, examine the role of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organisations and traditional healers in filling the health provision gap for the most vulnerable and provide practical recommendations on improving current and future policies and programming. 

It will also examine the extent to which the scheme can contribute to the attainment of the health-related target of the Sustainability Development Goal framework in Ethiopia. 

One of Momodou's main interests is in how the voices of those affected by policies are integrated into the development process.

Momodou is the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from the Gambia and is determined to use the experience in a positive way to encourage others to study at the highest level and to contribute to the sustainable socio-economic development of their countries.

Lasting change

Born in Bakau, a fishing town on the coast of the Gambia, he is well aware of the complexity of different countries. His father worked for the UN so the family - Momodou has three older sisters -  moved around a lot when he was young. His first four years were spent in the Gambia, then he lived in Botswana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Rwanda before going to boarding school in the UK and then returning to Kenya for his final years at school.  

In Africa he attended international schools, some of which had children from over 50 nationalities in them. In addition to local community work, Momodou’s school in Kenya also had a Global Issues Network. He was a volunteer for the network and helped to raise money for the Somali refugee community. He also volunteered for Rotary International. For Momodou, though, voluntary work is not enough. He wants to contribute to lasting change and to ensure Africans have access to the best healthcare in the world. In this vein, Momodou is currently establishing a social enterprise that will support marginalised women in the Gambia, Nigeria and Ethiopia to sustainably produce and export high-quality superfoods, with profits being used to close existing health provision gaps.

Momodou opted to do his undergraduate degree in Human Geography at Newcastle University where his sister had studied and which had a very good Geography programme. In his second year, Momodou was the President of the university’s African Caribbean Society. One of the key events he helped coordinate was an afternoon of different scholars, writers and artists which aimed to challenge people’s assumptions and stereotypes about Africa.

While he was at university, he completed a six-week Corporate and Indirect Tax internship at PwC in the UK, and also spent one summer at KPMG in Botswana, working with the firm’s Management Consulting and Corporate Finance teams. In addition, he spent some time in Ghana researching his undergraduate dissertation on the country’s National Health Insurance Scheme and its impact on the most marginalised communities. The scheme is held up as an example of what health insurance should look like in Africa.

Momodou says: “I wanted to examine whether it was fit for purpose and to consider the role of other, more traditional providers of health. Often policy makers overlook more traditional medicine and how people use it. I spoke to NGOs, IGOs, health workers and traditional healers to put together a complete picture of health services. My dissertation called for greater recognition of the prevalence and role of traditional medicine and how Africans choose to heal themselves.”

His research found logistical problems with reimbursement from the health insurance body and issues around the quality of universal healthcare offered which meant that people did not trust the system as much as they might do.

Questioning assumptions

After his undergraduate degree Momodou worked for two years as an international development consultant for PwC in London on a flagship infrastructure programme funded by the Department for International Development. As a Senior Associate at the firm, Momodou provided technical assistance to senior advisers on a range of projects in fragile states. This included assessing the extent to which certain infrastructure investments in Somalia were providing value-for-money.

His work made him question the assumptions behind development policies and he decided he needed to take a step back to understand why development was done in the way it was. He applied to the University of Cambridge to do an MPhil and began in 2017.  Through the course he has sought to question development policy using a post-colonial critique. “I wanted to have a theoretical understanding of development which is fundamental to asking questions about how it works and to see if we could do it differently in a way that integrated the voices of people. That is fundamentally the problem. Policies are imposed from one country to another and ignore the complexity of the local environment,” he says.


13/06/2018 - 23:21Integrating refugees in Germany and LebanonHanna Baumann has been awarded a fellowship to compare how refugees are integrated into host societies in Germany and Lebanon.

A Gates Cambridge alumna has been awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship to compare the ways refugees are integrated into host societies in Germany and Lebanon.

Hanna Baumann [2012], who did a PhD in Architecture at the University of Cambridge's Centre for Urban Conflicts Research, will look in particular at how infrastructure and public services define the relationship between refugees and their host countries.

Hanna says that in Lebanon, where there are 1.5 million refugees and every fourth person is a refugee, basic services such as electricity, water and waste removal are not consistently provided, even for the average citizen. But Lebanon also has a history of absorbing refugees. “It is a surprisingly hospitable place, given the numbers of refugees and the economic impact,” she states. Hanna is interested in studying how social movements built around Lebanon's insufficient public services might include refugees' access to infrastructure.

In Germany, on the other hand, access to public services is generally available to all, but the presence of refugees has had significant political and cultural repercussions. Hanna is interested in how some services in Germany are delivered to refugees in exchange for an adjustment in behaviour, for example, through teaching newly arrived asylum seekers how to ride a bike or recycle. “The aim of some services seems to be to mould refugees into proper German citizens,” she says.  She also wants to investigate the assumptions underpinning some of the services offered.

Hanna’s project begins in January under the mentorship of Professor Henrietta Moore. Hanna will continue to be based at the Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London where she is currently a researcher at the RELIEF Centre. Since March, she has been working on infrastructure issues, examining how aid organisations deliver aid, what criteria they use to decide who is the most vulnerable and how they negotiate with local authorities who is responsible for providing basic infrastructure. 

The RELIEF Centre is led by the UCL Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP), in collaboration with departments in University College London (UCL), American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Centre for Lebanese Studies.

Hanna's interest in infrastructure is a continuation of her previous research on Palestinian mobility in Jerusalem and the ways in which the city has both included and excluded Palestinians.

When she begins her new project she will spend five months in Lebanon and five in Berlin, her home town. “I think I have a responsibility to look at these issues in my home city,” she says. “I hope I can draw attention to the fact that, even if you give people a service for free, there needs to be awareness of the problems that can cause and how things can be done more sensitively and effectively. Through the lens of infrastructure, and how people organise around it, I hope to gain a better understanding of what urban citizenship means for non-citizens.”


13/06/2018 - 15:11Provost to head Society for NeuroscienceProfessor Barry Everitt has been selected as President-Elect of the Society for Neuroscience.

Gates Cambridge Provost Professor Barry Everitt has been chosen as President-Elect of the Society for Neuroscience.

He is the first President of the Society to be actively based at an institution outside of North America.

Professor Everitt, who is Director of Research in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, was President of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies from 2016 to 2018.

He will take up his new post at Neuroscience 2018 in San Diego, California, in November.

Professor Everitt, who has been Provost of Gates Cambridge since 2013, was chosen for his new post by members using an independent online survey distribution company.

He currently serves on the SfN Council and has previously served on the SfN's Committee on Committees and as Chair of the Programme Committee. An emeritus Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, his research is concerned with the neural and psychological mechanisms underlying learning, memory, motivation and reward especially related to drug addiction. A major research theme is the impact of learning on drug addiction - both its development and its persistence.

06/06/2018 - 19:14Memories are made of thisLevan Bokeria is researching how memories are formed and what can make the process of creating lasting memories more effective.

Levan Bokeria has been researching how memories are formed and consolidated, in essence how they move from our short to our long term memory.

He says: “I am looking at what is going on in the brain and what conditions make the process more effective. This could, in the long term, help with understanding certain neurodegenerative diseases.”

Levan [2018] will continue this research at Cambridge in the autumn, when he starts his PhD in Biological Science at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and becomes the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from Georgia.

Currently his research at the Memory Dynamics laboratory at the Donders Institute in the Netherlands focuses on mice, but at Cambridge he will work with humans in Professor Richard Henson’s laboratory. 

He says: “With the help of the amazing research community at Cambridge, I aim to uncover the inner workings of the human brain as it learns and remembers, in an effort to contribute to the development of science-based, effective strategies for improving knowledge acquisition and idea generation. I hope that such insights can be used to improve human learning in healthy adults as well as those with neurodegenerative diseases.”

He adds: "It is my hope that with further basic science research we can design better learning and memorisation techniques. This is currently a challenge because we have only scraped the surface of understanding the brain and we do not have a solid enough foundation to base practical recommendations on. However, once we do understand the underlying neural processes I am confident that this will revolutionise the field of learning. An analogy I like to use is between a car and the brain. Compare two car mechanics: one who has a vague idea about the hardware and software of the car and how various functional systems interact with each other, while the other one has an intricate, complete understanding of the underlying mechanisms and structures. Imagine just how much better the second mechanic will be at fixing any issue with a car or designing improvements for it.

"Our contemporary cognitive neuroscience is just like the first mechanic. We have learned a lot about the brain, but still lack integrative rigorous understanding of its functioning. But if we manage to fully characterize the anatomical and functional architecture of the brain, we will be as good at treating and improving our cognition as the second mechanic would be at fixing a car."


Levan was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. He has a large extended family, including two stepsisters and a sister. His mother is Associated Professor and Vice Dean of the Business School at Ilia State University and his father was a civil rights activist in the 1990s and early 2000s. Since the Rose Revolution he has been exclusively involved in politics and is currently an opposition MP and one of the leaders of the political party European Georgia.

Levan grew up in the turbulent Georgian politics of the 1990s and 2000s in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. In 2003 the Rose Revolution took place which  culminated in the ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze, marking the end of the Soviet era of leadership in the country. The year before Levan left school the short-lived Russo-Georgian War erupted.

Levan transferred to a school that specialised in physics and maths when he was 12 and there he took part in local and international Olympiads in maths and physics, travelling to Kiev in 2006 and to Germany in 2008 for an event for young computer scientists. Levan also took part in competitions organised by the local NATO office and wrote short articles for NATO publications, but says he was never involved in any political movement. 

When he left school Levan’s parents were keen for him to study abroad to get a broader international perspective and a better quality education. At first Levan wanted to stay in Georgia with his friends amid the political instability in the region.

He applied, however, to some US universities and was accepted by George Mason University in Virginia. Levan initially majored in sociology and minored in economics, a subject his father had recommended. He had thought economics was a dry subject focused on money, but soon realised it could be used to question what is valued, how the world works and how to build a better society.

Levan spent seven years in the US and says the experiences represented “a huge transformative change” in his life. “I learnt a lot about tolerance and diversity. Everyone thinks their country is the best, but there is much you can learn from others. Several beliefs I had were broken down,” he says.

Two years into his degree he switched universities after becoming interested in bioethics and philosophy. He moved to the University of Rochester in upstate New York where he was president of the university’s philosophy club and discovered a fascination for neuroscience. He ended up majoring in philosophy and brain and cognitive science with a minor in economics. In addition he won a place on the Take Five Scholars programme which meant he could take another subject for half a year with all fees waived. He chose political science and focused on the recent history of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. As part of this programme, he participated in a summer school at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.

“All the subjects connect in interesting ways. Psychology and economics connect in behavioural economics. Political science is about human behaviour and cognitive neuroscience can be used to answer philosophical questions,” says Levan. 


After graduating in 2014, he was intending to return to Georgia, but was offered a research assistant post in two laboratories at Georgetown University with leading neuroscientists. At one of the laboratories, the Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience, Levan worked on a modelling project to understand data related to human performance in a particular task. He was also laboratory manager. At the second laboratory, the Centre for Functional and Molecular Imaging, Levan was working on a research project on perceptual imagery and was trained as an MRI operator. “It gave me a good perspective on what was going on in the field,” he says. Levan also developed an interest in artificial intelligence and co-founded Georgetown’s artificial intelligence club. He also participated in various science outreach initiatives, including brain awareness weeks, lectures given to local school children, science fairs and other events.

After two years he was keen to return to Europe and applied to do a master’s at the Donders Institute in the Netherlands, a world famous centre for cognitive neuroscience. There he has taken part in various international conferences and, in addition to his master's research, has worked part-time in the Predictive Brain laboratory to gain more research experience.

He is looking forward to continuing his research in Cambridge, having visited the UK in the past for summer schools.

He says: “Neuroscience offers not only unprecedented tools to answer the deepest philosophical puzzles about cognition, but also an opportunity to use the discovered mechanistic understanding of the brain to design effective strategies for improving human abilities. I have realised that at the heart of every scientific and intellectual advancement, at the foundation of human progress, lies the human ability to learn, create and solve problems, enabled by our fascinatingly complex underlying neuro-computational processes.”

04/06/2018 - 09:53Cycling in serviceBen Cole is doing a 545-mile cycle ride to raise funds for HIV/AIDS treatment in California.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar is cycling 545 miles to raise funds for HIV/AIDS treatment in the Bay Area of California through AIDS/LifeCycle.

Ben Cole [2011] had just moved to San Francisco when he was asked by a new friend to participate in a 545-mile, seven-day bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He was eager to join a community, especially if it meant he could support a good cause. It helped that he was already a seasoned long-distance cyclist, having previously cycled the Camino de Santiago: a 500-mile pilgrimage typically undertaken on foot from southwest France to northwest Spain across the northern Iberian Peninsula.

“I happened to hear about AIDS/LifeCycle from a new friend in the Bay Area, and it seemed like a really lovely way to become more of a part of the Bay Area and to support a cause that is important to me while also doing something that I enjoy,” he says.

Founded in 1993, the AIDS/LifeCycle ride has since raised more than $200 million with over 42,000 completed rides. The ride attracts over 2,000 cyclists and several hundred volunteers each year, with proceeds supporting HIV/AIDS services provided by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. The AIDS/LifeCycle ride also aims to destigmatise HIV/AIDS, support those living with HIV/AIDS and honour those who have passed away from AIDS-related causes.

Ben says: “I’ve certainly known people affected by HIV and AIDS. Growing up, we had a very close family friend who lived with us for a little while who was HIV positive, and so it’s something that is personally meaningful to me from that standpoint. Lots of people participate: there are cyclists who were very much caught up in the AIDS crisis of the 1980s in San Francisco. There are other people who have lost friends, partners, or children. Hearing those stories and knowing that I’m making a difference for this cause that means so much to these people is what I’m most looking forward to.”

While the 545-mile ride is perhaps the most strenuous challenge, it is not the only one that participants face. To participate as a registered rider in AIDS/LifeCycle, cyclists must raise a minimum of $3,000. Although this benchmark seemed daunting at first, Ben describes his fundraising experience as “incredibly gratifying”, noting that it has provided a way to reconnect with people who might be interested in supporting the cause, including friends in the Gates Cambridge alumni community. Having met the $3,000 donation mark early on, his goal is to raise $5,000 for the ride, a target that he hopes to meet by the end of the ride on 9th June.

Ben graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2012 with an MPhil in Advanced Computer Science. He is currently the Senior Product Manager at Instrumental Inc., a computer software company focused on machine learning tools to identify defects in assembly lines. He also serves as the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association Director of Membership for the West Coast USA.​

*To donate to Ben’s AIDS/LifeCycle fundraising goal, visit For more information on the ride, visit


31/05/2018 - 11:58A voice for basic human rightsSalma Daoudi will become the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from Morocco when she starts her MPhil in the autumn.

Salma Daoudi is interested in exploring social and economic rights as basic human rights and in how issues such as access to health and education get little attention because those most affected by them lack a political voice.

Her undergraduate dissertation was on how political power structures can impact how certain infectious diseases - tuberculosis, HIV and Ebola - are treated and can perpetuate structural violence against the most marginalised. “I was interested in understanding the political interests at stake and how a failure to address the root causes of health issues left the most marginalised more trapped in a cycle of poor health and poverty,” she says.

HIV was the first health issue to come before the UN Security Council and to be treated as a threat to peace and security. Salma is interested in how health policy became driven by fear rather than human issues - the fear that disease could create greater instability through increasing poverty and fuelling social unrest and that terrorists could use it to their advantage.

Salma, who is the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from Morocco, plans to continue her focus on health and biosecurity when her MPhil begins in October.

International relations

Salma was born in Rabat to two civil servants. She read a lot as a child, especially in French and English. Her parents were keen for her to learn languages to get a broad outlook on the world. She was drawn towards social sciences and languages because of her interest in understanding the world.

Salma attended a private high school at the time of the Arab Spring. Social sciences helped her to understand what was going on and gave her the tools to construct her own view of the situation. “There was change everywhere, not just in the region generally but in my own country. It was a really interesting time. It wasn’t just a historic event. We were participating in the democratisation process. It made me question a lot of things,” says Salma.

As she finished school, Salma was considering going to medical school. She spent the summer deliberating between medicine and international relations. She figured doctors could save many lives, but that addressing issues such as access to healthcare and education and gender equality could save many more.

So she applied to Al Akhawayn University, the only university in Morocco whose curriculum was in English because she wanted to eventually study in the UK, because of the quality of the teaching staff and because of the university’s exchange programme. Salma majored in International Studies for her four-year degree, taking a particular interest in international cooperation and development and business administration.

In her third year she spent a semester at  Binghamton University in the US which gave her a different, broader perspective on world politics. A lot of the theories she studied in the US addressed the situation in North Africa and she was the only student with “insider information”.

At the end of her third year Salma did  an internship at the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation where she worked on global multilateral issues with the UN and UN Development Programme. “I was interested to see how Morocco works with international actors to develop and empower Moroccan communities who are vulnerable due to their socio-economic conditions. Working there helped me to understand Morocco’s position and how it is trying to strengthen cooperation with several countries to promote human rights for everyone,” she says.

The experience also helped her choose her dissertation topic.

Social activism

As she was finishing her degree Salma applied to Cambridge to do an MPhil in International Relations and Politics. She will be based at Lucy Cavendish College. She was interested in the university’s focus on international law and security and the politics of the MENA region.

She was immediately drawn to Gates Cambridge with its mission of empowerment and focus on community development and social civil engagement. They are values she shares and which prompted her social activism. Salma did an internship at an association in Rabat two summers ago which involved teaching refugee children who could not attend school. “It was about helping the children get back to school and how education is a path to development, social mobility and empowerment,” says Salma. She has also worked on a project which involves improving disadvantaged families’ access to renewable energy so their children can study and has worked with high school students to educate them about the UN and give them the skills and confidence they need to develop a critical mindset about international relations issues.

Salma is looking forward to beginning her master’s and to deepening her knowledge of biopolitical issues and of how failing to provide for the right to health in complex civil war humanitarian emergencies in the MENA region constitutes an emerging security threat.

29/05/2018 - 10:46The State of ThingsGeorgiana Epure is fundraising for a new platform to educate young people about the politics that affect their everyday lives.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar is raising funds to start a unique educational platform that addresses shortcomings in citizenship and political education across the UK and other regions of the world.

Georgiana Epure [pictured] and three other Cambridge students and alumni - Matt Mahmoudi, David Orr and Luke Naylor-Perrott - are raising funds to start The State of Things which will address increasing political polarisation in the West and post-truth discourses.

Georgiana says: "A healthy democracy necessitates an educated population, who understand the political implications of their choices. Growing up I often thought that politics was about being loud on TV, about a certain person or a group of persons and not about important issues that affect my everyday life. In the absence of civic and political education, it was not until I joined the Students National Council when my eyes opened and I began to see and understand the politics behind different things like the educational system and started to connect the dots. Growing up, I remember wishing there was someone or something that made politics more relatable to me.

"We are worried that young people today are growing up without a fundamental introduction into the world of politics, where angry and polarised exchanges are considered ‘politics as normal’. We believe that a nurturing environment where young people can both learn, and create, political content, is a way of building bridges across the aisle, of cross-fertilising new ideas about what society and the good life should look, irrespective of ideological leanings.” 

The State of Things will be centred on three principles: accessibility, non-partisanship and engagement. The project aims to develop a website and a student magazine to increase young people's interest in and knowledge about politics by illustrating how politics permeates everyday life – from explaining the Fairtrade, agricultural subsidies and trade policies behind a morning cup of coffee to sexual and reproductive health policies that allow for access to and affordability of contraceptives. As the project develops, the founders envision the creation of fora for interested youth to engage with local politicians. They envisage this ‘day in the life’ approach will provide students with a more tangible understanding of political life and enable them to pose their questions to their representatives.

To get the project started, The State of Things team is now engaged in a fundraising campaign to cover the upfront costs of the project, which include conducting a series of focus groups with secondary school students in the UK. Donations can be made on the Pembroke College The Time and The Place campaign website.

Georgiana Epure graduated in 2017 with an MPhil in International Relations and Politics from the University of Cambridge. She is currently a 1+3 Economic and Social Research Council scholar at the University of Leeds, researching the politics of international criminal justice.



29/05/2018 - 09:38Predicting footfall at new venuesKrittika D'Silva leads research using Foursquare which can be used to predict the success rate of new venues.

How can new urban venues better predict their chances of success?

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have used the Foursquare platform to look at footfall in localised areas at particular times of day in order to better predict the success rate of new venues.The aim is to help new businesses have a better idea of the staffing and other resources they might need.

The research has just been published in EPJ Data Science.

In the past, start-ups have tried to predict numbers of customers by, for example, observing the numbers in local venues or venues at similar places.

The researchers, led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Krittika D'Silva [2016], used mobility data from Foursquare. The app provides personalised recommendations of places to go to near a user's current location based on users' previous browsing history or purchases.

Focusing on London, they looked at venue categories instead of urban activities and analysed how they became popular over time in order to create a framework which can predict how popular a venue might be on a weekly basis and a month after opening. The framework combines information from similar neighbourhoods and footfall at particular times of day.

By comparing areas of the city which have similar footfall patterns they were able to predict visitor numbers with 41% greater accuracy than if random comparisons of areas had been done.

Krittika [pictured], who is doing a PhD in Computer Science, says: "Our paper describes the idea of neighbourhood synchronicity across a city. Harnessing a city's dynamic properties could inform future urban policy as it provides valuable insight into how neighbourhoods change with time."

24/05/2018 - 22:43Exploring Andean prehistorySara Morrisset has been named a National Geographic explorer for her research into the Ica society of Peru.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has become a National Geographic explorer after winning a National Geographic Early Career grant.

Sara Morrisset [2016] won the $5K grant for her archaeological fieldwork this summer. It covers excavation work she will do in Peru as part of her PhD in Archaeology as she seeks to better understand the origins and rise of Ica society of the Peruvian south coast.

Sara's project aims to fill a gap in the understanding of different cultures in Andean prehistory as well as changes in Ica society through time. This includes clarifying the crucial beginnings of the Ica people
following the collapse of the Wari empire and exploring the later connections between the Ica and the Inca empire.

Although archaeologist John Rowe established the widely used master sequence for all of Andean prehistory based on the ceramics from the Ica Valley on the south coast of Peru in 1945, Sara says little is actually known about the origins of the society that lies behind the region's rich material culture.

It has been widely thought that, after the collapse of the powerful Wari Empire, the following 200 years were characterised by the wide-scale abandonment of settlements. The exact causes of this period of
abandonment are not known, but changing environmental conditions, specifically drought, are thought to have played a role.

Sara says recent research suggests that many Ica people did remain in their settlements. Moreover, she says the beginning of the Late Intermediate Period [1000-1476 current era] served as the foundation for a period of flourishing craft production and trade for the Ica people which contributed to their rise to power on the Peruvian south coast.

23/05/2018 - 10:05Exploring alternative forms of powerSandile Mtetwa talks about her research on alternative energy and her community project to empower young women.

Sandile Mtetwa wants to transform the energy sector in her country. Her PhD in Chemistry, which she will begin in the autumn, will investigate alternative energy sources which can produce and store hydrogen and could give Zimbabwe access to cost effective solar energy.

Her interest in clean energy was ignited during her undergraduate studies which took place at a time of frequent power cuts in Zimbabwe. “Some of the energy in rural communities is very toxic to human health. I wanted to focus on providing alternative means of getting clean energy which were not hugely expensive,” she says.

Sandile’s PhD builds on her MPhil, for which she also received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

Working at the nanoparticle level, Sandile’s research aims to create nanoparticle support-based composites with metal-organic frameworks to boost the lifetime of photo active materials and so increase power generation.

When she first applied to Cambridge she had planned to investigate using the metal-organic framework ZIF-67 to produce and store hydrogen. However, her supervisor said that it had a lot of problems associated with it which made it less efficient. He proposed using ZIF-8 instead which others in the research group were using. It is a more efficient, more stable material.

For her PhD she will use ZIF-8 in monolith form which she says will enhance its ability to perform any application.

While hydrogen energy is currently quite expensive, Sandile hopes that with more research costs will come down. She adds that a major hurdle to adoption of alternative energy which needs to be overcome is the vested interests of many in government and policy making in the fossil fuel industry. Since she has been at Cambridge, where she is based at Peterhouse College, Sandile has become active in African politics, she hosts the University’s African Society Africa over coffee monthly discussions on topical subjects. Since its launch in November she has hosted five sessions, ranging from the legacy of Winnie Mandela to the Libyan slave trade. She has also taken part in events at Cambridge to encourage more girls to take STEM subjects.

Empowering young women

In addition, Sandile runs the non-profit she set up as an undergraduate at the University of Zimbabwe. The Simuka-Arise Initiative is a university-based community project which works to empower young women. The organisation also works with young men who are encouraged to come along and discuss issues and join in campaigns and awareness-raising sessions.

It has three main strands: economic, social and academic empowerment of young women and partners with other organisations to ensure it has a greater impact. Women and children are either referred to the organisation or come through word of mouth and are offered financial, practical and educational support.

Sandile set up the organisation as a result of her experience as a single parent. She fell pregnant before she started university. At the time she was about to start a veterinary science course, but realised it was not what she wanted to study and that she preferred research into potential treatments to the world of hands-on medicine. She took a gap year and began working as a teacher in a local high school to support her daughter before returning to university to do a chemistry degree.

Sandile lived at home during this time and received a lot of support from her parents for which she is very grateful. She faced a lot of abuse and violence from her daughter’s father and as a result of that she met other young women in similar situations. “They were going through the same things, but unfortunately they didn’t have the support system I had,” she says. “They had no-one to turn to. I realised I wanted to provide that support system.”

While she has been at Cambridge, Sandile has focused mainly on strategic issues at Simuka-Arise, such as fundraising. She was recently invited to receive a Tuwezeshe Fellowship in London to raise awareness about gender-based violence in Zimbabwe. The Fellowship is sponsored by Comic Relief.

She admits that it can be hard working on building her non profit so far from home. She is in regular contact with the organisation in Zimbabwe through social media and coaches volunteers remotely. She remains ambitious about its future and wants to continue to build it so she is making use of her time at Cambridge to get advice and support from organisations which support social enterprises and start-up companies.

She plans to visit Zimbabwe later in the year for the first time since she started her MPhil. She is very much looking forward to seeing her family and in particular her daughter, now aged six, who she has kept in touch with through Skype and Whatsapp.

18/05/2018 - 15:52GSS navigates uncertaintyThe Global Scholars Symposium brought together international scholars to reflect on how to tackle 21st century uncertainties.

Scholars need to collaboratively design new institutions to tackle the crises of the 21st century world, the first Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court told the Global Scholars Symposium last weekend.

Luis Moreno Ocampo gave the opening keynote at the symposium, which was founded by Gates Cambridge and Rhodes scholars in 2008 and aims to connect postgraduate scholars and influencers from diverse fields and across the globe.

Under the theme “Navigating Uncertainty”, the symposium took place at Rhodes House, at the University of Oxford, from 11 - 13 May and brought together leaders whose professions and passions draw them towards uncertainty, or at least require them to engage with it on a regular basis. Drawing knowledge across many disciplines and themes, including the arts, science, business, political/social issues, and even mortality, the symposium aimed to provide useful tools and new approaches to dealing with uncertainty.

Day One included a Business and Economics panel which brought together speakers from the banking industry, entrepreneurship and academia and highlighted contrasting perspectives and provided rich content on universal basic income, business design and the future of banking and cryptocurrencies. Day One concluded with BNY Mellon Managing Director Lynne Marlor’s reflection on the challenges and opportunities new payment platforms and blockchain technologies have brought to the banking industries.

On Day Two, delegates reflected on what makes the human experience meaningful. Satish Modi, philanthropist and author of In Love with Death, spoke about the role of grief, joy, and humility in embracing life and its uncertainty. Meanwhile, the arts and humour panels collectively demonstrated the transformative power of artistic engagements for people combating trauma and loss through theatre and poetry. On the mortality panel, hearing from Hermione Elliot, end of life care provider, Professor Simon Dein, consultant psychiatrist, and Venerable Miao Lung, a buddhist Dharma teacher, delegates were reminded to connect with one another through recognising our individual mortality and vulnerability.

On the last day of the Symposium, Dr Michelangelo Mangano, senior physicist at CERN, drew vivid examples from his career to illustrate how navigating uncertainty is the bedrock of the quest for knowledge. In his keynote, Dr Mangano assured delegates that while uncertainty is typically a liability in human endeavours, the progress of fundamental science builds on uncertainty, as the main goal of science is to extend the domain of our knowledge into the unknown and the uncertain, and to quantify degrees of uncertainty of the understood phenomena.

Following his speech, the astrophysics panel led participants to contemplate the mysteries and wonders of outer space, while reminding them again of how humanity’s aspirations to explore the infinite universe has led to astonishing discoveries applied in everyday life. Cell phone cameras, infrared night vision, and satellite imaging and communications are among the many illustrations. In the afternoon, the Justice and Protection panel discussed the ways in which international society navigates challenges concerning responses to mass atrocities. Delegates were left to consider who gets to define what protection and justice look like and whether the states and the United Nations constitute adequate vehicles for safeguarding population from gross human rights violations. The GSS concluded with Romania-based journalist Laura Stefanut’s presentation of labour exploitation under the “made in EU” label, uncovering the ways in which women in Eastern Europe endure low pay, long hours, humiliating and gruelling work to make clothes for luxury Western brands.

GSS 2018 also provided 10 workshops led by Rhodes scholars and guest speakers. In these small group interactions, delegates explored in-depths topics including migration, #MeToo, algorithmic decision-making, strategic thinking, post-truth, universal basic income, policy advocacy, theatre of the oppressed, international criminal justice and philanthropy.

Since the inaugural symposium, the GSS has expanded to include scholars from 51 countries and nine prestigious scholarships and is now opened the invitation to all postgraduate students in the UK. The GSS is made possible by a generous endowment given by the John McCall MacBain Foundation, with the continued support from the Rhodes Trust and the Gates Cambridge Trust.

The GSS organisers stated: "The success of GSS 2018 attests to the value of bringing scholars from diverse disciplinary and cultural backgrounds. The GSS programme demonstrates the Rhodes and Gates Cambridge Scholarships’ unwavering belief in the generative power of bringing together young scholars and world leaders to interrogate important and fundamental questions."

The next GSS will take place in spring 2019 at the University of Cambridge.

17/05/2018 - 23:44For the love of artJulien Domercq talks about his experience curating a Degas exhibition at the National Gallery and his research into changing depictions of the Pacific.

Julien Domercq has just finished his first job curating an exhibition. The Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell exhibition at the National Gallery has won five-star reviews from the critics and been seen by just under 400,000 visitors.

Julien [2013] took on the curating role just over a year after taking time out from his PhD to take up a two-year entry-level contract at the National Gallery.

He had just eight months to bring the exhibition together. He says: "One morning in our shared office overlooking Trafalgar Square, Christopher Riopelle, the Curator of Post-1800 Paintings at the Gallery, turned towards me and said, casually: 'Would you like to curate an exhibition on Degas?' 'Let me think. Yes!' came my reply. It was such a unique, generous gift from someone who has been such an inspiration and a supporter of my work here at the National Gallery." It was a huge opportunity, but a very tight timetable. Julien had to decide what the show would be about and what works to display. He also had to write the catalogue.

He helped to convince the Burrell Collection in Glasgow to lend 20 of their 22 Degas works for the exhibition. Many were fragile pastels. Julien had to work with a panel of experts to determine which ones could be transported and how this could be achieved safely. This involved designing new crates and establishing a new transport protocol.

Julien also sourced some other Degas works and combined them with other pictures by the artist in the National Gallery’s collection to create a coherent narrative. “The extraordinary loan from the Burrell was the backbone of the exhibition,” he says. “It had a three-part thematic structure. We used the other works to reinforce the themes, creating meaningful juxtapositions which related the works by theme rather than by date. The aim was to show Degas as a painter who experimented across media, and across time too.”

He was very pleased with the response. “People loved that it was a relatively small exhibition which allowed the pictures to breathe,” he says. “I wanted it to be an aesthetic experience and to let the works shine. People got quality time up close with the works.”

Julien is passionate about making art more accessible and not only was the exhibition free, but he wrote the introductory essay in the catalogue, aiming to distil Degas’s life and work into an account which would have a broad appeal.

An artistic family

A love of art runs deep in Julien’s family. “My mother is convinced (and she’s probably right) that taking me to exhibitions as a six month old set me up for what I am doing now,” he says.

Born in Paris, Julien went to a Montessori school where he could decide what he wanted to do - which was to draw all day long. In Geneva, where his family moved when he was six, his school had children from 120 different nationalities and claims to be the first international school founded by the League of Nations. “It really was a melting pot. It was an eye-opening experience. I felt truly like a global citizen. I lived and breathed global citizenship,” says Julien.

At school, he followed a studio-based arts programme, was passionate about history, did a lot of theatre, ran the film club which showed world cinema and was involved in student governance. At the time he wanted to be a film maker and wrote to film director, producer and screenwriter James Ivory at the age of 16 to say how much he loved his films and how he wanted to work in the industry. Within six months he met James Ivory on a trip to Geneva. “It was a wonderful meeting of minds,” says Julien. Ivory became a mentor figure to Julien and the two kept in touch through postcards in which they discussed history and ideas.

Julien was not certain what to study at university and was torn between film and art history after attending summer schools in London and Cambridge. He also attended an open day at Cambridge where he met his PhD supervisor Professor Jean-Michel Massing and knew that he wanted to study with him.

When he got better results in his exams than he had anticipated, Julien decided to defer going to a university for a year. During his gap year he contacted James Ivory and was hired to work on the film The City of Your Final Destination with Anthony Hopkins and Charlotte Gainsbourg which was shot in Argentina. He had his interview for Cambridge the day before he flew to Buenos Aires.

Julien started his degree in Art History at Cambridge in 2007 and was based at King’s College. Over the course of his degree he was very active outside of his studies. He put together a comprehensive cataloguing system for the King’s College art collection; he re-established a student art collection programme set up by Duncan Grant from the Bloomsbury Group; he represented students on the King’s College governing body; and he was president of the Cambridge Union in 2009, doubling its membership through a drive to make it more inclusive. “It is such a benefit to partake in the Union debates which attract very interesting people. I was uncomfortable that it seemed to have turned into a private members’ club,” says Julien. One way of widening membership involved offering half price membership to students with bursaries.

The struggle to push for greater inclusion left Julien slightly disillusioned about politics and the compromises involved. “I decided to focus on doing something for the common good through something I felt I could truly master,” he said. He threw himself into his dissertation on artistic depictions of the death of Captain James Cook, the British explorer who charted the Pacific Ocean in the second half of the 18th century. “There are dozens of very different versions of Cook’s murder on a beach in Hawaii in 1779. It was an event that no-one witnessed,” he says. “One image [that of John Webber] triumphed and history has been written as if the most popular image was the truth as viewed by an eyewitness. It has become the accepted version of events and has created history.”

He continued his research for his master’s, looking more widely at the depiction of the Pacific in the 18th century and in film in the 20th century when there was a renaissance of interest in the region following Gaugin’s death in 1903.


After completing his master’s, Julien moved to London and started working in film, his early desire to be a film maker still lingering. He spent a year and a half working for a small politically engaged production company in Bosnia and the Middle East, covering the Egyptian revolution and helping to administer a film-making prize in Bosnia. The experience showed him how powerful art could be as a force for change, but it also convinced him he was happier watching and talking about films than making them. He missed art history so he applied to Cambridge to do a PhD, seeing it as the gateway to a career in the cultural sector.

His PhD, for which he was awarded a Gates Cambridge scholarship, focuses on the shift in depictions of the peoples of the Pacific in British and French art from idealisation to demonisation between the Enlightenment and the Age of Empire. “I am interested in the depiction of otherness and the power of images to affect how we understand people we have never met,” says Julien.

As he was coming to write up his PhD the National Gallery contract came up. He applied at the last minute and got the job. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse and Gates Cambridge supported his decision. He had anticipated doing his PhD alongside the role, but found it all-consuming. “Curating requires a tremendous variety of skills,” he says. “No day is the same. The learning curve is quite steep and I had very little time. It is the greatest job in the world, though.”

In his first year he worked on the post-1800 parts of the collection. He helped reorganise the 19th century display of the collection, rehanging the paintings, coming up with a new sequence and hang to explain the pictures and integrating the gallery’s more recent acquisitions within that order. Then in January 2017 came the offer to do the Degas exhibition.  

Julien is now keen to finish his PhD and carry on with a job where he has already made a significant impact.

*Picture credit: National Gallery

15/05/2018 - 16:25Scholars pitch their passionsThree Gates Cambridge Scholars and two alumnae took part in a Pitch Your Passion event last week.

The Gates Cambridge Scholars Council held an event last week to help scholars interested in education access and equality hone their pitching skills.

Pitch Your Passion brought the Gates Cambridge community together to exchange ideas and experiences.  Three Scholars - Sandile Mtetwa, Mike Meaney, and Jerelle Joseph - presented their projects and shared some of the challenges they are facing to alumnae experts Dr Sonia Ilie and Dr Tara Cookson who provided insights gained from their own work.

Dr Ilie is a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Cambridge while Dr Cookson is the Director at Ladysmith, a venture that helps organisations take action on gender data.

Issues discussed included scalability and meaningful partnerships were formed.

Sandile Mtetwa is a chemistry PhD scholar from Zimbabwe who founded Simuka-Arise Initiative. This non-profit organisation aims to empower young women academically, economically and socially.

Mike Meaney is an education PhD scholar from Arizona, USA. He sits on the board of directors of the Bring on the Books Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to increase the accessibility of books to low-income families by re-routing gently used books to those in need.

Jerelle Joseph, winner of this year's Bill Gates Sr Prize, is a scholar from Dominica who co-founded CariScholar. They aim to connect Caribbean students with some of Caribbean’s most prolific and accomplished academics and professionals in order to foster mentorship, sharing of information and guidance.

*Picture from the Ladysmith site.

09/05/2018 - 20:36Is pro-social behaviour good for us? Robert Henderson speaks about what led him to do a PhD in moral development and pro-social behaviour.

Robert Henderson is interested in moral development and in what encourages us to behave in positive ways towards each other.

His PhD in Psychology begins this autumn. “I am interested in what influences people to behave positively, in why people think the way they do and what makes them change their minds,” he says.

He says his curiosity about how social norms are established is in part due to him growing up as an outsider.

As a foster child Robert, whose birth mother is Korean, shared foster homes with mainly African American and Hispanic children. At high school in a small Californian town he was one of only five Asian students. In the air force his politics were more liberal than many of his peers and at Yale his background was different to many of his fellow students.

Robert was born in Los Angeles. He doesn’t know his father and hasn’t seen his biological mother since he was very young. He was taken into foster care when he was two and spent five years in different foster homes in Los Angeles until he was adopted by a family from a small agricultural town in North California.

Although he had had a disruptive early childhood, Robert was a very curious child, who got good grades despite finding the structured environment of school challenging. His grades improved as his home life became more stable, but that changed again when his adoptive mother divorced his adoptive father. Her new partner was shot when Robert was 14 and had to undergo multiple operations which Robert says changed the dynamics at home. The couple invested their insurance settlement in property, but it was just before the 2008 recession when property was the worst investment and they started to haemorrhage money. They lost their home and the other properties they had bought. Robert’s mother and her partner moved to another city. Robert was finishing high school and so opted to move in with a friend.  

Air force

He knew his grades were not going to be good and he felt he was not ready to go to college so he opted to join the air force. “It was another way to find a path to success and I felt I could do something good in the process,” he says. Robert served as an electronic warfare technician in several countries, including Qatar, Kyrgyzstan and Germany. His role involved doing repairs on defence and radar systems and tracking devices. Over the eight years he was in the force, he rose up the ranks to the post of debrief supervisor where he liaised between pilots and technicians.

As his contract was coming to an end, Robert considered what he could do. He didn’t want to stay in the air force on a long-term basis so he investigated college courses for veterans and came across Yale Veterans’ Association. He spoke to the vice president over Skype and found out about a two-week summer programme to prepare veterans for college which taught skills such as how to write an academic essay. Robert says the course gave him the confidence to email Professor Paul Bloom about his desire to study psychology. He now works in the professor’s Mind and Development Lab.  

He had taken night courses while in the military which earned him some college credits and these helped to win him a place at Yale. He says there was some element of culture shock when he got there due to the big difference between his social background and that of some of the students. Robert knew he wanted to study Psychology and after the first semester he asked to work as a research assistant in Professor Bloom's Mind and Development Lab.

Moral obligation

The research projects he is working on for his senior thesis focus on proportionality and punishment - specifically, whether young children believe punishment should be tailored to the moral transgression. “I am curious about the idea of punishment with regard to moral violations - what the punishment should be and how severe it should be,” he says. Another project he is working on looks at people’s sense of moral obligation to strangers. For both projects he compares children and adults’ perceptions. For instance, his research has found that young children distinguish between proportionate and disproportionate punishment; they also have a different sense of moral obligation than adults.

While he has been at Yale, Robert has also done research at Stanford University’s Social Learning Lab, studying social cognition with a particular focus on the ability to infer the emotional states of others.

Robert contacted his Cambridge supervisor, Dr Simone Schnall, because he was interested in her work on the role of disgust in morality and she encouraged him to apply to the university to do his PhD. He begins in the autumn and will be based at St Catharine's College.

He feels the Gates Cambridge mission matches his own interests. At Yale he has been working at a tuition centre for disadvantaged children who are having trouble in school. “It has been a very rewarding experience. I see myself in these kids. A lot of them do not have good home lives. Many lack confidence. I understand where they are coming from. They do open up about their lives and I can see them improving,” he says.

He has also been a mentor for a veteran who overcame a disadvantaged upbringing and found his footing in the marines. He is now at Brown. “It feels good to help other people,” says Robert. “A lot of people helped me. It felt like an obligation originally, but then I recognised the fulfillment it gave me and those I was helping. Everyone wins.”

His research is in part inspired by that work. “I want to gather empirical data to explore whether pro-social behaviour is a win win. If so, I feel this would encourage more of it. From the research I've reviewed thus far, it seems money is not everything - it is relationships which are more important,” he says.

07/05/2018 - 22:392018 Bill Gates Sr Award winners announcedJerelle Joseph and Arif Naveed win the Bill Gates Sr. Award for 2018.

Two Gates Cambridge Scholars have won the sixth annual Bill Gates Sr. Award in recognition of their outstanding research and social leadership.

The two Scholars - Jerelle Joseph and Arif Naveed - have been awarded the Bill Gates Sr. Award for 2018.

The Award was established by the Gates Cambridge Trustees in June 2012 in recognition of Bill Gates Sr.’s role in establishing the Gates Cambridge Scholarships, over a decade of service as a Trustee, and his engagement with, and inspiration to, many generations of Gates Cambridge Scholars.

The Award allows Scholars to recognise the impact and contribution to the Scholar community of one of their peers, with particular reference to the Scholarship’s selection criteria.

Scholars were asked to nominate a fellow Scholar for the Award by completing a 500-word statement about why that Scholar would be a suitable recipient. Selection was on the basis of how well the nominated candidates met the selection criteria while in residence in Cambridge. It is the third year running that the award has been shared.

Social leadership and academic brilliance

Jerelle Joseph [2014] is studying for a PhD in Chemistry and uses atomistic modelling to investigate protein folding. Her journey to Cambridge from Dominica was not easy. She had to overcome the loss of both her parents to continue her studies.  Even before she started her studies Jerelle showed her characteristic energy and commitment to helping others when she taught for a year at her old high school, staying up until 2am doing lesson plans and giving extra classes at school, including laboratory sessions. Jerelle was nominated for her outstanding academic abilities - she has published several papers while at Cambridge; her work as Social Officer for the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council for which her creativity and dedication were highlighted as well as her generous support for incoming scholars; and her absolute commitment to her country and to the wider Caribbean community.

During her time at Cambridge Jerelle and her husband set up CariScholar, nonprofit mentorship programme which aims to connect students with successful professionals and academics in the Caribbean. Moreover, following her term as Social Officer, she overcame her own personal grief at the impact of Hurricane Maria on Dominica and responded in exemplary fashion by setting up a charity event to raise money and supplies for the relief effort. This engaged a huge part of the Gates community and Jerelle flew back and forth between the Caribbean and the UK to deliver supplies and help with the relief effort.

One nominator wrote: “As a person, Jerelle is one of the best Gates Scholars I know. She is the rare example of a person who is able to be (and often is) the life of a party, but prefers to remain sharply independent of the crowd, never failing to push for her beliefs when necessary and never following any person or idea blindly. This, in my mind, is the mark of a true leader.”

Rethinking education

Arif Naveed [2014] is doing a PhD in Education. Born in a village in south Punjab in Pakistan, he started to question why he had done so well while other bright students in his school had dropped out of the education system. This question has shaped his career in education research, which has included working on an influential disaggregated multi-dimensional approach to poverty in Pakistan. His research asks whether a rethinking of education -  the curriculum, textbooks and their delivery - in Pakistan is needed to ensure it responds to local priorities and meets the aspirations of the citizens, and whether current schooling, shaped by the needs of colonial rulers, only adds to the dominance of existing elites.

Arif has worked with government, think tanks and the UK’s Department for International Development on education reform, specifically targeting the poorest, marginalised communities and girls. He is one of the lead designers of the Punjab Education Reforms currently being enacted in Pakistan with support from the UK’s DFID. These prioritise under-performing regions and aim at improving learning levels in more than 50 thousand schools in the province while also reaching out to 13 million out of school children. The impact of these reforms is greatly applauded internationally, with The Economist calling them exemplary for developing countries. He was co-author of an influential report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom which reportedly led to a significant reduction in the pejorative portrayal of religious diversity in public school textbooks in Pakistan. Recently, his work was adopted by the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund to prioritise the poorest regions for poverty reduction projects across the country.

While at Cambridge Arif has continued to publish academic articles and present his research at conferences and has co-founded a research cluster on Pakistan to explore innovative and critical scholarship on the country.

One of Arif’s nominators said: “[The Punjab Education Reforms] would not have been possible if not for Arif’s critical insights into institutional barriers to reform and regional disparities in educational performance. And this just represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of Arif’s policy impact. In 2015, the Overseas Development Institute invited Arif to author a report on Pakistan’s sluggish progress on poverty reduction under the UN-Millennium Development Goals, intended to inform the agenda for the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Through this work, Arif contributed towards a paradigm shift in the way poverty is conceptualised and measured by both the government and NGOs, by emphasising both the multidimensionality and geography of poverty. Arif has also played a vital role in textbook reform aimed at reducing pejorative content and negative portrayal of religious diversity in Pakistan.”

Arif has also been elected as an Executive Committee Member of the prestigious British Association of International and Comparative Education. In addition, he has served as the Gates Cambridge Alumni Officer and is part of a pilot intergenerational housing scheme in the UK run jointly by Cambridge Hub and Cambridge Housing Services. This involves him living this year in a home for the elderly. The success of the scheme has been covered in the news and it is expected to be scaled up nationally.

One nominator said: “Arif Naveed is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Arif is exceptional. He has built revolutionary reforms for poverty and education that will affect hundreds of millions of people. He has written the foundational texts on these problems and has produced very well regarded academic research in this field. And despite all of this, he still finds time to serve both the Gates community and the Cambridge community more generally. I know I speak for the vast majority of the Gates community when I recommended Arif for this award.”​


02/05/2018 - 16:57Day of Research 2018Twenty-five scholars are presenting their research at this year's Day of Research.

Twenty-five Gates Cambridge Scholars will take part in this year's Day of Research and will talk about research subjects ranging from childhood obesity to modern slavery.

The Day of Research takes place at Jesus College on Thursday and kicks off with a keynote speech from Professor David Runciman, a Gates Cambridge Trustee, on Doing Research in an Age of Disruption.

It will be followed by a panel discussion on The Need for Non-Communicable Disease Prevention: From Person to Population with Miriam Alvarado [2016], Rebecca Love [2015] and Alex Wood [2015] and presentations by Thandeka Cochrane [2015] on Children's Literature and the Degeneration of Familial Intimacy among the Malawi Tonga; Jacqueline Davis [2014] on toy colour preference among children in Peruvian Amazon and Vanuatu Kastom villages; Erica Cao [2017] on Addressing the Decline of Empathy: Music and Interpersonal Interventions; and Sharmila Parmanand [2016] on Duterte as the Macho Messiah: Chauvinist Populism and the Feminisation of Human Rights in the Philippines.

In the afternoon there will be presentations by Cassi Henderson [2015] on Re-thinking Biosensors for Low-Resources Settings and Michelle Teplensky [2014] on Treating Cancer with Nanocages as well as microtalks by Ben Geytenbeek [2016], Nathan Hawkins [2017], Andre Holzer [2016,  Yui Chim Lo [2017], Alice Musabende [2016], Annika Pecchia-Bekkum [2014], Colleen Rollins [2017], Jacqueline Siu [2016] and Mutum Yaikhomba [2017] on research topics ranging from the dynamics of African collective identity to why some patients with autoimmune diseases respond better to treatment than others.

The event ends with a panel discussion on The Politics of Memory with Margaret Comer [2015], Anna Forringer-Beal [2017] and Sara Morriset [2016] and presentations by Sampurna Chakrabarti [2016] on the role of transient receptor potential channels in acute inflammatory knee pain, Matt Leming [2016] on normative pathways in functional brain connectivity, Max Stammnitz [2016] on the origins and vulnerabilities of transmissible cancers in Tasmanian Devils and Joseph Wu [2016] on why physicians should sometimes manipulate patients. 

The Gates Cambridge Scholars Council, who organised the event, said: "We would like to thank our presenters and moderators for their time and energy; the Gates Cambridge Day of Research is singularly reliant on their work and engagement. The event has been a joy to organise, and we hope it will serve as a reunion of sorts, seven months after Orientation Weekend and shortly before many in the community graduate. We are very proud of the scope and depth of research conducted by our peers."

Photo of last year's Day of Research. Credit: Alex Kong.

01/05/2018 - 22:54Measuring well being in India's urban slumsRamit Debnath's PhD will focus on sustainable development of urban slums.

Over the last 30 years India’s richest city, Mumbai, has seen a rapid expansion, including a programme to rehabilitate slum areas by moving residents to new high-rise buildings, built on the back of tax incentives for developers.

Those buildings, however, are now under scrutiny as research is beginning to show the health impact associated with housing people in stacks packed closely together.

Ramit Debnath [2018] is one of those involved in this research and he has been a lead authors on several academic papers on the results. He says: “The stacks were built without proper planning and with no sustainable rehabilitation policy.”

He has used his engineering skills on a research project focused on the well being of those who have moved to the new slums. The project measured air quality, flow and temperature at all levels of the buildings with the help of thermal sensors and maps the number of visits residents have made to their doctors. It was found that people with less access to fresh air were more likely to visit the doctor, particularly with respiratory illnesses.

For his PhD in Architecture, which he will begin in the autumn, Ramit will be looking deeper into theories around urban rehabilitation and the associated engineering processes. He wants to develop a new definition of wellbeing for low income slum dwellers which includes environmental factors such as air quality and access to daylight.

The PhD builds on his master’s work at Cambridge and involves an international multi-disciplinary research team, which includes a Cambridge fellow based in India.

Ramit’s interest in urban science stems from a project he did for his master’s in technology and development at the Indian Institute of Technology [IIT] Bombay.

That focused on how to improve indoor air quality in kitchens in rural areas through a change in building design. Many kitchens in rural areas burn firewood, which creates a lot of smoke pollution. Ramit’s project involved mixed-method research methodology and he says it helped to expand his understanding of the complexity of low-income socio-technical systems. He modelled different solutions and gained the simulation and modelling skills he has since used in an urban setting. “I was looking at the same problems, but on a larger scale,” he says.

An early interest in research

Ramit, who was born in Kolkata, first became interested in research at secondary school. At the age of 15 he took part in the National Children’s Science Congress, having won the state and regional rounds, and got to meet the president. It involved working on a research project on water purification which involved doing tests in rivers in the hilly north-east region of India near where he grew up. The water system there is not well maintained and there is a lot of water-borne disease.

Ramit has a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering from Sharda University. His final year thesis was on the application of electrical engineering to sustainable development. The research involved monitoring faults in farmers’ pumpsusing low-cost ultrasonic sensors. His supervisor, who had graduated from Cambridge, was to prove influential when Ramit considered moving to the UK to continue his research. He also found he enjoyed doing a technical project that had social impact.

Ramit went straight into his master’s after finishing his degree in 2014 and from 2016-2017 he worked as an urban-system researcher at the IIT Bombay and spent some time at Stanford working on simulating conditions in the slum areas of Mumbai and investigating the linkages between public health and the slum built-environment. He was selected as a part of a global team to study the impact of globalisation on public health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and he also took part in ETH Zurich’s engineering for development summer programme where his team won first prize for creating an innovative carbon neutral low-cost construction material using algae.


He decided to continue his research and won a Commonwealth Scholarship to do an MPhil at the Centre for Sustainable Development at the University of Cambridge.

Even before he has started his PhD Ramit has had his research published​ in several peer review journals, including Energy for Sustainable Development, Habitat International, the Journal of Building Engineering, Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy and the Journal of Rural Studies.

While he has been at the University of Cambridge, Ramit - who is based at Churchill College - has been working on plans to develop a research and development start-up in India to advise on sustainable urbanism for low-income settlements.

He has also done a Judge Business School course in enterprise technology and says he is inspired by the work done by the Breathing-Buildings consultancy in Cambridge. “My goal is to build research and development around sustainable low-income urban development and to have a practical impact as well as keeping a foot in academia,” he says.

26/04/2018 - 22:10Constructing the futureRafael Dernbach's PhD studies future scenarios in documentaries and art films.

What does the future hold? If you rely on the media, it's a world ruled by vicious artificial intelligence, of walled communities and wars over diminishing resources. But does this dystopian view have to be the only image we have of the future? Could we not plan for different outcomes and scenarios? And what do these dystopian images reveal about our contemporary world?

Rafael Dernbach’s PhD focuses on the depiction of futures in documentaries and art films. Based on a detailed study of reflections on the future in the works of documentarists Harun Farocki, Hito Steyerl and Neil Beloufa, his research analyses how we construct the future through images, “pre-enactments” [depicting potential future events] and storytelling.

Rafael has sought to develop a theoretical framework for what he calls “anticipatory realism” about the different modes in which futures are constructed. Future scenarios follow narrative and pictorial rules and realities. Often, these constructions of futures are used by organisations and political actors for specific agendas. Rafael says: “Our society is more and more structured along predictive models and scenario planning. I am interested to see how film makers can convey a deeper understanding of social issues and power structures by exploring future scenarios which are neither wholly negative or utopian.”

Rafael [2014] hopes to continue to look at these themes in a film project he will begin after his PhD in Modern and Medieval Languages is completed later this year.

Early years

Rafael was born in Giessen, Germany, into a big Catholic family.  His father was the first in the family to go into higher education after starting work as a metal worker and later moving into Engineering. His mother had won maths prizes at school, but was not able to continue her studies after leaving school.

Rafael says their experiences and restricted opportunities have driven his interest in learning and in ideas.

From an early age Rafael wanted to be a journalist and he wrote regularly for a local newspaper, at one point having a regular column and attending weekly editorial meetings. With other students he transformed the school newspaper and, as editor then editor-in-chief, contributed to it winning best student newspaper in his state for two years. He also attended training workshops in student journalism, becoming a mentor for the scheme later on.

Academically, he excelled at languages and was fascinated by life sciences with their emphasis on observing nature. After leaving school, Rafael was keen to go to journalism school, but faced the prospect of having to do military service. He declared himself a pacifist, opted to do community service instead and ended up being posted to Chile to work on a project for disadvantaged children in Santiago. He describes the experience as a political awakening. “It was when I first realised I was white and came up against the white saviour mentality. I realised that it was very difficult to help people and more important to listen to them rather than imposing my own ideas,” he says.

Media theory

When he returned to Germany he decided he didn’t want to go to journalism school in Germany so he applied to a liberal arts college in the Netherlands, University College Maastricht, where he benefited from studying in an international community. The course in Liberal Arts and Sciences was very broad and covered everything from film making and philosophy to maths. Rafael decided to focus on media theory and philosophy. “It became clear that my interest was media theory and how the media structures our understanding of the world in broad terms,” he says. The three-year course included a semester at the University of California at San Diego in the visual arts department where he was taught by inspiring professors including Jean-Luc Godard’s assistant Jean-Pierre Gorin. He also spent a semester at Berlin Freie University studying philosophy.

Rafael’s final project was an ethnographic study of whistleblowers which centred on interviews with four whistleblowers, including former MI5 intelligence officer Annie Machon and Mike Gravel who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war.  “I was interested in what happened to whistleblowers afterwards, how the media reported it and the impact whistleblowing had on their professional careers and personal lives,” he says. Two of the interviewees admitted they felt it had been too high a price to pay.

The thesis helped Rafael land his first journalism job after an internship with a film production company. Initially, he worked as a freelance researcher on a small experimental programme called Electrical Reporter on German state tv.  The programme’s remit was digitalisation and net politics and it was the first in Germany whose material was produced under a creative commons licence. After a few months, Rafael was able to develop his own short documentaries. He stayed with the programme for just over a year while also writing for different media, but eventually longed to return to the world of theory. He was keen to explore how we can create sensible, ethical depictions of the future rather than scare stories so he applied to do an MPhil in Film and Screen Cultures at the University of Cambridge. From there he continued to the PhD.

Rafael, who is based at King's College, says Cambridge has provided a stimulating environment for his research. “The quality of the conversations and a diversity of perspectives have really enriched my research,” he states. “I have also benefited a lot from collaborations with Gates Cambridge Scholars and the generosity of the scholarship means I do not have to work alongside my academic work so I can focus fully on my research.”

Picture credit: Jasmine E. Brady

23/04/2018 - 22:44The hidden costs of a poverty alleviation initiativeTara Cookson's new book explores the unforeseen consequences of conditional cash transfer programmes.

Conditional cash transfer [CCT] programmes have a host of hidden costs for mothers, according to a new book by a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

Tara Cookson's Unjust Conditions: Women's Work and the Hidden Cost of Cash Transfer Programs follows poor mothers in rural Peru, documenting the ordeals they face to participate in CCT programmes which are aimed at poverty alleviation. CCTs have been championed by behavioural economists and the World Bank and praised as efficient mechanisms for changing poor people's behaviour.

The book says that while these programmes are rooted in good intentions for social inclusion, the claim that they are efficient is based on metrics for children’s attendance at school and health appointments. The book looks beyond these statistics and shows the gendered impact of the conditional aspect of the programme, which requires women to access education and health services on behalf of their children. 

Tara [2011] says, for instance, that the time it takes for women to get to the services presents its own challenges. She adds that services are often low quality and that the CCT money would be better invested in improving these. She states: "My hope for this book is that it advances a critical account of a well-intentioned development intervention that doesn't paralyse, but, rather, prompts difficult reflection and radical imagination for a more just future."​

The book, which is based on Tara's PhD research in Geography at Cambridge, is published in May by University of California Press and has been praised by reviewers. Martha Choe, former Chief Administrative Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, says: "Tara Patricia Cookson’s ethnographic research gives voice to the women who are intended beneficiaries living with the unjust 'shadow conditions' imposed by conditional cash transfers. This book poses compelling questions about identity, power, wealth, and justice and challenges us to take the 'time to listen… and identify … possibilities for meaningful change."

Tara is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia and is Director of Ladysmith, a women’s equality venture which she co-founded. It helps international development organisations produce, analyse and take action on gender data. 

*Picture credt: Ian Riley from Brentwood, TN, USA for Flickr.


20/04/2018 - 19:38International law for sustainable developmentHarum Mukhayer is the primary coordinator of a conference on international law, sustainable development and natural resources governance.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar is helping to organise a conference on international law, sustainable development and natural resources governance with world-class experts giving their views on recent trends, challenges and innovations.

Harum Mukhayer is the primary coordinator of the event on recent trends in the principle of sustainable use of natural resources in international law and the rules and practices of international law for sustainable resources management. The event consists of two panels and takes place on 27th April in Cambridge.

The first panel will discuss how the principle of sustainable use of natural resources, as expressed in the 2002 ILA New Delhi Declaration and the 2012 ILA Sofia Guiding Statements, is reflected in international law, how the principle is being expressed in treaty instruments and how it is being taken into account by courts and tribunals.

The second panel will address questions such as: What are the rules of international law for sustainable management of key resources? What instruments are proving most effective? How are the rules changing practices towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (”SDGs”)?

Speakers include Professor Dr Nico Schrijver, Professor of Public International Law at Leiden University. He is a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration,  President of the Institut de Droit International and a member of the Curatorium of The Hague Academy of International Law. During 2010-2012 he served as the president of the worldwide International Law Association and during 2008-2016 he was a member and vice-chair of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The event is being hosted by Professor Dr Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger. Senior Director of the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law and Executive Secretary of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Climate Law and Governance Initiative.

Harum [2016] is doing a PhD in Law on the role of international law in helping communities, in border dispute areas, access and use natural resources and exercise their transboundary right to food, subsistence and property.

For more information and to register, go to​ The panels will take place from 2-5pm on 27th April in the Law Faculty.

*Picture credit: Pine palustris forest by Sue Waters on Flickr
19/04/2018 - 12:55Scientific collaboration during the Space RaceRebecca Charbonneau talks about her research into the history of the Space Race and scientific collaboration during the Cold War.

The spectre of the Cold War loomed over Rebecca Charbonneau’s childhood. Growing up in a Cuban American family in Miami, it was something she was aware of from an early age. “I didn’t know anyone whose family had not been affected by it,” she says.

Living in Florida she was also very aware of space exploration and had visited the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral. She dreamt of being an astronaut. She would lie on her mother’s truck in her backyard in Miami and use her telescope to look at the stars. She read Carl Sagan and watched Star Trek. “Space and astronomy caught my imagination. There was a kind of spiritual quality to it for me,” she says.

It is fitting therefore that her PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science, which she will begin in the autumn, will look at the history of the Space Race. But Rebecca’s path to studying the history of science was not a linear one. When she left school, where she also excelled in art, Rebecca enrolled at Mount Holyoke College, majoring in astronomy.  

However, things didn’t go as planned. For health reasons she had to drop out and when she recovered several months later she was keen to study nearer to home. She transferred to Rollins College, a liberal arts college in Central Florida, but they didn’t have an astronomy programme. Rebecca thought her dream of space was over.

From art history to history of science

Gradually Rebecca [2018] started doing research in art history. Growing up she had loved to read popular science books. At one point her mother gave her some money to buy a book and she purchased Galileo’s Middle Finger, which explores the relationship between science and social justice. While on a research trip to Florence she went to a museum and saw Galileo’s telescope. “It was a lightning bolt moment,” says Rebecca. “I knew I had to study the history of science.”

She looked for “sneaky ways” to introduce science into her research. For instance, she studied portraiture in South Africa and how 19th century British armchair anthropologists made assumptions about people based on photos. “It was racist pseudo science and I was interested in how it influenced cultural perceptions of race and biology,” says Rebecca.

She travelled a lot during her degree and one of the museums she visited was the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. She instantly fell in love with Oxford and applied to do her master’s in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology there.

For her dissertation she studied international science collaboration in the Cold War, especially that between US and Soviet astrophysicists.


Her master’s was followed by a year at NASA's History Office and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory which helped to develop her knowledge of space history and allowed her time to work on her Russian.

Over the year she has met many of the older scientists who remembered the Space Race during the Cold War. “It was amazing listening to their stories,” she says. “Some of the people remembered things in a different way to what the documents said. Sometimes they just remembered wrongly, but hearing personal narrative enriched my understanding.”

Rebecca, who is a NASA Solar System Ambassador, spent the first half of her year at the History Office at NASA HQ in Washington DC where she helped to research historical questions related to NASA's history.

She is now working in the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's archives and is helping to transcribe oral history accounts from radio astronomers around the world.  She says it gives her a head start on her PhD which will address the history of the Space Race. At the same time she has been a guest lecturer on a Science in Society class at the University of Virginia. 

Rebecca has already published some of her research - she had a paper published in NASA's History Quarterly journal and an article on the British astronomer Caroline Herschel published in the American Astronomical Society Newsletter. At NRAO, she is helping her supervisor, Ken Kellerman, edit a book on the history of NRAO. She has also given a presentation at the European Space Agency's Space History Conference in Italy where she won "best paper for an ongoing project".

Rebecca chose Cambridge for her PhD in part because of its Nobel Prize-winning role in radio astronomy, the study of celestial objects that give off radio waves. She says: “My PhD will look at how scientists collaborated in the field of radio astronomy. Radio technology played a huge role in the Space Race and there was a lot of collaboration between the US and the Soviet Union. Scientists wanted to work with each other even in the 1960s. It is important to remind ourselves of the human connections maintained in times of war.  Interferometry techniques in radio astronomy require distance, anything between metres and continents, between the antennae, making international collaboration important. For scientific reasons there was a desire to work together to get the best results. It was driven by science.”

She adds: “So many things about the space race are applicable to today’s environment so it is important to question the myths around it if we want to make policy that is based on history.”




18/04/2018 - 15:08Democratising global trade and investmentTodd Tucker's new book, Judge Knot, is an accessible exploration of the complex issue of investor-state dispute settlement.

A new book by Gates Cambridge Scholar Todd Tucker describes the complex world of investor-state dispute settlement [ISDS] in an accessible way and looks at how global trade and investment can be democratised.

Judge Knot, just published by Anthem Press, is  the culmination of over five years of research and writing about one of the most successful (and controversial) aspects of globalisation.

ISDS is a legal system that has been included in investment treaties and trade agreements over several decades. Under these rules, foreign investors can legally challenge host state regulations outside that country’s courts. A wide range of policies can be challenged from anti-smoking efforts to environmental preservation laws.  Tucker says: "The system is unusual in international law. Most international courts only allow disputes between states. ISDS, in contrast, creates one-way rights: Corporations can sue governments, but not vice versa."

Since 1990, investors have launched hundreds of claims against government regulation. Tucker's book explains what makes the system tick: its poorly understood centuries-old origins, why corporations demand investment law solutions to political problems, how arbitrators supply these solutions and why the system lasts despite the many politicians and citizens unhappy with it. It builds on interviews with the arbitrators who actually decide the cases and offers what Tucker says is "a concrete alternative to ISDS that leverages what works about the system and discards what does not, so that international law can be more supportive of democracy and development goals".

Tucker [2012] describes it as an extension of his PhD dissertation in Development Studies and says it is aimed at political scientists, development economists and international lawyers as well as a more popular audience.

Reviews of the book have been very position. Time Magazine's Haley Edwards says it "may very well be the first book on international investment law that you can, in good faith, recommend to a friend." International lawyer Anne-Marie Slaughter noted that the book "rejects facile critiques of these processes from the right and the left, offering instead a thoughtful and imaginative set of prescriptions for democratising global trade and investment". Ha-Joon Chang, who supervised Tucker's PhD, stated: "If you want to understand the future of our economic world, you must read this book."   

The book is formally launched on 10th May in New York. Todd Tucker is currently a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and has previously worked at Public Citizen and Centre for Economic Policy Research in DC.

*Picture credit: bachmont, Wikimedia Commons.

17/04/2018 - 10:21Scholar is UK Alumni Awards regional finalistSrilakshmi Raj is named a regional finalist in the British Council's Study UK Alumni Awards.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been selected as a regional finalist in the British Council's Study UK Alumni Awards.

Srilakshmi Raj [2007​] was chosen as one of 63 regional finalists after winning a national award in the US in March. 

The prestigious international award celebrates UK higher education and the achievements of UK alumni all over the world. There have been 12 national ceremonies and the 21 regional award winners will be announced later this week.

Now in its fourth year, the award received thousands of applications from international UK alumni in a record 123 countries, representing more than 140 UK higher education institutions across the UK. 

At the national awards in the US three winners were selected following in-depth interviews with a judging panel. Srilakshmi won the Professional Achievement Award, which recognises alumni who have distinguished themselves through exemplary leadership in their professional field.

Srilakshmi is a human geneticist, currently at Cornell University, where she is researching how genetic variation acts in different environmental contexts to predispose to complex disease, particularly heart disease and diabetes. At Cambridge, where she did her PhD in Biological Anthropology, she researched variation of diabetes and obesity genes in different population groups in Karnataka state in southern India.

She said: “Going to school in the UK was the best decision I made in my life. Attending both Oxford and Cambridge transformed the vision I had for my career, ignited the passion I have for public health, and introduced me to life long friends and mentors. The experience is one that I will treasure for the rest of my life.”

The 21 regional winners will be profiled on the British Council's Study UK social media platforms and website. Global Award winners will be announced on 24th May. 

16/04/2018 - 20:52'Cognitive flexibility’ linked to EU referendum voting attitudes New study led by Leor Zmigrod finds correlations between cognitive thinking styles and support for Brexit.

A new study, led by a Gates Cambridge Scholar, suggests that the way our brains process everyday information helps to shape our ideological beliefs and political decision-making – including attitudes towards the UK’s 2016 EU Referendum.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge combined objective cognitive tests with questionnaires designed to gauge social and political attitudes in a sample of over 300 UK citizens, to investigate the psychological underpinnings of nationalistic attitudes.

The study examined differences in “cold cognition”: emotionally-neutral decision making based on attention and recall (as opposed to “hot cognition”, which is influenced by emotion).

Researchers measured the extent to which an individual displays a more “flexible” or more “persistent” cognitive style. Cognitive flexibility is characterised by adapting with greater ease to change, while cognitive persistence reflects a preference for stability through adherence to more defined information categories.

The findings demonstrate that those who displayed higher cognitive flexibility were less likely to support authoritarian and nationalistic ideological stances. They were also more likely to support remaining in the EU as well as immigration and free movement of labour. Cognitive persistence was associated with more conservative and nationalistic attitudes, which in turn predicted support for leaving the EU.

The research was conducted by scientists from the University’s Department of Psychology and is published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Voting is often thought to be an emotional decision. People describe ’voting with their heart’ or having a gut reaction to particular politicians,” said Leor Zmigrod [2016], lead researcher and Gates Cambridge Scholar. “While emotion is clearly integral to political decision-making, our research suggests that non-emotional cognitive information processing styles, such as adaptability to change, also play a key role in shaping ideological behavior and identity.”

“By connecting the realm of cognition with that of ideology, we find that flexibility of thought may have far-reaching consequences for social and political attitudes,” Zmigrod said.

All the study’s 332 participants were cognitively healthy adults who completed two classic evaluations of cognitive flexibility: a card-sorting task involving shifting categorisation by shape and colour, and a neutral word association task.

Participants also consented to providing responses to standardised questions on topics such as attitudes towards immigration and citizenship, and personal attachment to the UK. All data were anonymised and controlled for a number of factors including age and education.

Certainty and uniformity

With her Cambridge colleagues Dr Jason Rentfrow and Prof Trevor Robbins, Zmigrod constructed rigorous statistical models that revealed a tendency towards cognitive flexibility in the tests predicted ideological orientations that were less authoritarian, nationalistic, and conservative. This in turn predicted reduced support for Brexit.

“Our findings suggest that persistent adherence to a set of rules in a basic card-sorting game is associated with support for traditional social values and conservative political attitudes,” said Rentfrow.

The researchers also found that participants who reported greater reliance on routines and traditions in their daily lives, and who strongly favoured certainty over uncertainty, were more likely to prefer the traditionalism and perceived stability offered by nationalistic, authoritarian and conservative ideologies. Increased dependence on daily routines was also related to greater support for Brexit and immigration control.

Participants were asked about their agreement with post-Referendum political attitudes. Those who supported the statement “a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere” and opposed the statement “the Government has a right to remain in the EU if the costs are too high” exhibited a tendency towards cognitive persistence.

“The results suggest that psychological preferences for stability and consistency may translate into attitudes that favour uniformity and a more defined national identity,” said Zmigrod.

The researchers point out that the sample size is limited, and the correlations – while strong – are on general trends in the data. “Ideologies such as nationalism are highly complex constructs, and there are many reasons people believe what they do and vote the way they do,” added Zmigrod.

“In today’s politically-polarised climate, it is important to understand more about the psychological processes behind nationalistic and social attitudes if we are to build bridges between communities.”

*Picture credit: Philip Stevens and Wikimedia Commons.





10/04/2018 - 15:14Gates Cambridge Class of 2018 announcedThe Gates Cambridge Trust is delighted to announce 92 new Gates Cambridge Scholars.

Ninety-two of the most academically exceptional and socially committed people from across the globe have been selected as Gates Cambridge Scholars - the University of Cambridge's most prestigious international postgraduate scholarship.

The new Scholars, who will take up their generous scholarships in the autumn, are a very diverse group, representing 28 nationalities. Forty three are male and 49 female. They include the first Scholars from Gambia, Georgia and Morocco.

Sixty-six will pursue a PhD and 26 will study for a master's degree. The subjects being studied range from anthrax in cattle, multi-protein complexes and Argentinian cinema to how Syrian refugees negotiate their temporary status.

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship aims to identify and select applicants who are academically outstanding and are likely to be transformative leaders across all fields of endeavour.

Competition for the Scholarships is fierce. The 92 new Scholars were selected from a total pool of 5,798 applicants on the basis of their intellectual ability, commitment to improving the lives of others, leadership potential and academic fit with Cambridge. Departments in Cambridge nominated 423 candidates for the Scholarships and, of these, 201 were interviewed in the US and Cambridge by four panels of interviewers drawn from across the University.

Cambridge Vice-Chancellor and Chair of the Gates Cambridge Board of Trustees, Professor Stephen Toope, recognised the transformative nature of the Gates Cambridge programme and its excellent fit with the University. He said: "The Gates Cambridge scholarships are a perfect fit with the mission of the University – to make a real and significant contribution to society. They attract some of the best students from all over the world and from the most diverse backgrounds, and sustain a global network of leaders who will integrate the university’s values into everything they do. The class of 2018, including bright scholars from 28 nationalities, is a perfect example of the commitment to excellence and to leadership in the service of society that Gates Cambridge scholars exemplify.”

The new Scholars include:

- Valentina Ndolo from Kenya who will do a PhD in Veterinary Medicine, studying the occurrence patterns in Kenya of anthrax, a life-threatening infection commonly found in animals. She says: "Anthrax threatens food security and the economic productivity of Kenya. My study will apply mathematical modelling to develop risk maps to guide the activities of the government and other stakeholders involved in the control of anthrax in Kenya." Valentina has also founded the STEMing Africa Initiative to advocate for the active inclusion of women in STEM by supporting talented female graduates in STEM to secure scholarships for advanced degrees at leading universities worldwide. The initiative has won funding from UNESCO and the Forum for African Women Educationalists among others.

- Chris van Hooren, from the Netherlands, who will do a PhD in Biological Sciences and will study the structure of “two-legged” proteins that can physically walk along fibres inside human cells.  This will build on his master's research where he has been focusing on an approach that has only recently become possible – to study the structure of multi-protein complexes by cryo-electron microscopy. He says: "Visualising the structure of these large molecular machines is fascinating and can considerably aid drug development for     disease-causing protein variants." Chris is also a human rights activist.

- Erin Williamson, from the US, who will do a PhD in Social Anthropology. She will begin an ethnographic study of time and the value of hope among refugees and asylum seekers of Syrian origin. She says: “It is by focusing on the values of hope and the ideal good life that I expect some insight can be gained which situates refugees not as political nor as suffering strangers, but as morally evaluative humans distinctly and deeply informed by their unique cultural experiences.”  Erin set up a course on refugees at her university in the aftermath of Donald Trump's travel ban on refugees.

- Sharad Pandian, from Singapore, who will do an MPhil in History, Philosophy and Sociology of Science, Technology and Medicine. He says: "I am particularly interested in how developments in mathematical techniques, the invention of instruments, metaphysical speculation, and the discovery of facts in neighbouring fields came together to produce scientific progress and understanding." While he was an undergraduate, Sharad founded a Philosophy Society, helped run TEDxNTU and co-founded NTU World of Wisdom, a student-run think tank. He also served as the first General Secretary of the university's diversity club, NTU Kaleidoscope.

- Andrea Aramburu Villavisencio, from Argentina, who will do a PhD in Latin American Studies.  She will examine the complex interactions between disruptive kinships, affect and aesthetics in the feature films of Argentinian filmmakers Lucrecia Martel and Milagros Mumenthaler.  She says: "I am especially interested in asking how these films open up a broader critique concerning how we live together." For the last three years she has been actively engaged in several film projects, co-writing the script for the 2015 film El disfraz equivocado, which won the national short film contest in Peru and was shown at the Short Film Corner in Cannes.

Professor Barry Everitt, Provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust, said: “We are delighted with the exceptional quality of applications for the Gates Cambridge programme for 2018 entry. The Trust has selected 92 excellent Scholars from a wide range of backgrounds to pursue their graduate studies at Cambridge and we very much look forward to welcoming them to Cambridge and the Gates Cambridge community in October.”

Read a feature article about the class of 2018 on the University's website here. 

View the bios of all 92 new Scholars here.

09/04/2018 - 11:29The devil in the detailMaximilian Stammnitz on how he came to study Tasmanian devils.

One of Maximilian Stammnitz’s best memories at Cambridge has been his encounter with Tasmanian devils on a field trip to Tasmania in 2016. “There is nothing more exciting than examining actual devils in the wild – they are truly majestic animals!” he says. A major paper, on which he is first author, is published today on his research.

Stammnitz [2016] is doing his PhD in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine. Originally from “Germany's sunniest spot: Heidelberg”, he came to Cambridge to join the Computational Biology MPhil programme at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in 2014.

“This course provides fascinating opportunities to study biology through a big data lens, and to learn about vastly emerging genomics technologies from experts in the field,” he says. “The DNA-level expertise and collaboration at Cambridge surrounding topics of genetics, evolution, medicine and computational data analysis is breath-taking.”

It was a seminar by Elizabeth Murchison on transmissible cancers that caught his imagination, however, and he subsequently joined her group at Veterinary Medicine for a summer internship, and then as a PhD student and Gates Cambridge Scholar. The ultimate aim of his work is to save the largest carnivorous marsupial on the planet, but by studying the fundamental processes of cancer development in Tasmanian devils, his work could help us understand better how cancer develops in humans.

“I spend most of my working days behind a computer screen, processing and analysing large volumes of DNA and RNA sequencing data from Tasmanian devil tumour biopsies,” he says. “Occasionally, I also do molecular biology experiments in the 'wet lab', to validate our computational results or to establish testing protocols for the devils.”

It isn’t all about work, though. “Over the past year, I have been the captain of our university's Blues men's volleyball team and co-founded PuntSeq, a citizen science project aiming at cost-effective pathogen surveillance of our house river Cam's water,” he says.

“My biggest challenge of living here is to balance truly focused work life and quiet time with the many inspiring distractions that wait behind the corners of Cambridge's old walls. It’s a luxury problem to have as a PhD student.”

Maximilian says he is very indebted to the Gates Cambridge Trust for funding his research.  "The community of scholars in our programme is unique and features people who have their hearts in the right place," he says. "I’d genuinely wish to attend more of the many amazing social and learning-related activities happening all year round, such as the Learning for Purpose events which are organised and led by some students' immense voluntary commitment."

The Gates Cambridge connection has also prompted further interesting work. Maximilian is curently working with fellow Scholar Joseph Wu [2016] from the History and Philosophy of Science Department on a collaborative opinion article that integrates fundamental ethics and policy questions related to cancer drug trials in wild animal populations. 

You can follow Maximilian Stammnitz on Twitter @DevilsAdvoMax


09/04/2018 - 11:05Human drugs could treat transmissible cancers in Tasmanian devilsNew research paper on which Maximilian Stammnitz is first author looks at transmissable cancers in Tasmanian devils.

Transmissible cancers are incredibly rare in nature, yet have arisen in Tasmanian devils on at least two separate occasions. A new research paper, on which Gates Cambridge Scholar Maximilian Stammnitz is first author, identifies key anti-cancer drugs which could be trialled as a treatment for these diseases, which are threatening Tasmanian devils with extinction.

The research also found that the two Tasmanian devil transmissible cancers are very similar to each other, and likely both arose due to susceptibilities inherent to the devils themselves.

Tasmanian devils are marsupial carnivores endemic to the Australian island of Tasmania. The species is considered endangered due to devil facial tumour 1 (DFT1), a cancer that is passed between animals through the transfer of living cancer cells when the animals bite each other. DFT1 causes grotesque and disfiguring facial tumours, which usually kill affected individuals.

The DFT1 cancer first arose in a single individual devil several decades ago, but rather than dying together with this devil, the cancer survived by ‘metastasising’ into different devils. Therefore, the DNA of the devils’ tumour cells is not their own DNA, but rather belongs to the individual devil that first gave rise to DFT1 all those years ago. Remarkably, DFT1 cells can escape the devils’ immune systems despite being in essence a foreign body.

The DFT1 cancer was first observed in north-east Tasmania in 1996, but has subsequently spread widely throughout the island, causing significant declines in devil populations.

In 2014, routine diagnostic screening revealed a second transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils, devil facial tumour 2 (DFT2), which causes facial tumours indistinguishable to the naked eye from those caused by DFT1, and which is probably also spread by biting. However, analysis showed that the two types of cancer differ at a biological level, and whereas DFT1 first arose from the cells of a female devil, DFT2 appears to have first arisen from a male animal. For now, DFT2 appears to be confined to a peninsula in Tasmania’s south-east.

“The discovery of a second transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils was a huge surprise,” says Dr Elizabeth Murchison from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge. “Other than these two cancers, we know of only one other naturally occurring transmissible cancer in mammals – the canine transmissible venereal tumour in dogs, which first emerged several thousand years ago.”

In fact, outside of mammals, only five transmissible cancers have been observed, all of which cause leukaemia-like diseases in clams and other shellfish.

“The scarcity of transmissible cancers suggests that such diseases emerge rarely,” she adds. “Before 1996, no one had observed them in Tasmanian devils, so finding two transmissible cancers in Tasmanian devils in just 18 years was very surprising.”

In order to see whether the devil transmissible cancers are caused by external factors or whether the animals were just particularly susceptible to developing these cancers, a research team led by Dr Murchison analysed the genetic profiles of DFT1 and DFT2 tumours taken from a number of Tasmanian devils. The results are published today in the journal Cancer Cell.

The team found striking similarities in tissues-of-origin, genetics, how the cancer cells mutate, and possible drug targets. This implies that the two tumours belong to the same cancer type and arose via similar mechanisms.

The team studied the genetic and physical features of the tumours, and compared the two lineages with each other and with human cancers. In doing so, they identified an important role in the tumours for particular types of molecules known as receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) in sustaining growth and survival of DFT cancers.

Importantly, drugs targeting RTKs have already been developed for human cancer, and the researchers showed that these drugs efficiently stopped the growth of devil cancer cells growing in the lab. This leads to hope that it may be possible to use these drugs to help Tasmanian devils.

Biting on the face

First author of the study, Gates Cambridge Scholar Maximilian Stammnitz [2016], adds: “Altogether, our findings suggest that transmissible cancers may arise naturally in Tasmanian devils. We found no DNA-level evidence of these cancers being caused by external factors or infectious agents such as viruses. It seems plausible that similar transmissible cancers may have occurred in the past, but escaped detection, perhaps because they remained in localised populations, or because they existed prior to the arrival of Europeans in Tasmania in the 19th century.”

Why Tasmanian devils should be particularly susceptible to the emergence of DFTs is not clear. However, devils bite each other frequently around the facial area, often causing significant tissue injury. Given the important role for RTK molecules in wound healing, the researchers speculate that DFT cancers may arise from errors in the maintenance of proliferative cells involved in tissue repair after injury.

“When fighting, Tasmanian devils often bite their opponent’s face, which may predispose these animals to the emergence of this particular type of cancer via tissue injury,” adds Stammnitz. “As biting occurs on the face, this would simultaneously provide a route of cell transmission.”

The researchers say it is also possible that human activities may have indirectly increased the risk of the emergence or spread of transmissible devil facial tumours (DFTs) in recent years. For instance, it is possible that some modern land use practices may have provided favourable conditions for devils, leading to an increase in local population densities of devils, and to greater competition, interactions and fights between animals, which may in turn have raised probabilities of DFTs arising or spreading. Alternatively, early persecution of devils by European colonists may have additionally contributed to this species' documented low genetic diversity, a possible risk factor for disease spread and the ability of DFTs to escape the immune system.

The researchers also identified deletions in DFT1 and in DFT2 in genes involved in recognition of cancer cells by the immune system. This may help explain how these cancers escape the immune system.

“The story of Tasmanian devils in recent years has been a very concerning one,” says Dr Murchison. “This study gives us optimism that anti-cancer drugs that are already in use in humans may offer a chance to assist with conservation efforts for this iconic animal.”

The research was funded by Wellcome, the National Science Foundation, Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, Leverhulme Trust, Cancer Research UK and Gates Cambridge Trust.

03/04/2018 - 11:04The value of hopeScholar-Elect Erin Williamson talks about her plans to study the value of hope among Syrian refugees and asylum seekers.

Erin Williamson's first in-depth experience of academic research was certainly eventful. For her master’s degree she chose to research a Pentecostal Church in Appalachia whose services involved the handling of poisonous snakes, such as rattlesnakes. During her time researching the church a pastor died from a snake bite and she had a ringside seat at the fall-out, which included national press coverage and a Grand Jury case.

The practice of snake handling is based on a literal interpretation of a verse from the Bible about taking up serpents to show the strength of your belief. Erin says that only a small number of people in the church have handled snakes. “They put several around their necks and dance or preach with them,” she says. As they believe in the power of prayer, those who get bitten do not tend to seek medical treatment immediately and some have died.

Erin [2018] had planned to interview a pastor from the church, but the day she had been due to meet him he was bitten by a snake and died. Although access to the church community was usually heavily restricted, there were photos of the pastor dying and the story was widely covered.  National Geographic did a series about it and there was a Grand Jury case. Due to the National Geographic show and the church's argument that handling snakes was a religious freedom issue, the charges related to possession of Class I wildlife.  It resulted in the snakes being confiscated, a pastor being charged and the local church community falling apart. Erin had access to the church throughout this time and watched it all happen.

She wrote her master’s thesis about it and attended conferences speaking about what she had witnessed.

For her PhD she is tackling an issue which has also received a lot of coverage, but about which she hopes to provide more depth and analysis.

This autumn, Erin will begin an ethnographic study of time and the value of hope among refugees and asylum seekers of Syrian origin. She says: “It is by focusing on the values of hope and the ideal good life that I expect some insight can be gained which situates refugees not as political nor as suffering strangers, but as morally evaluative humans distinctly and deeply informed by their unique cultural experiences.”

Early years

Erin was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but when she was three her family moved to Germany where her father was working as an engineer. Erin attended an international school, but when she was four her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The family eventually moved back to the US where her mother died four years later. Erin’s family are part of a strong Church community who provided a lot of support and stability while she was growing up. She attended the local high school.

After being offered a full scholarship, Erin chose to go to Lee University, a private University which has historical affiliations with the Church of God, an evangelical Christian denomination, set in beautiful mountains in Cleveland, Tennessee.

She didn’t know anything about the Church of God and says it was a cultural shock to find people speaking in tongues and rolling on the floor during the regular chapel visits. There were prayers before every class and little diversity of viewpoint.  

She started college as an English major, but took a class in cultural anthropology in her first year which was led by a charismatic professor who arrived on a scooter wearing elk fur boots and a trucker hat.  He mentioned that he had ridden a reindeer in Mongolia. “I was converted,” said Erin. She switched majors and says that in anthropology there was a respect for other beliefs. She later learned that the professor had done his PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

Lee University requires students to study abroad. Erin chose to spend a semester in New Delhi where she worked with a mobile creche providing childcare to the children of migrant workers. The experience led to her transferring to a state university for a semester, but she found the university too big and impersonal so she moved back to Lee. While studying, she was doing research in digital anthropology and working as a teaching assistant in the anthropology department as well as on the student newspaper.

After finishing her degree she did her master’s in Social Anthropology at University College London and it was through contacts at Lee University that she was able to do her research on the Pentecostal Church. Lee also introduced her to Western Wyoming Community College where she got a job teaching an online anthropology and archaeology course.

Over the next two years she worked remotely both as a teacher and for a market research company as well as travelling. She taught for three months in Cambodia where she had a friend who was working in international aid. Erin has travelled extensively since her undergraduate days, around Europe, India, Turkey and Egypt where she worked with refugees and to Costa Rica where she worked as a photographer.

Focusing on refugees

It was while she was in Cambodia that Erin came up with the idea for her PhD. She applied and was accepted to Cambridge, but did not have funding so she took time to learn Arabic and created a refugee course at Lee just after news of the travel ban on refugees was announced in early 2017. She invited lots of guest speakers. The course was pitched as a Christian response to refugees, meaning church members felt they could take it. It included one session on Islamophobia. The course was very well attended. “For many people it was their first chance to hear what a refugee is,” says Erin. “It was a safe space to talk it through with refugees and immigration lawyers. It had a really positive response.”

Erin also designed a t-shirt for a refugee resettlement agency she had volunteered for. She showed it to the owner of the restaurant where she was working and she offered to sell it for her. Erin ended up selling around 1,000 t-shirts and raising around $8K for the refugee agency.

Erin’s PhD in Social Anthropology will focus on Syrian refugees in Turkey. Six years ago, when she was in Egypt she met two men who were escaping from Palmyra. It was the early days of the Syrian war and they told Erin and her friend about what had been happening and pleaded with them to get their country to help Syrians. “I was very young and did not know what I could do. They were desperate. That has stuck with me,” she says.

She adds: “So much of the discussion about refugees is focused on identity or resources, on the country taking the refugees and on aid. They are painted as something to be feared or as victims, as someone to save. But refugee status is only temporary. It is not an identity that lasts, although it is difficult to escape the label. I am interested in this transitional phase when the past is too painful to think about, the present is uncertain and the future is cannot be contemplated - and how humans navigate that.”

29/03/2018 - 07:45Gates Cambridge at the Hay FestivalElla McPherson and Tara Westover will speak at the prestigious Hay Festival in May.

Three Gates Cambridge Scholars are speaking at a prestigious literary festival in May.

Ella McPherson [2004], who did a PhD in Social and Political Science and is currently Co-Director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at the University of Cambridge, and Sarah Nouwen [2005], Co-Deputy Director of the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, are speaking as part of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival. This year is the 10th anniversary of the Series which brings University of Cambridge academics to a wider public audience.

Ella’s talk is entitled Digital fakery and its consequences. She will speak about digital fakery, which encompasses everything from fake news to fake apps, organisations and videos, and will argue that its consequences for democracy “arise not because we are duped, but because of what we do to not be duped”. Ella’s research focuses on  human rights reporting in the digital age.

Sarah's talk, Peacemaking: What's law got to do with it?, addresses the tensions between ideas of peace and justice and discusses emerging international norms in light of the challenges facing mediators trying to end civil wars.

Tara Westover [2009], who did her PhD in History, will also be speaking at the Festival. She will be in conversation with her former supervisor and Gates Cambridge Trustee Professor David Runciman about her memoir, Educated. The book tells of Tara’s experiences growing up in rural Idaho, raised by a radical, survivalist father who was intensely paranoid about government interference in the lives of his family. It has topped the US Amazon charts and been widely and very favourably reviewed.

Professor Runciman is also speaking in a standalone session at the Festival about his new book, How Democracy Ends. Runciman, one of the UK’s leading professors of politics, will talk about the current political landscape of the West, point out the new signs of a collapsing democracy and advise on what could come next.

Twenty-four academics from the University of Cambridge will speak as part of the Cambridge Series about subjects ranging from conspiracy theories and the history of islands to the future of MRI, human-like robots and how plants can think without a brain. To find out more about the Cambridge Series, click here. The Hay Festival runs from 24th May to 3rd June 2018 in Hay-on-Wye, Wales.

*Picture credit: Joseph Albert Hainey.
21/03/2018 - 19:55The science of flavonoids Scholar-Elect Vaithish Velazhahan has been researching the mechanisms by which flavonoids protect human health.

It has been established for some time that eating fruit and vegetables is good for your health and can protect people from a range of illnesses, including some forms of cancer.

However, the way they do this is little understood. Vaithish Velazhahan's research seeks to establish how flavonoids -  a diverse group of phytonutrients (plant chemicals) found in almost all fruits and vegetables - protect human health. He says: "We know that flavonoids are good against cancer and other illnesses, but we are not using all their beneficial properties because we do not understand the mechanisms by which they work at a molecular level. This can help us create new drugs which work more efficiently."

Vaithish [2018] is currently completing two degrees - in medical biochemistry and microbiology - at Kansas State University before he starts his PhD at the University of Cambridge. While doing his undergraduate degrees, he is working at Kathrin Schrick's laboratory which focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms that govern how plant cells differentiate.

His research is aided by two major scholarships - $15,000 from the National Science Foundation for research on ecological genomics and $7,000 from the National Institutes of Health Kansas IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence Scholarship-  both of which allowed him to pursue independent projects. 

Vaithish initially focused on plant genetics and in particular on the transcription factors which turn genes off and on. However,  his main interest was in applying plant research to humans so he looked around for a project which would combine plant biology and human health. That was the seed for his subsequent research on flavonoids.  Many previous studies on flavonoids' protective role have focused on animal models. Vaithish's research investigates specifically the hypothesis that flavonoids might directly interact with heat shock transcription factors in humans. 

To study the different chemistry of proteins, he had to teach himself a lot of techniques from structural biology and protein biochemistry. These techniques had not previously been used in his laboratory so he had to work with scientists from other laboratories who had access to cutting edge tools. This independence and dedication is paying off. 

In his research to date Vaithish has uncovered two mechanisms through which flavonoids work. "It is very exciting work," he says. 

A passion for global health

Vaithish was born in Kansas in the US, but when he was one his parents moved back to Tamil Nadu in India. His father, a plant pathologist, was a postdoctoral associate at Kansas State University. At school Vaithish was always interested in learning how things worked. Having witnessed every day the impact of patients not having access to medical treatment, he decided that he wanted to become a doctor so he could change things.  He graduated from school as the top student in his year and in the top 1% in the state, but discovered that, having been born in the US, he could not go to medical school in India. “It was totally unexpected,” says Vaithish. He decided to move back to Kansas to attend Kansas State University.

In addition to his research, Vaithish has been involved in a lot of extra-curricular activities, including MEDLIFE [Medicine Education and Development for Low Income Families Everywhere]. He was Vice President of the Kansas State University chapter of MEDLIFE for a year and worked in Peru and Ecuador with the non-profit's founder on some of its programmes. He was motivated in large part by his experiences in India and his desire to make a difference. Working in Latin America spurred Vaithish to start up his own non-profit, WE SAVE, in August 2016. It works in India and its focus is on teaching school children about the importance of vaccination programmes and working in collaboration with medical doctors in India. The organisation is now working on creating a mobile app to connect doctors better with patients who need access to healthcare urgently. "The aim is to create a network of doctors who can share the burden of treating people," says Vaithish, The app is being trialled in a small town in Tamil Nadu. WE SAVE has five people working on the ground in India and the pilot aims to expand to other areas of India in the summer. Vaithish's ultimate goal, however, is more ambitious - he wants to improve access to medicine globally.

During his PhD in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB), he will use electron cryo-microscopy to try to understand the structures of key membrane proteins called G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) that help cells communicate with an organism's environment. Vaithish says: "More than 40 percent of all commercially available drugs target these proteins, so it is very important to understand their structures to design new drugs to treat a variety of human diseases." 

He was drawn to the University of Cambridge because of Dr Christopher Tate's cutting-edge work on GPCRs and the pioneering work on electron cryo-microscopy under Nobel Laureate Richard Henderson.   Vaithish is the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from his university. He says the Scholarship matches his mindset, goals and his passion for global health.

20/03/2018 - 00:23Global Scholars Symposium opens for applicationsKeynote speakers include Luis Moreno Ocampo, Former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

This year's Global Scholars Symposium (GSS) will feature keynote addresses by the former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and the UN Secretary General's Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The Symposium, which takes place from 11th to 13th May, has become an annual event ever since it was first set up by Gates Cambridge Scholars in 2008. Now funded by the Rhodes and Gates Cambridge Scholarships, among others, it brings together international postgraduate scholars in the UK.

This year's event will be held at Rhodes House, at the University of Oxford and the theme is "Navigating Uncertainty” - from socio-political to economic uncertainty sparked by current conflict to the political unease across the globe.

The organisers state: "In an effort to unpack and to find innovative approaches to engage with uncertainty, we have invited speakers who deal with this as part of their daily work, research, and endeavours. As they share creative and indeed positive approaches to navigating uncertainty, we hope to glean new ways to embrace and capitalise on uncertainty in our own lives and pursuits."

The symposium is now open to delegates, who do not need to be funded scholars, but need to be enrolled on a Master’s course or PhD.

Confirmed keynote speakers include:

Luis Moreno Ocampo – Former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court

Pramila Patten – UN Secretary General Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

Satish Modi – Author of In Love with Death, Chairman of Modi Global Enterprise

Michelangelo Mangano – A theoretical physicist at CERN

Lynne Marlor – Managing Director of The Bank of New York Mellon

*For additional information on keynotes, panels, and resources, click here. The deadline for delegate application is 10th April 2018. The conference fee is £35 and includes coffee breaks and lunch for all three days. To apply, please fill in this form:

15/03/2018 - 12:14The history of foodScholar-Elect Emelyn Rude will be researching how fish stock collapses have affected eating habits & communities.

How do eating habits change through history? Why do we eat what we eat? And what is the impact when a community’s traditional food stocks collapse?

Emelyn Rude [2018] is fascinated by the history of food. Her PhD, which she begins in the autumn, will focus on how past fish stock collapses have impacted national eating habits and their effect on local fishing communities.

The research will bring together several of Emelyn’s interests - food, history and the marine environment. Emelyn is a rescue scuba diver and has seen the impact of coral bleaching first hand.

Her PhD builds on her undergraduate thesis on the history of chicken which she later turned into a book, "Tastes Like Chicken: a History of America's Favourite Bird".

The thesis came about after a professor at Harvard, where she did her undergraduate degree mentioned in passing that chicken was “an incredible piece of technology”. “That stuck with me,” she said.

She was interested in how attitudes to eating chicken had changed over time. In the 1920s chicken was not even perceived as a meat in the US. It was regarded as a ‘woman’s’ food and something for the sick and weak in the 1920s. In the 1920s, only 10 pounds of chicken per person per year were eaten in the US. That figure is now 90 pounds per person. Emelyn says: “The rising popularity of chicken has been the most dramatic revolution in US eating habits.”

Her thesis won a lot of praise and suggestions she should write a book on the subject. It was not until two years later when she had some experience of working with chefs under her belt that Emelyn signed her book contract.

For the book she went through the archives of Cornell professor Robert C. Baker who invented chicken nuggets and the 1948 Chicken of Tomorrow contest which aimed to create a breed of chicken that would grow bigger and faster.

The book came out in 2016 and was promoted by Amazon as one of their books of the month. Emelyn was invited to give a fried chicken tour in Louisville, Kentucky and was interviewed for a documentary called Holy Bird. "The perks of being the world's premier chicken historian," she jokes.

Developing an interest in food

Emely was born in Fresno, California, but the first few years of her life were spent in Islamabad, Pakistan, where her parents, who were agricultural economists, were posted. At age six she moved to Jakarta, Indonesia. The family then moved to Washington DC when she was 10.

At school Emelyn liked history, but was also very good at maths, taking an advanced class in multivariable calculus on her own.  She started Harvard thinking she would take maths, but she didn’t enjoy the maths class so she took social sciences classes, including one on the history of diatetics. It proved a turning point and led her to refocus on history. Emelyn also joined the food literacy project and organised events aimed at getting students more interested in food issues.  She was also business director of a radio station where she did a 5am hip hop show and won a National Geographic Explorer grant to study the tensions between environmental protections and economics in East Timor.

After graduation, Emelyn began an internship with well-known chef Marcus Samuelsson in New York. He specialises in Swedish Ethiopian soul food and runs a popular restaurant in Harlem called the Red Rooster where customers have included the Obamas and members of the Swedish royal family. Emelyn was offered a permanent post as operations assistant after the internship and stayed for just over a year. She then worked for an Israeli chef doing media and events and began work on her book. She quit her job in May 2015 to focus on finishing her book and to go backpacking in the Balkans and China for a year.


When she returned she did some food writing and worked with a cook book author, but she wanted to do more research. She applied to Cambridge for her MPhil as she was interested in the work the university was doing on economic and social history. The course, which she is still completing has given her a good theoretical framework in social theories and has set the groundwork for her PhD.

While she has been at Cambridge Emelyn has not given up on her food writing career. She published the first edition of a magazine on the history of food called Eaten. “I wanted to write for something that would talk about food history in an accessible way which was accurate, good history. There was nothing around,” she says. She set up the magazine through a Kickstarter campaign with the help of a contact who had interviewed her for a podcast about the history of chicken. The first issue came out in November and the next will be out in April. 

She is looking forward to beginning her PhD as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. “It has a great reputation. I am very excited and honoured to be part of this programme,” she says.

13/03/2018 - 22:46A day of engagementSixty Gates Cambridge Scholars have taken part in this year's Day of Engagement.

Sixty Gates Cambridge Scholars took part in this year's Day of Engagement in early March.

Joined by five guests, they worked with six local and two international charities on 11 different projects. The charities involved included Bounce! which works with disadvantaged children, Romsey Mill which creates opportunities for change with young people, children and families in Cambridgeshire, the homeless charity Wintercomfort, LinkAges which works with the elderly and CamCRAG Project, an organisation for refugees.

The activities the scholars took part in included sewing blanket ponchos for refugees - almost 20 ponchos were sewn by scholars. They also researched more sustainable waterproof material for ponchos.

At Zooinverse, a citizen science web portal owned and operated by the Citizen Science Alliance, they analysed data for three different projects. Scholars working with Edible Garden put up a shed and raised beds for a community garden.

At Romsey Mill  and Wintercomfort scholars decorated and cleaned the charities' buildings.

At Cambridge Hub, a student-led organisation dedicated to volunteering and community opportunities, they transcribed interviews linked to the 'Breaking the Silence' project which aims to end all forms of sexual misconduct at the University of Cambridge; at the Cogwheel Trust, which provides counselling and psychotherapy support for people in Cambridgeshire, they researched possible business partners; and at Street Child UK they conducted data analysis.

Mine Koprulu, Gates Council Community Officer, said: "We are at Cambridge as Gates Scholars because we are willing to improve the lives of others. In addition to the things we all do on a daily basis, the Annual Day of Engagement provides an opportunity for us to come together and give back to our local community."

*Picture of scholars at the CamCRAG Project.

13/03/2018 - 09:18Scholar wins Chemistry prize at British ParliamentMichelle Teplensky has won the Silver Award at STEM for BRITAIN.

Gates Cambridge Scholar Michelle Teplensky won a Silver Award at the STEM for BRITAIN event at the UK Parliament on Monday.

STEM for BRITAIN aims to encourage, support and promote Britain's early-stage and early-career research scientists, engineers, technologists and mathematicians.  It gives scientists the chance to go to Parliament and be in the company of MPs, policymakers and key figures from the world of science policy, as well as other young researchers from around the country. 

Michelle [2014] won the £1,250 award in the  Physical Sciences (Chemistry) section for her poster  Metal-Organic Frameworks as a Tool for Therapeutic Delivery. She is doing a PhD in Chemical Engineering, working in the Adsorption and Advanced Materials Group, supervised by Dr David Fairen-Jimenez.

Michelle presented her research to dozens of politicians and a panel of expert judges. Her poster showed the benefits of using Metal-Organic Frameworks as a tool for therapeutic delivery because of their ability to extend therapeutic release time and avoid the "burst release effect"; protect the therapeutic from degradation; and be a biocompatible system because of their natural biodegradation.

She said: “The initiative caught my eye because I was intrigued by the idea that I could interact with someone in government and show that the application of our research is really connected to everyone – it's not something you need to be an expert to understand.”​

02/03/2018 - 17:27Changing the face of poverty through gender equalitySarah Hendriks delivered this year's Gates Cambridge Annual Lecture on how gender equality can change the face of poverty.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has identified the main barriers to equality for women and is working to tackle these in a bid to change the face of poverty.

Giving this year’s Gates Cambridge Annual Lecture, Sarah Hendriks, Director of Gender Equality at the Foundation, said the Foundation had spent the last year sifting through the evidence and working with partner organisations “to bring greater focus and clarity” on what was holding women back and how progress could be made. 

The lecture, entitled What if...Gender equality could change the face of poverty?, gave the audience the first preview of the Foundation’s findings before they were launched for International Women’s Day.

Hendriks outlined to the audience how boosting women’s economic position would have wider social and health benefits for society, including intergenerational effects. She said research showed that women were more likely to invest any extra money they earned in improving the overall welfare of their households. Health and wellbeing gains transferred to their daughters who were less likely to have children at a very young age and more likely to work if they saw their own mothers working.

She outlined 13 elements which had the strongest impact on gender equality. Seven of these were key to driving change even if no one country followed the same process of empowerment. They were unpaid care work, education, financial inclusion, opportunities for decent work, delayed marriage, property and assets and family planning. The Foundation has been looking at the role it can play in advancing women’s economic empowerment and will focus on areas that hold the greatest potential for bringing change to the lives of low-income women and girls.

Impatient optimist

Hendriks said gender equality was “the driving engine of development”. Women and girls shouldered the burden of poverty, she said. They suffered first, suffered worst and recovered the last from economic downturns.

She pointed out how this inequality started from birth with girl infants less likely to survive than boys. She said unpaid care work disproportionately fell on women’s shoulders and, if it was paid, it was estimated that it would account for 13% of GDP. Although care work was vital for people’s survival, it often went uncounted and unvalued, said Hendriks. Women did three times more of this work on average than men, with women in South Asia doing 6.5 times more of this work than men. This shaped their economic lives and futures.

Hendriks highlighted how the gap between girls and boys widened at puberty due to caring responsibilities impacting on education. They were more unlikely to enter the workforce. When they had children they earned less than men.

Women had deeper, but less broad social networks than men which reduced their access to economic markets and health information.  Hendriks referenced research showing how girls’ community area - the places where they felt safe - shrank dramatically as they got older while the opposite was true for boys. That made them more disconnected from each other and the services that could help them.

Hendriks also detailed how women often lacked a bank account and had trouble accessing capital. That meant they were often stuck in low growth, home-based enterprises. Laws over land ownership and inheritance were biased against women and they faced barriers to accessing justice. 

It is calculated that gender equality could add $11 trillion to global GDP annually by 2025. Although reaching that equality is extremely challenging, Hendriks said she was optimistic because of the groundswell of interest in gender equality as a means to address sustainable development and poverty reduction. She added that the Sustainable Development Goals marked “a clear turning point” with their pledge to end gender inequality by 2030 and to address the underlying causes of inequality. That required a coherent plan that was evidence based.

Hendriks outlined the highlights of the first ever gender strategy by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that is being launched this week.  The focus of this strategy is to transform the way women participate in economies – with the understanding that taking charge of their economic future is one of the most profound ways for women to exercise power over their lives.  Hendriks says this work will help more than 63 million women not only access and use digital bank accounts but make their own decisions about spending, saving, and building their own financial futures. It also aims to support the production of richer data and evidence to identify the most effective ways to ensure that low income women can participate more fully in the economy. Hendriks added that it would also expand what works among "self-help groups" to empower women, including younger segments of women, in India and Africa, to chart a better future for themselves and their families as well as supporting a deeper understanding of how economic assets can increase the opportunity of women, particularly those in the agriculture sector, to find work which is not on her farm and is outside of the home.

Hendriks finished by saying: “I am impatiently optimistic that we will have a more equal future which will unlock the potential for all people.”

*Watch Sarah Hendriks' lecture here. Picture credit: Sarah Hendriks with Gates Cambridge Provost Professor Barry Everitt.

02/03/2018 - 10:45The race to be first with a new MRI scanSurrin Deen speaks about his research into hyperpolarized MRI and its importance for the early detection of cancer.

It’s not every PhD researcher who becomes involved in a race to be the first in Europe to use a new technique which could have a major impact on healthcare, but Surrin Deen’s work on hyperpolarized MRI - a new, more detailed MRI scan - provided just that experience.

Hyperpolarized MRI can increase scientists' ability to detect the breakdown products of glucose in cancer by more than 10,000 fold. Surrin says it can diagnose very early stage cancers, improving treatment outcomes, and also help scientists to better understand the biology of cancer and other diseases.

Over the course of his PhD, Surrin’s team overcame challenges like securing a reliable supply of carbon 13-labelled molecules and developing methods to ensure that the sterility of the molecules was not compromised during human imaging. A large initial part of his PhD was dedicated to designing the research study protocol and applying for ethical approval to inject and image carbon 13-labelled molecules in humans.

Surrin’s mixed background in medicine and physics helped him to link the multidisciplinary technological and medical aspects of the project. “My role was to co-ordinate the efforts of a large team of physicists, engineers, oncologists and surgeons to ensure we could test the imaging process on humans as early on as possible,” he says.

Once the equipment was ready, there was a race to be the first team to use it successfully on humans to detect cancer. In March 2016 Cambridge became the first site outside of North America to successfully image a human with hyperpolarized carbon-13 MRI.

Surrin’s PhD is now focusing on the application of hyperpolarized MRI - as well as sodium and diffusion MRI - to ovarian cancer. He says: "Individual patients respond differently to the same treatment and hyperpolarized imaging can help physicians provide more personalised care and avoid treatment side effects. For example, we can image a patient the day after the start of their chemotherapy to evaluate if the drug we have given is having any effect. Based on this information we can then either immediately switch to a more effective therapy or continue with the same treatment. Before hyperpolarized imaging this information would not have been available until weeks or months later meaning that a patient could be given an ineffective therapy for a long time without anyone realising it and during which time the cancer would continue to spread."


From an early age Surrin [2014] has been keen to put his ability in Maths and Physics to practical use. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Surrin excelled at Maths. During his mid-teens he represented his country at the International Mathematical Olympiads in Greece and Mexico. His early educational experiences made him realise the benefit that could come from applying Mathematics and Physics to healthcare and he felt that radiology was the speciality in medicine that could make the best use of technology to improve the lives of patients.

He was awarded a scholarship for undergraduate studies in medicine at King’s College London and also completed a one-year Bachelor’s Degree in Medical Physics and Bioengineering at University College London. Following his medical degree, Surrin worked in vascular surgery, interventional radiology and emergency medicine at Royal Oldham Hospital where he gained his unrestricted licence to practice medicine.

He then contacted his current supervisor Ferdia Gallagher about his interest in radiology and was introduced to the hyperpolarized MRI project that he began working on as a PhD student in 2014. Surrin is now in the process of writing up his PhD thesis and applying for jobs to further his career in radiology. He says he is keen to continue his involvement in research alongside working as a clinical radiologist.


01/03/2018 - 11:22What does it mean to be educated?Tara Westover spoke to Professor David Runciman at the launch of her memoir, Educated.

Education should be about getting access to different ideas and perspectives that challenge received views, but too often it is about similarly wealthy people with like-minded ideas getting together to decide how the world is, according to author and Gates Cambridge Scholar Tara Westover.

Tara [2009] was speaking at the launch of her memoir Educated which tells of her experiences growing up in rural Idaho, raised by a radical, survivalist father who was intensely paranoid about government interference in the lives of his family. The book has topped the US Amazon charts and been widely and very favourably reviewed. Comedian Stephen Fry commented: “There is no feeling like discovering a young writer who is springing up fully armed with so much talent.”

The launch event held in St John’s College, Cambridge, on Wednesday night saw Tara in conversation with Professor David Runciman, who supervised her PhD on the role of the family in utopian political thought.

Tara, who didn’t attend school and taught herself to pass a university entrance exam, said that education should be about diverse perspectives, especially at university. “University should be a place where you really experience different people. It is odd that seems not to be happening. It should not be about people reading the same texts and having the same interpretations. There should not be one dominant way of thinking about things,” she stated. "It should be open-ended and people should not go into it knowing what they will get out of it."

She added that it was often narrowly interpreted as being about exams, homework and essays. “People have been misled about what education is,” she said. Moreover, the way many viewed education often discouraged people and made them feel they couldn’t learn things, she stated. One of the positive things her parents taught her was that you can learn about anything you want to. Tara also taught herself how to write through listening to podcasts, battling against the discouraging “mythology” around literature. “People are probably capable of a lot more than they think they are,” she said. “A lot of people are persuaded against education due to the way it has been institutionalised.”

Tara also commented on homeschooling, saying that her view on it depended on the motivation behind it, for example, whether it was used to restrict access to different views or open up the world. She also commented on the issue of class in the public education system.  “Some public institutions are good and some are not. There is an assumption that not everyone should have access to the same quality,” she said.

The discussion ranged from education to Tara's childhood and how she became an independent thinker able to challenge the views she had received as a child.

As a child, Tara believed what her father had told her about the education system and said she felt other children were being brainwashed. When she got to university she struggled academically because there was so much she didn’t know, but she still fundamentally thought her father was right.

At Brigham Young University, where she did her undergraduate degree, she realised that she had only had access to one view. “It was freeing to have access to a lot of views. I could choose. I could make intelligent decisions. It helped me break away from the ideology of my family,” said Tara.

She emphasised that her book is about family and education rather than religion. Her family were not standard Mormons, she said. At university she realised that her father might be bi-polar when she learnt about the symptoms.  Her father seemed to care about safety, she said, but would ask his children to do things which were really not safe. “Dad could not run a junkyard in a safe way. There was something about the way his mind worked that meant he wasn’t able to,” she said. She added that she hoped her book was not just an American story and said the fact that many countries want to translate it suggested the broader, complex themes of family and education were more universal.

Picture credit: Kip Loades

14/02/2018 - 09:09Testing prison officers' professionalismKatherine Bruce-Lockhart on her research into the resilience of prison officers' professionalism in post-colonial Uganda.

How resilient is professionalism in key institutions like the police, army and prison service in the face of authoritarian rule? It’s an issue that is very relevant today and Katherine Bruce-Lockhart is believes history can shed some light on the subject. Her PhD research approaches it from the perspective of prison officers in Uganda in the post-colonial transition through to the end of Idi Amin’s rule in 1979. “I was interested to understand what happened to prison officers in Africa after the British left and what relevance the imported idea of prison had for people,” says Katherine.

Her PhD built on her master’s. That dealt with the detention and treatment of women during the Mau Mau rebellion in colonial Kenya and was the first study to make use of new material on a camp in Gitamayu used to hold "hardcore" female detainees.

Katherine was keen to widen the scope of her research on prisons during the transition from the colonial period and says there is little academic literature on Ugandan prisons at this time, particularly from prison officers' perspective.  “I wanted to understand things from the perspective of the people who worked there,” she says.

Unlike her work in Kenya which was based on archival files, Katherine based her research on a mix of interviews with retired prison officers, lawyers and soldiers and documents from around 20 archives, most of them in Uganda.

Her college, Trinity College, provided her with a pre-research linguistics fellowship to learn Luganda so she spent a total of two years [2014-2016] in Uganda - one for language training and one for fieldwork, although she did research the whole time she was there. In her first year she worked on two archival reconstruction projects, one in Eastern Uganda and the other in Kampala. That gave her a good sense of what was available for research purposes and helped her to make contacts.

Good citizenship

The prison officers she spoke to had mostly worked in the 60’s and 70’s, but she says many prison officers from that time died under Amin’s regime or from old age. The prison service were very helpful in giving her access to the information she needed and to contacts. “My research was independent, but I would like it to give back to the service in some way and to help continue the reform process,” she says.

Katherine found evidence of a strong culture of professionalism in the prison service in the late 50’s and 60’s. “It functioned according to a transnational model of what prison should look like and do - reform prisoners and turn them into good citizens,” she says. “In newly decolonised countries this idea was really appealing. Prison was seen as a way of contributing to nation building and creating better citizens. People became more cynical over time.”

She says the British had promoted the idea of good citizenship to deflect criticism from their colonial policies in the post World War Two period as calls for independence increased. Many Ugandan prison officers at the time were trained in the UK and linked up with senior officers internationally, forming a professional network. “They really believed their work had meaning,” says Katherine.

When Idi Amin came to power, that idea was subject to significant challenge, but, Katherine says that her research shows that, although many left the profession or were killed, many of the prison officers who remained did their best to maintain a degree of continuity in their work. “Abuses did happen in the prison service and conditions were not good, but they were not as bad as the informal centres run by paramilitary groups where political prisoners were detained. People would pray they would go to a government prison as they were more likely to survive there.  International ideas about the profession still had meaning,” she states.

Katherine [2013], who is Canadian and has just started a post-doc at the University of Toronto, has two articles on her research coming out in a special issue of History in Africa journal which she co-edited and is working to turn her PhD into a book manuscript. It will be an academic book, but she is also contemplating how she can write another book on her research aimed at a more popular audience in Uganda. She also hopes to return to Uganda in the summer to work on a new project on the military and is continuing to take an interest in Mau Mau women on which she has published several articles.

She says she very much enjoyed being a Gates Cambridge Scholar during her time doing her PhD at Cambridge. “It is a wonderful community. My experience at Cambridge was in large part due to the dynamic, inspiring and diverse Gates Cambridge community,” she says.

13/02/2018 - 11:24From white matter to British-Sino policyThree Gates Cambridge Scholars will take part in an internal symposium on Thursday.

Three Gates Cambridge Scholars will speak about their research on issues ranging from the role of white matter in the brain, the formation of British-Sino policy and new ways of analysing brain activity at an internal symposium this week.

The symposium takes place on Thursday. The speakers are:

Jennifer Jia's talk is entitled The Role of Neural Activity in Myelin Maintenance. Jennifer [2017], who is doing a PhD in Clinical Neurosciences, will speak about the importance of white matter in the brain and the stem cells behind its architecture and functions.  She will focus on the role of neural-glial communication in health and disease.

Matt Leming's presentation, Brain Connectivity, will explore the use of graph theory for analysing brain activity. This is an area of research that operates at the intersection of computer science and neuroscience. Matt [2016] is doing a PhD in Psychiatry.

Tommy Lo [2017], who is doing an MPhil in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, will give a presentation entitled The Role of the Unofficial Members of the Executive and Legislative Councils in the Formation of British Policy during the Sino-British negotiations, 1982-84. It will reassess the role of the unofficial members of the Executive and Legislative Councils (UMELCO) in the making of British policy on the Sino-British negotiations over the future of Hong Kong in 1982-84.

*The symposium will take place from 7-9pm in the Gates Cambridge Scholars Common Room. Scholars and their guests are welcome. Picture credit: Wikipedia.

06/02/2018 - 18:40Investigating the underbelly of family lifeMatt Cassels on researching adolescent self-harm and children's relationships with their pets.

Matt Cassels has had a long-standing interest in adolescent self-harm since his high school days when he knew several people who had injured themselves.

“They were not the people I thought were at risk or that adults were worried about,” he says. “They were high achieving, affluent teenagers. I wondered what was going on. I realised the professionals didn’t know any more than their parents.”

His PhD research investigates the pathways to self-harm. Based on a rich longitudinal dataset, Matt has shown an association between family-based trauma before the age of five and self harm between the ages of 14 and 17. “Trauma before age five is a pathway to psychological distress in the teen years and is associated with continuing family trauma,” says Matt [2014]. By highlighting a key predictor of self-harming behaviour he hopes his research can serve to encourage greater focus on interventions before the teen years.  The next step is to look in more depth at the kind of interventions that might work best.

Matt says that, although most teenagers who self harm stop doing so by their late 20s, meaning it is very much an adolescent disorder, self harm is the strongest predictor of suicide, even stronger than previous suicide attempts and depression. Self harm is defined as any action which is committed with the intention to cause injury to the self, such as cutting.

Matt has presented his research at a number of conferences, including at the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury and has four more papers for peer-review journals in the pipeline.

His previous research, based on his master’s project, brought a lot of public interest. 

It investigated children’s relationships with their pets and was part of a broader longitudinal study led by Professor Claire Hughes.

Matt had mentioned in passing that he was interested in the relationship between children and pets, having grown up with 12 pets - guinea pigs, fish, a rabbit, ponies, dogs, cats and a budgie. The rabbit was his best friend when he was a child.

Matt’s research found children derive more satisfaction - and less conflict - from relationships with their pets than with their brothers or sisters. It also found that while boys and girls were equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more disclosure, companionship, and conflict with their pet than did boys.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, drew a lot of media interest from around the globe.


Matt was born in Toronto, Canada. He has one older brother and two younger step-siblings. In grade seven when he was around 11 Matt passed an exam to get onto a programme for gifted children after performing particularly well on verbal skills. He loved creative writing at school and recalls being asked to write a half-page short story. He handed in 25 pages. He kept up his interest in writing throughout school.

Matt really enjoyed his time on the gifted programme, calling it “a mini version of Gates Cambridge, although a little weirder”. He became involved with the theatre at school, writing a one-act play which was performed at a festival. He describes it as an Edwardian murder comedy. The murderer kills a gardener and swallows a watch whose ticking drives him mad.

When he went to Queen’s University as an undergraduate, Matt studied English Literature, Psychology, Archaeology, World Religions and Latin.  At the end of the first year he opted to major in Psychology and minor in English Literature. He was fascinated by Psychology, particularly abnormal psychology and psychopathology. “I was fascinated by what went wrong,” he says.

At university he was also editor of a creative writing review for a year to which he also submitted poetry. He has also published in other publications.

After finishing his course, Matt took a year off and moved across Canada to work as a rock climbing instructor, teaching six to 18 year olds. He had been rock climbing since he was eight and felt he needed a break from academia.

Since he was 10 Matt had dreamed of going to Oxbridge. “I loved the romance of the places,” he says. So he applied to Cambridge to do his master’s. He was very keen to work with Dr Paul Wilkinson whose research on self harm in adolescence he was passionate about.

Matt took a gamble taking up the master’s.  He had been accepted to do a PhD but without any funding. He reckoned it would be better to do the MPhil and then try for funding for the PhD. His plan worked out and he was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship for his PhD in Psychiatry.

After he finishes his PhD, Matt hopes to continue in the area of adolescent psychopathology. He says his experience at the University of Cambridge has been greatly enhanced by being a Gates Cambridge Scholar. “It’s such a rich community,” he says. “More than half of my friends from Cambridge are Gates scholars. Cambridge is a really amazing place and I am sad I am coming to the end of my PhD.”

05/02/2018 - 10:09Questions of identityMarie Kolkenbrock's new book explores one of the central conflicts of modernity.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has published a new book this week on what she sees as a central conflict of modernity: the desire to be both normal and special at the same time.

Marie Kolkenbrock’s book Stereotype and Destiny in Arthur Schnitzler's Prose: Five Psycho-Sociological Readings is published by Bloomsbury, 2018.

The book is based on her research for her PhD in German which explored the multiple relations between the encounter with a sense of destiny, on one hand, and the operation of social stereotyping, on the other, in the prose of the Viennese Modernist Arthur Schnitzler.

In addition to addressing questions of identity and subjecthood in Schnitzler's work, Marie’s book also shows how his texts inscribe themselves aesthetically in the literary tradition of Romanticism.  It has been described by reviewers Carl Niekerk (a professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Michael Minden (Reader Emeritus at Jesus College, Cambridge) as 'original', 'lucid', and 'elegant'.

Schnitzler wrote the book, Traumnovelle (Dream Story), which inspired Stanley Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut'. The book deals with the thoughts and psychological transformations of Doctor Fridolin over a two-day period after his wife confesses having had sexual fantasies involving another man.

Schnitzler’s manuscripts are kept in the archive of the Cambridge University Library to which Marie had access for her PhD. Marie [2010] is currently a postdoctoral Research Associate and Affiliated Lecturer at the University of Cambridge and at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Vienna.

01/02/2018 - 10:06STEM for BritainMichelle Teplensky has been selected for STEM for Britain and will display a poster in the House of Commons.

Gates Cambridge Scholar Michelle Teplensky has been selected for a prestigious event which will see a poster of her research displayed in the UK Parliament. 

Michelle [2014] was chosen for STEM for BRITAIN which aims to encourage, support and promote Britain's early-stage and early-career research scientists, engineers, technologists and mathematicians.  It gives scientists the chance to go to Parliament and be in the company of MPs, policymakers and key figures from the world of science policy, as well as other young researchers from around the country. There are also cash prizes available for the best posters in each discipline and there is an overall medal for the best communication of science at the event.

Michelle's poster will be displayed at the House of Commons on Monday 12th March in the Physical Sciences (Chemistry) Session. She is doing a PhD in Chemical Engineering, working in the Adsorption and Advanced Materials Group, supervised by Dr David Fairen-Jimenez.

Michelle's poster will be titled Metal-Organic Frameworks as a Tool for Therapeutic Delivery. Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are porous and self-assembling materials currently used for catalysis, gas separation and storage. They have recently been applied to drug and gene delivery. The poster shows the benefits of using MOFs as a tool for therapeutic delivery because of their ability to extend therapeutic release time and avoiding the "burst release effect"; protect the therapeutic from degradation; and be a biocompatible system because of their natural biodegradation.


30/01/2018 - 11:18Trapped in the juvenile justice systemAlexandra Cox's new book says juvenile justice systems are failing to change lives for the better.

Juvenile justice systems aimed at changing the lives of young people for the better are instead trapping them in a vice-like system they struggle to move beyond, according to a new book by Gates Cambridge Scholar Dr Alexandra Cox.

Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People is the result of a three-year study inside New York’s juvenile justice system. Alexandra, who is now a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Essex, interviewed and observed 39 young people aged between 15-24 years in secure juvenile facilities, courts, detention facilities and the community. 

She also interviewed and observed frontline staff in two secure juvenile facilities as part of further research. 

She said: “Over the years, proposals have been made to shift young people out of adult prisons into juvenile facilities, and from juvenile facilities into mental health institutions, or to more child welfare and social care-oriented institutions, such as residential care homes. My research asks that we closely interrogate all institutions which confine young people and consider the core questions of liberty and justice that they raise.”

Alexandra [2007], who did her PhD in Criminology with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, found that young people in secure juvenile facilities are expected to conform to a regime that is primarily focused on order and control.  As a result, other objectives, such as a focus on their education and physical and mental well-being, get sidelined.

She said: “Any resistance to the required conformity is punished. Yet some of that resistance is often either developmentally normal or is a serious attempt by that young person to get their educational and emotional needs met.”    

Dr Cox also looked at the consequences of confining BAME young people and found that as youth justice systems have grown smaller, the levels of BAME young people in the system have risen disproportionately and the control experienced in the facility has begun to reflect broader institutionalised forms of racism.

She said: “Institutionalised racism was expressed both in a subtle way, through the expectations of staff for deference and respect, but also in more overt ways, through the use of animal metaphors to describe the young people and the suggestion that the only way that they could be brought under control was through physical force and restraint.”

While inside the secure residential system, she found that some staff and administrators did seek to implement practices that would support young people. These included the development of reading programmes and libraries, arts and athletic programmes and a university degree-granting programme. They also included improved bridges to care on the outside, including guarantees of housing, university entrance and health insurance.

Yet Alexandra found there was a greater focus by the authorities on expanding therapeutic programming and even on beautifying the juvenile facilities. This made it difficult to get financial and material support for better educational and resettlement programming. 

She concluded: “Efforts at reform in the system must not neglect to see that even if facilities look and feel nicer, the development and care of young people is nearly impossible to achieve within secure confinement as the obstacles are far too great to the realisation of their development.”

*Trapped in a Vice: The Consequences of Confinement for Young People is published this week by Rutgers University Press.

30/01/2018 - 10:28The science of breadShrivalli Bhat on creating a new scientific method for making healthy home-made bread.

Almost every day that she was doing her PhD at Cambridge Shrivalli Bhat would have a supermarket-bought sandwich for her lunch and every day she would feel guilty. She has always been very health conscious and  preferred to eat home-made food, but she was too impatient to spend hours making her own bread.

Now she and a team of product developers have created what they say is a revolutionary scientific technique for making home-made bread in just five minutes - minus cooking time - and Shrivalli hopes to launch it to market in the next months if she can raise start-up funds through a Kickstarter campaign.

LoafNest uses state of the art silicone liner technology and specially designed cast iron casserole dishes which release heat quickly to bring a high-heat, high-humidity professional baking environment to home kitchens.

Shrivalli [2007] says that the non-stick liner helps to seal the moisture in, to make a crunchy crust and ensures the bread is easy to turn out. She adds that the technique also gives a nice texture to the bottom of the bread, similar to professionally baked artisan breads. Bakers can use any ingredients they want and much less yeast than with normal bread recipes and there is no need to add preservatives, additives or artificial flavour enhancers.


Shrivalli drew on her scientific background for her business. She did a PhD in Physics at the University of Cambridge with the help of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Prior to that she had majored in Electronics, Physics and Maths for her Bachelors in Karnatak College in Dharwad, India, and had done a master’s in Physics in Karnatak University. Before coming to Cambridge she worked as a research assistant at the Indian Institute of Science, then at General Electric in India and Alstom Power in the UK.

She began her PhD in 2007, focusing on organic polymer transistors under Professor Henning Sirringhaus' Optoelectronics group at the Cavendish Laboratory. One of the promised benefits of organic electronics is their potential low cost compared to traditional inorganic electronics.

Shrivalli’s work built on that of another Gates Cambridge Scholar, Dr Jana Zaumseil, on luminescence in organic transistors, the fundamental building block for electronic devices. In an effort to bring down the operating voltage, Shrivalli tried different materials and observed luminescence in ion gel gated, thin film organic semiconductor transistors at low voltages. She then investigated the light emission mechanism behind these devices, showing that even with the presence of ions light emission could be observed.

Shrivalli says the Gates Cambridge community was a very important part of her time at Cambridge. “It influenced me a lot, particularly the contact with people of so many different nationalities. Cambridge gave me the world and being part of the very diverse Gates Cambridge community was a hugely valuable experience,” she says.

While she was at the university she attended a lot of entrepreneurial sessions at the Judge Business School. After she finished her PhD therefore Shrivalli decided to set up her own online platform in India to connect campaigners, charities and donors. However, she hit huge challenges while building the structure of the site and could not turn it into a viable business.

Now living in an innovative and entrepreneurial community in Eindhoven, she has turned her passion for healthy eating into a business idea.

She says: “Bread is such an essential part of our lives. In many cultures bread means food. But the bread we eat today is flavourless and full of preservatives and stabilisers. I want everyone to eat healthy and experience the real joys of life like the taste of a real fresh artisan bread. Shouldn’t eating healthy be a human right?” 

She adds: “LoafNest, the product we have developed, is simple to use and delivers consistent results. Getting used to it is as easy as getting used to buying bread from a bakery!”

*The Kickstarter fundraising campaign finishes on 24th February.


29/01/2018 - 11:34From the poetry of the everyday to life as a refugee in CalaisFour Gates Cambridge Scholars tell their stories at an event on Wednesday.

Four Gates Cambridge Scholars will be talking about everything from how poetry illuminates everyday life to their experiences working with refugees and in war zones as part of a Scholars Stories event on Wednesday.

The four scholars taking part are:

- Nicolas Paez [2015], whose talk is entitled How to fall from a horse. He will talk about the impact a riding accident had on him. Nicolas, who is doing a PhD in Economics, says: “Everything could have gone wrong, yet everything ended well. This isn’t a story of riding skills. This is a story about bad decisions and about how our family and friends are our backbone.”

- Afrodita Nikolova’s talk is entitled Life through the eyes of a poet and will seek to explore how  poetry can unlock the importance of certain events in our lives. Afrodita [2014] is doing a PhD in Education.

- Jennifer Jia’s talk What does it mean to be a refugee in Calais? will recount her experiences in Calais as a volunteer with Cambridge Convoy Refugee Action Group. Jennifer [2017], who is doing a PhD in Clinical Neurosciences, says: “Driving down the highway in Calais, I could see, across the barbed-wire fence, young men kicking a football back and forth. Around them were small heaps of litter - some bits of a leftover tent, water bottles, wrappers. These men were the remains of the dismantled Calais Jungle, and they were depending on charitable organizations for their next meal and soon-to-be-seized blankets. I couldn't help but wonder how these perfectly able young men embraced their identities as refugees and how they coped with the daily brutal treatment of the police.“

- Erica Gaston’s talk is entitled War zone shenanigans and the kindness of strangers. Erica [2017] , who is doing a PhD in Politics and International Studies,  will recount her personal experience trying to promote human rights and peacebuilding in war zones.

*Scholar Stories takes place on 31st January  from 7.30–9.30pm in the GSCR. Scholars and invited guests are welcome.

**Picture credit: Afrodita performing Slamming Street 01100110 at an international conference on coding courtesy of Youtube.

23/01/2018 - 10:28Cultivating a special communityRebecca Saunderson on her research, her work in dermatology and her commitment to the Gates Cambridge community.

When she left Cambridge University Rebecca Saunderson missed the stimulation of the Gates community so much that she became involved in the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association. Now its co-chair, she has devoted a lot of energy to building links and networking opportunities and says there is a good momentum building.

Her first co-chair was fellow doctor Lauren Zeitels, whose death in an avalanche last year was a huge blow both to Rebecca personally and Gates Cambridge generally. Rebecca first met Lauren a few years ago when Lauren, a fellow doctor, came to Sydney. “I picked her up at the airport and we spent a lovely day together. I showed her around and made her swim at Bondi beach in a storm because I told her you can’t come to Sydney and not swim at Bondi beach. We really connected,” she says.

The GCAA has been working with the Gates Cambridge Trust to organise an annual memorial lecture in Lauren’s name. The first lecture takes place this summer in Boston. “It will bring alumni together and it will elevate the profile of the scholarship, which is what Lauren would have wanted,” says Rebecca [2012].

The first lecture will be about some of the issues and initiatives that Lauren was passionate about, including Thread, a Baltimore-based mentoring programme she worked with which creates a family of volunteers, providing everything from tutoring to financial aid, summer jobs and furniture donations for underprivileged high school and college students, and the Pathways Programme Lauren set up at the Massachusetts General Hospital which aims to improve the training of medical residents by encouraging the use of fundamental science to better diagnose and treat patients suffering from unexplained illnesses.

“When Lauren died lots of grieving people wanted to commemorate her and we felt this was the best way to remember her life and her values,” says Rebecca. "She was a true Gates Cambridge Scholar."

Early years

Rebecca’s own values are rooted in her passion for medicine and science. Born and raised in Sydney, her mother was a registered nurse and her father is an electrical engineer. 

When she was 13 Rebecca was sent to a local boarding school after her mother got ovarian cancer and became very ill. She was keen for her children to get a good education without too much disruption. 

Rebecca’s mother died midway through her first year at the school. Rebecca had long known she wanted to study medicine - her favourite subject at school was Biology  - and decided she wanted to specialise in oncology research and treatment.

After school she started a degree in medical science at the University of Sydney, taking a semester out in her first year to travel to Nepal and through Asia. She completed her degree in three years and did an honours year in molecular genetics before starting her four-year training at medical school. During her first degree she had done a pathology course and one of the teachers was the neurologist Associate Professor Roger Pamphlett.

He encouraged Rebecca to do a research project on molecular genetics and motor neurone disease during her honours year. The project offered her a lot of independence to investigate an area that opened up broad possibilities for future research. Professor Pamphlett was also a good role model for her since he managed to combine clinical and research work - a path that Rebecca wanted to emulate. “I have worked as a doctor and seen patients that clinically I can do nothing for. It’s good to be involved in research that could help patients,” she says.

While she was at medical school Rebecca also did a second honours degree in the same laboratory, mainly looking at the genes which might cause motor neurone disease and related diseases. By her fourth year of medical school she was on a clinical placement, but continuing her research work. “I was burning the candle at both ends, but I was very passionate about what I was doing,” she says.

Medical training

When she finished medical school Rebecca began working as an intern at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.  As a junior doctor, she realised that she didn’t want to specialise in oncology and was instead interested in dermatology, immunology and infectious diseases. She completed her training in internal medicine.

However, she still wanted to continue her research work and required a higher degree so she applied to the University of Cambridge to do an MPhil in Medical Science. Her supervisor Professor Sharon Peacock asked her about her interests and made sure that immunology was included in the MPhil. “I was really impressed that she went out of her way to accommodate me,” says Rebecca.

Her degree, which she began in 2012, included research and clinical work. She took part in a large clinical trial which involved administering an additional antibiotic to patients who had invasive Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterial infection leading to high morbidity and mortality across the world, to see if it improved their outcome.

A special community

Rebecca loved her experience at Cambridge. “I was blown away by so many things, for instance, being surrounded by passionate, inspiring people,” she says. “Every moment was full of intellectual stimulation. I loved the quirky traditions too and I spent a lot of time with Gates people and made incredible friendships. The Gates community is such an amazing network of people who are very altruistic. It is a very special community with a broad focus.”

When she finished her MPhil she moved back to Australia to Newcastle on a one-year contract at the beginning of a four-year training in dermatology before moving back to Sydney where she worked in several hospitals.

Throughout her training Rebecca has been interested in how she can use her skills to tackle global and local issues, something that is in keeping with the mission of Gates Cambridge. She has worked with indigenous people in central Australia, with refugees on Christmas Island, in a hospital in rural South Africa with HIV positive babies and more recently on a scabies eradication programme in East Timor.

She finishes her dermatology training in a month and will take up a post as a consultant dermatologist at tertiary hospitals in Sydney where she hopes also to continue her research. She was awarded the FC Florance Bequest by the Australasian College of Dermatologists and will use this to travel to the US on a two-month clinical fellowship which will allow her to learn more about complex medical dermatology.

Over the last year Rebecca has also had to overcome her own medical challenges. True to form, she has used the experience constructively and is working on an online medical consent platform, PracWay, which she says will improve patients’ experience of treatment. The organisation was recently chosen to take part in a health tech start-up programme.

Picture: Rebecca [second on the right] and fellow dermatologist Julia Rhodes, co-founder of the consent project, in East Timor.

19/01/2018 - 16:29Scholar to launch memoir at Cambridge eventTara Westover's much awaited memoir, Educated, will be launched on 28th February.

Author and Gates Cambridge Scholar Tara Westover will be launching her memoir in Cambridge on 28th February.

The book, “Educated”, is published by Hutchinson and was bought for a six-figure sum within 24 hours of the submission being sent out. It has sold rights in 20 territories and is being compared to classics of the genre such as Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterston.

It tells of Tara's experiences growing up in rural Idaho, raised by a radical, survivalist father who was intensely paranoid about government interference in the lives of his family. The book deals with complex themes of identity and self-invention, as well as the tension between loyalty to one's family and loyalty to one's self.

She writes of how, through the pursuit of knowledge, she evolved into a “new self”. Tara [2009], whose writing style is self taught, says: “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”

The memoir has already been highlighted by many newspapers as a book to watch in 2018, with the Mail on Sunday calling it “an astonishing and uplifting story about the transformative power of education".

The Pool says: ‘‘This fiercely intelligent memoir is a fascinating and compassionate view of another world and the author’s struggle to both escape from and understand it as she heads out into the world.”

On the cover, actor and comedian Stephen Fry comments: “There is no feeling like discovering a young writer who is springing up fully armed with so much talent.”

The book's launch will take place in the Old Divinity School at St John's college from 6-8.30pm on 28th February and is open to the public.

Gates Cambridge Provost Barry Everitt will introduce the event. Tara will be interviewed by her PhD supervisor David Runciman and will also take questions from the audience. The event will be followed by a drinks reception and book signings.

*To book a ticket, click here.​ 

17/01/2018 - 11:57Plugging the gaps in global health dataGeorgina Murphy on her research and her new role as a Gates Foundation Fellow in Global Health.

Neonatal mortality accounts for 45% of child mortality in Kenya. A set of key health system challenges undermine newborn survival in more deprived areas.These include, limited access to quality care for sick newborns and inadequate availability of appropriately skilled human resources.

A project co-led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Georgina Murphy [2010] is investigating the gaps in provision and quality of inpatient neonatal care in Kenya and the role of nurses in providing that care in the high-burden resource-limited setting of Nairobi, Kenya.

One potential solution being explored is task-shifting - training assistants to take on some nursing tasks. This can be politically controversial, but alternatives such as hiring extra nurses are expensive. The project argues that success is more likely if task-shifting approaches are based on the values, preferences, knowledge and skills of stakeholders and frontline health workers.

As Senior Postdoctoral Researcher at the Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford, Georgina was co-principal investigator of the ‘Health Systems Research Initiative: Providing evidence to strengthen health systems and improve health outcomes’ project from May 2014 to December 2017. Her role involved coordinating international collaborators, co-investigators and advisers in Kenya, UK and USA. Being an epidemiologist by training, she directly led the quantitative studies that form part of the multi-disciplinary research project.  A third of her time on the project, which is supported by a £1 million Health Systems Research Initiative grant, was spent at the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Nairobi, where she directly managed a team of junior researchers and students. 

“Neonatal mortality is a very large problem in Kenya. One of the key ways to reduce it is to make sure that babies who are sick when they are born get adequate hospital-based care,” says Georgina. One major problem that the project aims to address is the lack of information available to the government on the adequacy of current neonatal inpatient services. “There is a lack of data on a general population level about how many babies might require hospital care,” says Georgina, “and on the gaps in the quality of what is being provided in terms of inpatient neonatal services as well as about what kinds of improvements could be made. Without data it is difficult to make good evidence-based decisions. Efficient and effective healthcare is important everywhere, but is particularly crucial when resources are limited in poorer settings.”

Results from the five-year project have started to be published in the last few months. It is now moving into a phase that will focus on potential solutions in collaboration with policymakers, nursing unions and healthcare workers. “All of our research is done in close partnership with local government and those with the power to design and implement change. We spend a lot of time on engagement and communicating research findings. Ownership of the problems and the solutions identified through our research by these key stakeholders is crucial for sustainable change,” says Georgina.

Alongside co-leading the project, Georgina has also done some consultancy work for Oxford Policy Management, an international development consulting firm which aims to help low- and middle-income countries achieve growth and reduce poverty and disadvantage through public policy reform. She also runs the Naji Foundation, which provides grants for the promotion of evidence-based medicine in Ireland and the UK and focuses on how the public makes informed choices around health. She helped found the organisation while doing her PhD at Cambridge after she was contacted by entrepreneur Samir Naji through a family friend because of her work on global health.

Gates Foundation Fellowship

In February, Georgina will take up a prestigious two-year position as a Gates Foundation Fellow in Global Health, based in Seattle. She is aware it will be different working for a large funding organisation compared to working in academia. “My academic work was very hands on, working in East Africa and directly with local stakeholders. I’m looking forward to continuing to approach global health from a ‘real-world’ lens but side-stepping out of academia for a while,” she says. “At the Gates Foundation, I’ll be working on projects, problem solving and strategy in a dynamic environment, with people from a variety of professional backgrounds. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to better understand the breadth of actors in global health and the role of the Gates Foundation, while strengthening my leadership skills. I’m excited by the prospect of working in such a diverse and inspiring environment, with the opportunity for mentorship and sharing experiences with peers.”

She adds that being a Gates Cambridge Scholar meant she has a good grasp of what the Foundation is trying to achieve.

Academic background

Georgina, who has published extensively and presented at many international academic conferences, grew up in Ireland and developed a strong interest in international politics and science from a fairly early age. At school she was involved in the model UN. When it came to university, though, she opted for a degree in science, while continuing to be engaged in international politics and development in her spare time. Indeed, while she was at university she combined politics and health as Chairperson of the Executive Committee of the THIMUN Youth Network, which had consultative status at the UN. Among other activities, she was HIV/AIDS Committee Coordinator of the Network and President of the Assembly, which involved directing a conference for over 100 participants from 22 countries.

Georgina did her undergraduate degree in Molecular Medicine at Trinity College Dublin. It was the first year of the course and it aimed to bridge the gap between lab-based science and clinical medicine. That desire to bridge the gap between expertise from different areas was to become a feature of Georgina's career.

Having done her degree, she was clear that she wanted to work in health and development so did her MPhil in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. During her master’s she met Dr Manj Sandhu at the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, who took her on as a PhD student to lead a research project on non-communicable diseases in rural Uganda. Georgina received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship for both her MPhil and PhD.

In Uganda, where she lived for a year during her PhD, she led a project that involved going door to door to more than 8,000 villagers evaluating non-communicable health problems, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Similar to the Kenyan project, the research focused on filling a data gap. It whetted Georgina’s appetite for working on health systems in developing countries.

She says that the experience she gained in Uganda, combined with that of being a Gates Cambridge Scholar, gave her the confidence to take on the Oxford/Kenya project. During her time at Cambridge, she was internal officer on the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council and an active member of the Gates Cambridge community. “What I learned at Cambridge was really invaluable. There was no way I could have taken on that responsibility if I had not had that experience,” she says. “Gates Cambridge really inspired me and showed me what is possible to do in the world. I also gained some very close friends. It is wonderful to have that global network and to feel part of something bigger.”


12/01/2018 - 10:20Astronomy prize recognises work on most luminous galaxiesCaitlin Casey wins outstanding early year prize from the American Astronomical Society.

Gates Cambridge Scholar Caitlin Casey has been awarded an outstanding early-career achievement prize by the American Astronomical Society.

Casey [2007], who is an assistant professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Astronomy,  was awarded the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize at the Society’s  semi-annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The organisation awards the prize each year for “outstanding early-career achievement in observational astronomical research based on measurements of radiation from an astronomical object”.

The Society said Casey was selected due to her work “on high-redshift star-forming galaxies and for pioneering new quantitative techniques for determining the importance of submillimeter galaxies in galaxy evolution”. It states: “Her measurements of their total luminosities show that submillimeter galaxies have enormous star-formation rates and represent the birth of the most massive galaxies in today's universe. In addition, she has helped establish the existence of protoclusters at high redshift and quantify their properties.”

Casey, who did her PhD in Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, will deliver a prize lecture at a future conference.

Her group at the University of Texas at Austin is investigating the most luminous galaxies on the edge of the observable universe and seeking to understand how those galaxies are embedded in the large-scale cosmic web. Casey’s work has shown that such extremely bright galaxies are uniquely useful for studying the formation history of galaxy clusters, which are the most massive gravitationally-bound objects in existence.

She says: “What excites me about this work is that our discoveries often seem to upend or completely reverse previously-drawn conclusions, and we still have so much to learn. This is, of course, the guiding principle of all scientific investigation and it keeps me driven. I don’t know what we’ll find tomorrow, but I know it'll be exciting."

11/01/2018 - 18:20Modern climate change and the practice of ArchaeologyMargaret Comer co-edits climate change edition of Archaeology journal.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has co-edited the latest edition of a prestigious Archaeology journal which has a special focus on climate change.

Margaret Comer is co-editor of Volume 32.2 of the Archaeological Review from Cambridge, entitled 'On the Edge of the Anthropocene? Modern Climate Change and the Practice of Archaeology'.

The journal was launched at a recent event at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Dr Jago Cooper gave an introductory talk entitled 'Can Archaeology Save the World? Modern Climate Change and the Practice of Archaeology', which was live-streamed via Facebook Live. Dr Cooper is Curator of the Americas in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum and is also well-known for the BBC 4 series Lost Kingdoms of South America.

Two Gates Cambridge Scholars contributed articles to the journal which includes case studies from all over the world, including Australia's New South Wales Coast and the Scottish coastline.

Victoria Herrmann [2014], who is doing a PhD in Polar Studies, wrote 'Culture on the Move: Towards an Inclusive Framework for Cultural Heritage Considerations in Climate-Related Migration, Displacement and Relocation Policies', which discusses the archaeological implications of climate change displacement. She asks: “When not just individuals but communities are displaced, how can their cultures be conserved and their traditional knowledge retained? And, equally important, how can cultural heritage be used to facilitate the emplacement of these communities to new sites?” The paper identifies how best practice in archaeology and heritage can be used in climate displacement and relocation efforts.

Rachel Reckin’s paper, 'Resiliency and Loss: A Case Study of Two Clusters of High Elevation Ice Patches in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA', discusses the impacts of climate change to high elevation cultural resources, particularly ice patches, and includes a case study of two groups of archaeologically productive high elevation ice patches from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, analysing their resiliency in the face of warming temperatures and changing climates.  Rachel [2014] is doing a PhD in Archaeology. She concludes: "High elevation patches of ice and snow may be losing their resiliency to warmer temperatures as their ancient ice melts, making them ever more vulnerable to climate change. Ice patch researchers are in a race against time to identify productive ice patches and recover any fragile artifacts or paleobiological material they may contain before they melt completely. For many of these patches, this would be their first complete melt since the early Holocene."

In addition to co-editing the edition with Eva Meharry and Rebecca Haboucha, Margaret Comer [2015], who is also doing a PhD in Archaeology, contributed a book review of Material Culture in Russia and the USSR, edited by Graham E. Roberts.

She says: “The editors and authors [of the journal] hope that the papers in this volume, far from being a finished product, will be a stepping stone to increased collaboration and dialogue between students, academics, local communities and practitioners worldwide about how best to harness archaeological data and methods to help communities adapt to the 'wicked' and serious threat climate change poses to each of us.”

Picture credit: Yellowstone Park, courtesy of Wikipedia.

11/01/2018 - 11:32Can gender equality change the face of poverty?Director of Gender Equality at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to deliver Gates Cambridge Annual Lecture

The Director of Gender Equality at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will deliver this year’s Gates Cambridge Annual Lecture on whether gender equality can change the face of poverty.

Sarah Hendriks will deliver the lecture entitled "What if…Gender equality could change the face of poverty?" on 13th February. It will explore the data and evidence behind the idea that gender equality and women's economic empowerment can help to lift poor households out of poverty.

Hendriks will argue that women who are economically empowered tend to have greater access to income and economic assets, better control over their own economic gains and more equitable decision-making power to translate these gains into social, economic and health benefits for themselves and their families. Hendriks will explore women’s economic empowerment in terms of both objective dimensions, measured by increases in productivity, income and assets, and subjective dimensions, measured by increases in agency and decision-making power.

She will also talk about the Foundation’s strategic work on gender in three areas: financial inclusion, land tenure security and women's self-help groups and how this can help to model what could happen if women were economically empowered.

Hendriks’ role at the Foundation involves working across the organisation and with  external partners to develop and drive a strategic vision on gender equality, build organisational commitment and establish technical processes that shape the foundation’s current and future work in the area.

Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked as the Director of Gender Equality and Social Inclusion for Plan International. In this role, she was the lead gender advisor for a multi-year global research and policy report entitled ‘Because I am a Girl: the State of the World’s Girls’ and led the development of the ‘Global Girls Innovation Programme’, a $500 million portfolio of innovation and results-driven initiatives on adolescent girls.

Before Plan International, Hendriks worked with Women and the Law in Southern Africa [WLSA] in Malawi and has worked extensively as a gender equality consultant in areas such as gender-based violence, women's access to justice, HIV & AIDS and the design of gender equality strategies.

*The Annual Lecture takes place from 18:00 to 19:30 on 13th February in the Palmerston Room at St John's College. It is open to Gates Cambridge Scholars and their guests. To book your place, click here.

05/01/2018 - 10:08What works in mental healthcare in IndonesiaSabrina Anjara on researching how to provide adequate mental healthcare in Indonesia.

Only one of 20 people with mental illness in Indonesia have access to treatment. The rest are vulnerable to chaining, shackling, and a plethora of other cruel practices common in low and middle-income countries, which renowned psychiatrist and medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman dubbed a `failure of humanity’.

Sabrina Anjara [2014] has a long-standing interest in mental health, having trained and worked as a psychologist in Melbourne, London and Singapore. She was born in Indonesia, a nation of 260 million people, where only 1% of the country’s health budget goes to mental health and there are fewer than 1,000 registered clinical psychologists. Indeed, mental health has been considered the Cinderella of healthcare due to underfunding despite recent research indicating the burden of mental illness accounts for 32.4% of years lost to disability worldwide.

For Sabrina, the crucial question is whether adequate mental health care can be provided in low resource settings where psychologists and psychiatrists are few and unaffordable. Her PhD has sought an answer to this question, but throughout the journey Sabrina has faced multiple challenges, showing that it is not only in clinical care that mental health is a Cinderella issue.

When she applied to do her PhD, Sabrina’s research proposal was to conduct the Indonesian component of a multi-country WHO project on mental illness and human rights. Prior to her arrival in Cambridge, the WHO dropped Indonesia from the collaboration. She took on the challenge to fill the resulting gap and develop her own project. Sabrina got in touch with professors within and outside of Cambridge to discuss potentially meaningful projects. She then attended several international workshops and summer schools to learn advanced research methodology. Together with her supervisor, Dr Tine Van Bortel, Sabrina developed a mixed method project combining ethnography, a clinical trial and implementation science. Her examiners considered the new proposal too ambitious and advised a reduction in the scope.

Sabrina is not known for her lack of ambition. She has long been dedicated to using academic research to address pressing social issues and create change. Prior to coming to Cambridge her master's thesis - the first empirical study of the quality of life of foreign domestic workers in Singapore - was used by advocates of foreign workers’ rights to campaign for better working conditions.

Nevertheless, she narrowed her focus to the most time sensitive aspect of her proposal: testing the clinical and cost-effectiveness of the WHO’s Mental Health Gap Action Programme in the Indonesian context. The programme aims to scale up services for mental, neurological and substance use disorders, especially across low- and middle-income countries, through training non-specialist health workforce, such as General Practitioners and nurses, to provide mental health care in primary settings. The prevailing flow of medical knowledge from high-income countries to low- and middle-income countries has been criticised as medical imperialism. Sabrina felt it was important to evaluate whether the suggested WHO model could indeed yield positive effects in her country’s settings.

She designed a Cluster Randomised Controlled Trial which within the Indonesian primary care service to ethically conduct a statistically robust study which eliminated the need to delay treatment for a control group.

Funding challenge

A major challenge was coming up with the money to fund the trial. Sabrina wrote more than 10 grant applications, which she says taught her a lot about what funders prioritise and the importance of not just impact, but also prudence and good stewardship of funds in scientific areas where resources are tight. Many of the grant-giving organisations she approached said they were interested, but they could not fund a project led by someone who didn’t yet have a PhD. Where some might have given up and switched focus, Sabrina stayed committed to the project, true to the values of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. With a green light from the Gates Cambridge Trust, she set up a crowdfunding campaign. She further received a travel award from the British Psychological Society and secured awards from various funds within the University of Cambridge, including the Department of Social Anthropology who funded a project on the traditionally held beliefs on the causes of psychiatric symptoms and appropriate pathways of care which Sabrina conducted alongside the trial.

In addition to the Herculean task of securing funding, Sabrina also had to reconcile the often-non-aligned interests of the stakeholders in the study. In a society where rent-seeking and bribery still constitute common ways of conducting affairs, some stakeholders pushed for cash benefits. Many saw the University of Cambridge name and assumed the project was well-funded. To maintain the project’s academic integrity, Sabrina invested time to build partnerships with a local university and the provincial health office, ever transparent about her limited funding. Several prominent academics and bureaucrats from Indonesia alongside a senior statistician from the WHO Centre for Research and Training in Mental Health and Service Evaluation in Italy stepped up to be her external advisors and contributed their time pro bono, helping her to navigate the intricacies of field research.

Early results

She succeeded in collecting data from 28 sites across Yogyakarta, a province and Sultanate within Indonesia. The trial screened around 9,000 primary care patients. More than 800 patients who had an indication of psychiatric morbidity were given full psychiatric interviews and 400 patients are receiving ongoing treatment. While the data is still being analysed, Sabrine is convinced of its value. “If we can prove that GPs can provide as effective mental healthcare for mild to moderate conditions as that provided by clinical psychologists it would revolutionise mental healthcare, not just in low resource settings but in all places where there are few specialists,” she says.

Her preliminary research data indicates that given the choice, patients in Yogyakarta were significantly more likely to want to see a GP than a psychologist for a mental health problem. Sabrina argues this is due to the strong stigma around mental illness. “At a glance, perhaps the WHO programme works because people are more accepting about seeing a GP than a psychologist. It is better to have basic mental health services provided by a GP, than to receive no treatment at all,” says Sabrina. “Given the high costs of training specialists, low and middle-income countries must rethink the best ways to allocate the already limited mental health budget.”

Sabrina is currently finishing her data analysis and will be writing up in early 2018. She hopes to grow the impact of her work on the mental health landscape in Indonesia and feels that it’s time for a change in attitudes to the subject. “The concept of mental health as a Cinderella issue is true in academic settings as well as in clinical care. Funding is extremely limited for early careers researchers in this area. There is a real need for younger academics to enter the field of global mental health,” she says. “But the career path needs to be attractive enough to get them to stay in the field.”

Photo: Sabrina supported by collaboration with local partners (Universitas Gadjah Mada Faculty of Psychology and Faculty of Medicine).


03/01/2018 - 11:35Addressing food security in AfricaThe JR Biotek Foundation opens applications for its second annual international workshop and symposium.

A bioscience education-based non-profit organisation founded by a Gates Scholar has opened applications for its second annual international workshop and symposium for African researchers interested in finding practical solutions to the barriers to Africa’s agricultural development.
The JR Biotek Foundation was set up by Carol Ibe [2015] before she started her PhD in Plant Sciences. Its first workshop was held in 2014 in Nigeria. The organisation aims to enhance scientific research and STEM-based education in sub-Saharan Africa. 
It held a Molecular Laboratory Training workshop and an African Diaspora Biotech Summit in Cambridge last April where keynote speakers included Professor Lucy Ogbadu, Director-General of Nigeria’s National Biotechnology Development Agency, and Onyekachi Wambu, Executive Director, African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), UK. Both emphasised the urgent need for the African diaspora to engage in development efforts aiming to strengthen research capacity building, innovation and commercialisation in Africa.
The purpose of the 2018 Research Capacity Building Workshop and Symposium is to help African nations build the required capacity to foster agricultural research and innovation in order to improve agricultural productivity and food security on the continent. In line with this, the JR Biotek Foundation is partnering with the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences to co-develop a Molecular Laboratory Training Workshop designed to equip Africa-based agricultural researchers and academics with knowledge and skills needed to improve the quality of their agricultural research and teaching.
Twenty agricultural research scientists, lecturers and PhD students from universities and research institutes across Africa will be selected to participate in the workshop, which takes place from 3rd to 10th September in Cambridge.
The following day the UK-Africa Food Security Symposium will build on the discussions and outcomes of the 2017 Biotech Summit. Some of the themes identified as urgent during the 2017 summit discussions will feature in panel-led sessions at the symposium: research capacity building, collaborative research and innovation, agricultural infrastructure development and science policy and governance.  Participants will include workshop participants and Cambridge students and researchers. Invited guests will include early- and mid-career professionals from African diaspora communities in the UK and EU, government officials from sub-Saharan African countries, policy makers and business leaders from multinational organisations. 
*To apply for the training workshop click here.

**More details about the inaugural summit and workshop can be found here.


20/12/2017 - 11:05Understanding the drivers of political and gender-based violenceAditi Malik on her comparative research about what gives rise to different forms of political conflict and violence.

Aditi Malik is interested in studying the conditions that give rise to different forms of political violence. Her research on these topics is explicitly comparative in nature and her work so far has taken her to Cambodia, Rwanda, Kenya and India where she has sought to better understand the means through which conflict comes to be mobilised and the ways in which it can be prevented.

At Cambridge, her MPhil thesis compared the role of local institutions in preventing – or not – ethnic and communal violence. This project was based on a comparison of Rwanda and India. She then went on to complete a PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University. Based on extensive fieldwork in Kenya and India, her doctoral dissertation developed a theory about the relationship between party volatility and elites’ incentives to drive election-related conflict in developing democracies.

Aditi is now an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the College of the Holy Cross. Her current work explores the rise of communal violence in rural areas of India. In the longer-term, she is interested in investigating the reasons why some places are able to develop an enduring culture and sustainable social movements to counter violence against women while others are not.

Political education

In large part, Aditi credits her interest in questions of this nature to her childhood. Growing up, she was exposed to many different perspectives about the world around her. Born in New Delhi, her family moved around India due to her father’s job. Often Aditi and her younger sister would move schools with little warning. At the time Aditi found this hard, but now she says it has helped her to adapt to new situations quickly.

Her parents placed a strong emphasis on education – indeed her mother is a teacher. Aditi was initially drawn to English, but also music – she grew up playing piano and her sister is a professional musician. Her high school in New Delhi was quite unique and stressed the importance of extra-curricular activities. Aditi got involved in student government and voluntary work during her school years. 

By the time she was in her final year of school, she had developed a clear interest in Politics and International Relations. Her father used to read the newspaper from cover to cover every morning and so talk of world events was a common occurrence at home, but, despite that, her choice to study Political Science at university came as a surprise to her parents, given the Indian system’s emphasis on science and maths. “It was almost assumed that I would go on to study science because that’s what ‘good’ students are typically expected to do in India. But I was much more interested in exploring why some people have power while others don’t. How is power maintained? What threatens its endurance? Those were the sorts of questions that I was drawn to,” she explains.

Aditi’s experience of studying Politics at school was not a particularly positive one. She says the teaching was quite dry and technical. So she looked at applying to undergraduate courses abroad – at the time, study abroad was becoming increasingly popular and she had several friends who were thinking of doing the same. But she also knew that she would need to secure a scholarship in order to study abroad. As it turns out, a small liberal arts college called Franklin & Marshall (F&M) offered her the most generous financial aid package and so she moved to the US - never having been there before - to begin her degree in the autumn of 2005.

F&M was based in a small Amish town, smaller than her neighbourhood in New Delhi. It was a close-knit campus community, which meant that Aditi was able to focus on her classes. Over the four years, in addition to Political Science, she took several classes in Anthropology and Economics. Being an exclusively undergraduate institution, she was also able to develop close relationships with professors at the college and had mentors in Anthropology, Political Science, and Psychology who helped get her involved in research.

In her second year Aditi took a course led by an African Politics scholar who specialised in the study of human rights and immigration and asylum law. This professor had conducted her own doctoral research in Uganda and Cameroon. “It was then that I realised - really for the first time - that maybe I too could go on to conduct research of my own in the future,” Aditi says. That same year she won a grant to go to Cambodia to study the country’s reconstruction after the Khmer Rouge regime. The following year she worked as a research assistant on a project with a faculty member in the Psychology department and in her senior year, she wrote an honours thesis on what could be done to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity in the 21st century.

Political conflict

When she graduated from F&M with a double major in Political Science and Economics and a minor in Anthropology, Aditi was keen to continue her studies and to focus on African politics and political violence and conflict. She chose Northwestern University due to its distinct strengths in African Studies training and enrolled to do a PhD in Political Science. However, once she had completed the Masters on route to her doctorate at Northwestern, she decided she needed time to be able to think about the issues she wanted to explore in her PhD more deeply and from a different perspective. She applied to the University of Cambridge to do an MPhil and says the year she spent in the UK - 2011-2012 - was “really rejuvenating”. She chose Cambridge because she had spent some time at Oxford during her undergraduate degree and had liked the tutorial system. At Cambridge, where she was based at Newnham College, she found that she was able to immerse herself in her studies and research more fully, as she was temporarily freed up from teaching responsibilities, which were part of her funding package at Northwestern.

Her MPhil thesis was supervised by Dr Sharath Srinivasan, and paved the way to her PhD. She had intended to do her PhD on Rwanda, but found, through the course of her Masters and MPhil, that it was not possible to ask the kind of questions she wanted to about ethnicity and post-conflict reconstruction in an ethical way which would keep her interviewees safe. So she switched her focus to Kenya where there is more open discussion about ethnicity and ethnic politics.

Aditi began her doctoral fieldwork in Kenya and India in early 2013 and returned to her teaching assistant responsibilities at Northwestern that Spring. Her first trip to Kenya was just before the 2013 presidential elections and she returned later that year for a second round of fieldwork between September and December. In addition to mentoring her at Cambridge, Dr Srinivasan also served on her PhD committee at Northwestern. The main question that she looked at for her dissertation was: why does electoral violence decline in some places while it recurs or even escalates over time in others? Both Kenya and India have experienced electoral conflict around several elections but Aditi notes that whereas the risk of such violence persists in Kenya, India has seen a drastic decline in the outbreak of election-time clashes since the mid-1990s. “My main argument to account for this variation is that political parties in the two countries are organised very differently. These differences have important consequences for elite strategies. 

"Parties in Kenya are notoriously unstable. Not only do party names often change from one election to the other but political parties - including incumbent parties - sometimes disappear entirely. Indian parties are more established,” says Aditi. “That affects the way elites think about the electoral utility of violence. If there is an expectation that parties will generally endure from one election to the next, then instrumentalising violence is a riskier strategy as it can result in sanctioning by voters. Thus, party durability makes politicians think more carefully about the costs and benefits of stirring up violence.”

Aditi did her viva in May 2015 and is currently writing up articles based on her PhD research as well as working on a book.  So far, Aditi’s doctoral dissertation has yielded an article that appeared in African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review in 2016. Two additional papers have been accepted and will appear in print shortly.

The next major project that she is thinking about pertains to the development of social movements and activist networks that agitate against violence - particularly sexual violence - against women.

Once again, this is likely to be a comparative project. Aditi was in India in December 2012 and attended some of the protests against the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh. “At the time, it seemed like we had arrived at a watershed moment and that there was going to be some long-term norm change, but the problem [sexual violence against women in India] persists,” she says. “My sense of this is anecdotal at the moment, but in places like South Africa where there is also a high level of sexual assault, there seems to be a more active, concerted mobilisation that is sustained over time rather than the kinds of episodic protests that we see in other places. I want to understand how a lasting culture of activism against sexual assault and violence against women comes to develop and why it emerges in some places but not others.”

*Photo from fieldwork taken in Kwale, Kenya, in 2013.

15/12/2017 - 10:18Sustainability hacking for a better healthcare systemPaulo Savaget and his supervisor have won a $20,000 award to create a roadmap for sustainability hacking.

How do you get medicines to the poor in hard-to-reach areas?

Paulo Savaget [2015] is interested in sustainability hacking, trying to find ways around the bottlenecks in social and technological systems that achieve immediate results.

Paulo and his supervisor Steve Evans have just won a $20,000 award from IBM for their project, Catalysing Access to Medicines by Emulating Value Chains of Fast-Moving Consumer Goods, which involves writing a playbook based on an action research project Paulo has been conducting with ColaLife in Zambia. This nonprofit seeks to emulate the value chains of fast-moving consumer goods such as Coca Cola to get much needed over the counter medicines to people in remote areas in low-income regions. The playbook will be used to scale up the project across other Sub Saharan countries.

For his PhD, Paulo has interviewed ICT hackers and cybersecurity experts to see how hacks can be applied to areas such as health, education, gender empowerment and to combat corruption. After developig his new concept, he has been working with sustainability hackers to understand how they have been addressing some of our most pressing sustainability challenges. 

The action research project in Zambia came about because of the difficulties people in remote areas face to get access to over the counter medicines. Diarrhoea, for example, can often be treated with over-the-counter medicines but is the second biggest killer of children under five in Sub-Saharan Africa. The main bottleneck for getting access to medicines is poor infrastructure and governance. The mainstream and ideal approach would be to improve country's infrastructure to provide the medicines through a comprehensive healthcare system, says Paulo. However, this would also take many years or might not happen at all. That is where hacking comes in as it circumvents the bottleneck to arrive at a more immediate solution that is “good enough”.

The research project started by looking at how medicines could piggyback on the distribution networks of Coca Cola, which has no problem getting into rural areas. As part of the project, medicines were initially designed to fit in between Coke bottles. Then the project mapped the value chain for fast-moving consumer goods to the value chain for diarrhoea treatment. The project increased access to the medication significantly in Zambia.

Paulo’s playbook will explore what can be learnt from this specific case and applied to scale up beyond Zambia. It will trace how the value chains used to distribute Coca Cola could be emulated, including manufacturers, shopkeepers, community health workers, government agencies and many other stakeholders. He is also looking at things which could have an impact on accessibility, for instance, political changes, which are harder to control, and those such as policy frameworks and regulations which could be influenced. In addition Paulo is considering what else could make a difference, for instance, nudge theory to change behaviour and human-centred design.

“Our aim with this playbook is to create a roadmap which empowers people to catalyse system change so that it expands access to healthcare. We need to understand how the immediacy of hacks can be fostered systematically,” says Paulo.

14/12/2017 - 20:38The stirrings of a welfare systemClara Devlieger's research focuses on informal welfare systems in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

How do societies evolve to offer a safety net to their most vulnerable members?

Clara Devlieger's research focuses on informal welfare systems in the Democratic Republic of Congo through studying discussions around emerging patterns of income generation among disabled people in Kinshasa.

It was while she was doing her master's in Social Anthropology at Louvain-la-Neuve University that Clara visited Kinshasa and was struck by the number of disabled people in the border area between the DRC and the Republic of Congo.

"There were disabled people everywhere there,” says Clara, who was born in the DRC to Belgian parents working in development there. “They were trading and carrying goods around, getting them ready to be transported to the other side of the Congo River. It was fascinating. Disabled people are frequently treated as social outcasts in Congo, but at the border they seemed to have a degree of power. They had influence in certain processes and they were organised in unions. I was fascinated to know how they had managed this.”

During her MRes in Social Anthropology, for which she won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship [2011], she started looking into this phenomenon, and she honed her research questions for her PhD.

Her PhD therefore started as a study of the role of disabled people in border trade between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. This role is fairly well known, both within the DRC and outside of it – many of Clara’s interviewees first came to Kinshasa from rural areas after hearing about the opportunities of border work and in the years preceding her fieldwork a string of documentaries about Kinshasa featured people with disabilities at the border in Kinshasa and Brazzaville. However, it has been little studied in academia. Clara focused on people with physical disabilities, who were mostly polio survivors and amputees – who had generally lost limbs as a result of accidents.

Criminality or welfare

Clara’s research gradually broadened out to consider the discussions around the informal solidarity systems disabled people used and how these were presented as controversial but tolerable in the absence of a welfare state. While border work is a source of income, for example, disabled people more frequently work as intermediaries for others than as traders on their own, which some people view less as a source of empowerment and more as a form of exploitation. The Congo River acts as a border between the capitals of the two Congos. At the time of Clara's research, a ferry connected the two cities. It offered discounts for disabled people who were allowed to take a helper with them for free. Disabled people used this allowance, among others, to smuggle people across at a discounted fare. Disabled people also got an informal discount on import taxes, and traders employed them to declare goods for them in order to avoid higher tax rates. 

Clara was interested in the discussion around these controversial forms of income. Opinion in Kinshasa is divided as to whether this represents criminality or a necessary form of welfare. The discounts started in the 1970s, but the ferry discounts became more formalised in recent years while the customs discounts were negotiated on the spot.

All this changed in the last few years when Brazzaville started expelling undocumented migrants amid rumours of criminality, prostitution and child trafficking. This increased tensions between the two countries and had a big impact on border activities, leading to the suspension of ferry traffic for a while. The only way to cross the river became by speedboat, which was less accessible to the disabled.

They therefore had to find other sources of income. Some worked in very precarious jobs, such as selling sweets or shining shoes. Others formed groups of beggars; and many moved to other border zones, such as between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. “It created serious difficulties for people. It was not the first time the border had been closed, but people told me they hadn’t seen anything like this since the 1990s; it created serious tensions between the two countries. Some disabled people had back-up plans such as investments in local shops, but most had to improvise,” says Clara.

The begging was therefore another example of an informal solidarity system. It involves organised groups of disabled people approaching local businesses and presenting themselves as NGOs with formal letters asking for money for specific causes, such as schooling, housing or New Year festivities. “People describe it as begging, but it is framed as NGO funding. It is very controversial. Some ask whether it should be allowed; others say it is degrading. Some ask whether the government should help disabled people,” says Clara. “Framing it as NGOs asking for funding shows it is not okay to just ask for money. It raises questions about who is responsible for caring for the vulnerable.”

Towards a welfare system

Clara finished her PhD last year and is currently working as a research fellow in Social Anthropology and African Studies at Cambridge. She is working on a book based on her PhD and is planning to start a research project with deaf, blind and albino people in the DRC. She says there is still a lot of social stigma around such forms of disability. People often suspect deaf and blind people are faking their disability to get access to privileges.  Clara has an article based on her research coming out in Africa, the journal of the International African Institute, next month. Titled  'Rome and the Romains: Laughter on the Border Between Kinshasa and Brazzaville’, it focuses on precarious livelihoods at the border and humour as a way of managing uncertainty.

All Clara's research links to discussions around state responsibility for the most vulnerable. Organised social welfare is accessible for less than 2% of the DRC population and care for disabled people traditionally tends to come under the auspices of the church and civil society organisations. However, Clara says ideas about this are evolving: people in Kinshasa view informal privileges for people with disabilities as compensations for the failings of the state to take care of people with disabilities. This is part of wider trends such as the rise of the welfare state in Western Europe and the evolution from ideas of disability being evidence of an individual moral flaw to discussions about structural inequalities and the need for state intervention.

In DRC things are beginning to change.  “The government wants a more formal welfare system, but there are huge challenges,” says Clara. “Activists are very keen. The government has very recently ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and is working to define disabled people’s rights and embed them in national law. That affects how disabled people are viewed by society. However, there are huge political and social challenges.”

05/12/2017 - 14:07A Gaza-Cambridge astronautMona Jebril speaks about her research on higher education in Palestine after the Arab Spring.

Mona Jebril’s PhD thesis is the first study of the impact of the Arab Spring on higher education in Gaza. She hopes it will be a significant contribution to the Arab Spring dialogue, showing how young people were influenced by the revolution, how it manifested itself in Gaza, how it encouraged young people to have a voice and what the barriers are to getting that voice heard.

The aim of the thesis, titled "Academic Life Under Occupation: The Impact on Educationalists at Gaza's Universities", is not just to explore the sociological impact of war on higher education, but to explore what kind of interventions might work to democratise the education system, given the political pressures. “Higher education is usually top down from the government ministries or foreign intervention in Palestine. It is not about the voices of the people. My thesis gives voice to Palestinian lecturers and students and maps the past, present and possible future of higher education in Gaza,” says Mona [2012].

Mona had to change the focus of her PhD due to events in the Middle East. When she started she had wanted to do a study of Egyptian education and its influence on higher education at Gaza University. She worked on that for a year, but when Morsi was ousted as president of Egypt and the border between Egypt and Palestine was closed she had to change her plans and topic so it was focused solely on the impact of the ongoing political situation in Palestine/Israel and the Arab Spring on higher education in Gaza. Because she had lost a year, Gates Cambridge agreed to extend Mona’s scholarship for a year.

Due to the political situation, including the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict which saw regular bombing of Gaza’s citizens, Mona has not been able to visit her family during her PhD for fear she would not be allowed back to the UK. She has not seen her family for five years. “Many things have changed in those years,” she says. Her father, an uncle and an aunt have died. A scholarship Mona and her brother founded for female students who study English at Al Azhar University of Gaza in 2008 has recently been renamed the Abdel Aziz Salim Jibril Scholarship, in honour of their father. Mona says: “My five siblings and I studied English for our undergraduate degrees. My father is an English Language and Literature graduate from the American University of Beirut and so he encouraged all of us to specialise in the same major for he believed it was a 'window looking over the world'.”

The importance of education

When she was born in Kuwait, Mona’s father worked in the ministry of higher education while her mother was a teacher. Throughout her childhood, Mona’s parents gave her and her siblings a strong sense of the importance of education and this was driven home in particular when the family were forced to move back to Gaza after her father and her mother lost their jobs following the end of the Gulf War. “My parents left everything they had, but what remained was their education,” she says. “My father was a great believer in the power of education both for individuals and for communities. It is about educating yourself and about changing the world around you.”

She adds: “The renaming is in honour of my father’s passion for education.” It is a passion clearly shared by his daughter.

There have been many other changes too in the time she has been away. Mona’s cousins have started families. Her nephews and nieces have grown up.  Many buildings in Gaza have been bombed and people have died. The fact that so much has changed has made Mona anxious about returning because she has not been part of the changes. “Because I have not seen Gaza without these buildings and these people I know it will be really shocking,” she says.

Because she couldn’t return home, Mona was not able to do field work in the traditional way. Instead she had to conduct interviews over Skype.

She now feels she is at a crossroads. She has finished her research and has become more critical and more aware of the situation in higher education in Gaza. “I am neither fully in nor fully out of Gaza. I have also changed,” she says, adding that the process of doing her thesis has led to a lot of self-reflection.

“My academic work involves taking a distance from my subject, and that has been very challenging. I have tried to immerse myself in a new culture,” she says. She refers to Chris Hadfield’s book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth” where he describes how he feels about returning to Earth. Mona says the image feels appropriate for her situation, particularly given she wanted to be an astronaut as a child. "Because of the continued siege on the Gaza Strip, in studying for my PhD at Cambridge, I found myself in a similar binary situation as that of Chris Hadfield," she says. "As an astronaut, Hadfield mentions that he had to live with the attitude that once he is on earth, he might never get to space again - and if he did, he might never go back to Earth. Similarly, I had one of two choices; either to be in Gaza or out of it.  For that reason I have not visited home at all during the five years of my PhD study. I did not want to risk being locked inside Gaza since the borders are almost permanently closed and their occasional opening is unpredictable. For that reason, I see myself as an astronaut, a Gaza Cambridge astronaut."

Role model

Because of her situation, Mona put everything into her PhD and used it to explore issues that were personally important to her.  “I have lived through bombardment. You feel that at any time a bomb could fall on you. When you do not die you feel you have been gifted with life and that you need to do something meaningful with it. This thesis meant a lot to me as it gave me a chance to convey how people felt, to give them a voice,” she says. “I do not regret being away. I feel I was doing important things which I hope will contribute to documenting the history of Palestinian education.” She studied the impact of factionalism on higher education, graduate unemployment, gender interaction at university and the impact of conflict on academics and students, both practically and psychologically. “I am interested in what is undermining reform in Gaza, how the environment restricts students, stops them exploring their potential, how unemployment makes them focus on their marks rather than on knowledge. I want to explore the idea of education as part of ‘de-development’,” she says.

Mona is now trying to publish her thesis’s findings in academic journals and more widely.

She says friends and family in Gaza are very proud of her achievements. One niece said she was a model for Palestinians because, although she had studied and worked in the Palestinian education system under very difficult conditions, she had been able achieve to the highest levels at both Oxford and Cambridge - Mona graduated from Oxford as first in class with a Distinction. She was called “an ambassador for Palestine”, a model for Arab women. Her nephews and nieces took chocolates to their school to celebrate Mona passing her viva without any corrections. Two had to write about a special person and both wrote about Mona. The expectations are clearly huge, but Mona feels her experience shows how Palestinian students could thrive with exposure to the world outside their country. “They would be supermotivated after years of isolation,” she says. “Education is a vital part of building a nation and building resilience.”

Picture credit: Mona with her PhD supervisor, Professor Diane Reay.

28/11/2017 - 12:48Transformative educationLaura Marcus speaks about how she founded and developed the Arete Project.

Laura Marcus has long been interested in how the education system can better prepare young people for democratic citizenship. At high school she was an activist, taking part in protests against the Iraq war. It was there that she discovered Deep Springs College which follows a two-year liberal arts curriculum in a remote part of California and where students lead class discussions, work 20 hours a week on the school’s ranch and farm and play a significant role in institutional decision-making. “It’s very participatory, very experiential,” says Laura. 

The College, where she worked between graduating from Yale and starting at Cambridge, inspired her to set up her own alternative model of higher education and she is already getting wide recognition for her work. Her Arete Project was recently featured in The New Yorker magazine and Laura is planning to expand its campus to Alaska in the next few months. The Arete Project has been running for four years, including during Laura's time at the University of Cambridge.

Laura, who is finishing her PhD in history and education at Stanford, says what unites her MPhil and what she has been doing since is “how ideas get translated into reality” and how educational institutions embody particular ideals. She says: “Very few of us get to create our own religious or political community, but we do get to educate our children in the way we want. Examining how schools represent our ideas about the world – and our hopes for it - has been my guiding intellectual fascination.”

No Child Left Behind

For her MPhil at Cambridge she studied school accountability reforms in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in particular the No Child Left Behind Act. “The Act was designed to enforce accountability in schooling and passed with sweeping bipartisan success. But very quickly it became a punching bag. I saw in that example how people – especially Americans – use schools as a way to confront massive social problems rather than other state apparatuses. That legislation also contained many assumptions about the relationship between schooling, citizenship and democracy. I wanted to explore how the reform came out of commitments to educational excellence and inclusion, as well as who should be held accountable for that,” she says.

Laura was also interested in how the reform worked in reality, for instance, what duties students, parents, teachers and others had compared to government. “My original idea shifted from how we get students to be part of a democratic education system to how governments design education policy in a way that reflects their ideas of how not only schools, but also society should work,” she says.

While she was doing her MPhil in Education, Laura, who was based at Clare Hall College, supported the Arete Project's move after its first summer from California to North Carolina. That meant developing relationships with people in North Carolina, hiring new faculty and recruiting students.

Education and citizenship

For her PhD Laura is studying the ways schools were deployed to address problems of citizenship in the US between 1880 and 1920 as the US state pushed across the continent in the wake of the Civil War. “A lot of the questions reformers were wrestling with are the same as we are wrestling with today. They have always been the challenge of the US project – how to honour the idea of e pluribus unum, how you bring all these different people together as one nation. In school policy you can see the tensions reformers faced in trying to assimilate groups who had different cultural and educational traditions. Enforced assimilation looked quite brutal during that era, but you can see intimations of these same issues today in debates about bilingualism or the charter school movement,” says Laura.

She is about to move to Alaska to be with her partner who is an oceanographer and will be working full time on the Arete Project from her new home. She hopes eventually to develop a campus there. “I have known for a long time that this is going to be my life’s work,” she says. Like Deep Springs College, the Arete Project involves a small cohort doing experiential, liberal arts and sciences education in a wild setting. Its three educational pillars are liberal arts, physical labour and student self-governance.  Historically, Deep Springs College has only admitted men, so the Arete Project has only admitted women. With Deep Springs going co-ed next year, the Arete Project will begin running co-ed programmes (in addition to its all-women programme) in 2018 or 2019.

Arete Project students can sit on a range of committees covering everything from applications to outreach and hiring faculty and these responsibilities continue even after the programme ends. Alumnae have arranged their own convention and there is also an alumna on the board of directors. “I think the Arete Project offers something really valuable in our current social and political climate. It is a powerful re-imagining of higher education,” says Laura.

This year there were several international students on the programme. Laura [2014] is looking to diversify the applicant pool more, in recognition that many past students have been from elite colleges. The programme costs $500 for eight weeks over the summer and there are full scholarships available. Students grow their own food and construct some of their own shelter.

“That closeness to nature is important for teaching interdependence. The small, heterogenous groups mean there is space for people to have challenging conversations across boundaries of difference,” says Laura. “Given the fracturing of our social sphere, these are conversations we desperately need to be having. One of the most transformative parts of the programme is that people have to engage with very different attitudes than they are used to.”

28/11/2017 - 12:16How conservation organisations are embracing the marketLibby Blanchard authors chapter in new book, The Anthropology of Conservation Organisations.

Gates Cambridge Scholar Libby Blanchard's MPhil research is part of a new book that explores the role and impacts of biodiversity conservation organisations and their conservation policies. 

The book, The Anthropology of Conservation NGOs: Rethinking the Boundaries, includes research that explores the shifting boundaries of conservation NGO identities and actions and examines the prominent role of conservation NGOs as implementers of sustainability practices.

Blanchard says: "Conservation NGOs have long been seen as the guardians of sustainability, and as a result, occupy powerful institutional spaces. Yet, understanding the effects and effectiveness of conservation organisations and their interventions continues to trail most other policy fields. The research included in this book is an effort to address this knowledge gap."

One of the central themes of the book is the changing relationship of conservation organisations with market-based conservation and neoliberal capitalism. Blanchard's research, which makes up a chapter of the book, examines the increasing use of market logic in conservation practices. While two decades ago, mainstream conservation organisations were likely to embrace values, approaches and missions that were incompatible with private sector and business interests, conservation organisations are now increasingly aligning with market values. Examples include a conservation organisation paying individuals to protect a forest instead of depending on regulations and morals that would otherwise keep such a forest out of the market domain.

The research compared attitudes towards market-based instruments among conservationists at the International Congress for Conservation Biology (in New Zealand in 2011) and in conservation organisations clustered in Cambridge in 2013. It found a clear group of market enthusiasts in both New Zealand and Cambridge that embraced market-based instruments for conservation practice. Blanchard's research also found some indications that the move to embrace markets is being led from the top by leaders of conservation organisations.

Blanchard [2012] recently completed her PhD as a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge, where she studied climate change policy and environmental justice debates. She currently collaborates as an affiliated research scholar with the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute.

24/11/2017 - 11:52The opportunities and risks of bioengineeringDr Christian Boehm co-authors article on the long- and short-term opportunities and risks presented by bioengineering.

Human genome editing, 3D-printed replacement organs and artificial photosynthesis – the field of bioengineering offers great promise for tackling the major challenges that face our society. But a new article co-written by a Gates Cambridge Scholar highlights that these developments provide both opportunities and risks in the short and long term.

Rapid developments in the field of synthetic biology and its associated tools and methods, including more widely available gene editing techniques, have substantially increased our capabilities for bioengineering – the application of principles and techniques from engineering to biological systems, often with the goal of addressing 'real-world' problems.

In a feature article published in the open access journal eLife, an international team of experts led by Dr Bonnie Wintle and Gates Cambridge Scholar Dr Christian R. Boehm from the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, capture perspectives of industry, innovators, scholars and the security community in the UK and US on what they view as the major emerging issues in the field.

Dr Wintle says: “The growth of the bio-based economy offers the promise of addressing global environmental and societal challenges, but as our paper shows, it can also present new kinds of challenges and risks. The sector needs to proceed with caution to ensure we can reap the benefits safely and securely.”

The report is intended as a summary and launching point for policy makers across a range of sectors to further explore those issues that may be relevant to them.

Among the issues highlighted by the report as being most relevant over the next five years are:

Artificial photosynthesis and carbon capture for producing biofuels

If technical hurdles can be overcome, such developments might contribute to the future adoption of carbon capture systems, and provide sustainable sources of commodity chemicals and fuel.  

Enhanced photosynthesis for agricultural productivity

Synthetic biology may hold the key to increasing yields on currently farmed land – and hence helping address food security – by enhancing photosynthesis and reducing pre-harvest losses, as well as reducing post-harvest and post-consumer waste.

Synthetic gene drives

Gene drives promote the inheritance of preferred genetic traits throughout a species, for example to prevent malaria-transmitting mosquitoes from breeding. However, this technology raises questions about whether it may alter ecosystems, potentially even creating niches where a new disease-carrying species or new disease organism may take hold.

Human genome editing

Genome engineering technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 offer the possibility to improve human lifespans and health. However, their implementation poses major ethical dilemmas. It is feasible that individuals or states with the financial and technological means may elect to provide strategic advantages to future generations.

Defence agency research in biological engineering

The areas of synthetic biology in which some defence agencies invest raise the risk of ‘dual-use’. For example, one programme intends to use insects to disseminate engineered plant viruses that confer traits to the target plants they feed on, with the aim of protecting crops from potential plant pathogens – but such technologies could plausibly also be used by others to harm targets.

In the next five to ten years, the authors identified areas of interest including:

Regenerative medicine: 3D printing body parts and tissue engineering

While this technology will undoubtedly ease suffering caused by traumatic injuries and a myriad of illnesses, reversing the decay associated with age is still fraught with ethical, social and economic concerns. Healthcare systems would rapidly become overburdened by the cost of replenishing body parts of citizens as they age and could lead new socioeconomic classes, as only those who can pay for such care themselves can extend their healthy years.

Microbiome-based therapies

The human microbiome is implicated in a large number of human disorders, from Parkinson’s to colon cancer, as well as metabolic conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Synthetic biology approaches could greatly accelerate the development of more effective microbiota-based therapeutics. However, there is a risk that DNA from genetically engineered microbes may spread to other microbiota in the human microbiome or into the wider environment.

Intersection of information security and bio-automation

Advancements in automation technology combined with faster and more reliable engineering techniques have resulted in the emergence of robotic 'cloud labs' where digital information is transformed into DNA then expressed in some target organisms. This opens the possibility of new kinds of information security threats, which could include tampering with digital DNA sequences leading to the production of harmful organisms, and sabotaging vaccine and drug production through attacks on critical DNA sequence databases or equipment.

Over the longer term, issues identified include:

New makers disrupt pharmaceutical markets

Community bio-labs and entrepreneurial startups are customizing and sharing methods and tools for biological experiments and engineering. Combined with open business models and open source technologies, this could herald opportunities for manufacturing therapies tailored to regional diseases that multinational pharmaceutical companies might not find profitable. But this raises concerns around the potential disruption of existing manufacturing markets and raw material supply chains as well as fears about inadequate regulation, less rigorous product quality control and misuse.

Platform technologies to address emerging disease pandemics

Emerging infectious diseases - such as recent Ebola and Zika virus disease outbreaks - and potential biological weapons attacks require scalable, flexible diagnosis and treatment. New technologies could enable the rapid identification and development of vaccine candidates and plant-based antibody production systems.

Shifting ownership models in biotechnology

The rise of off-patent, generic tools and the lowering of technical barriers for engineering biology has the potential to help those in low-resource settings, benefit from developing a sustainable bioeconomy based on local needs and priorities, particularly where new advances are made open for others to build on.

Professor Johnathan Napier from Rothamsted Research comments: “The challenges embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals will require all manner of ideas and innovations to deliver significant outcomes. In agriculture, we are on the cusp of new paradigms for how and what we grow, and where. Demonstrating the fairness and usefulness of such approaches is crucial to ensure public acceptance and also to delivering impact in a meaningful way.”

Dr Boehm [2013], who did his PhD in Plant Sciences with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, concludes: “As these technologies emerge and develop, we must ensure public trust and acceptance. People may be willing to accept some of the benefits, such as the shift in ownership away from big business and towards more open science and the ability to address problems that disproportionately affect the developing world, such as food security and disease. But proceeding without the appropriate safety precautions and societal consensus - whatever the public health benefits - could damage the field for many years to come.”

The research has been covered by BBC Radio 4's Inside Science programme here.


23/11/2017 - 12:46Understanding cancer resistant speciesFazal Hadi speaks about his research into why the naked mole-rat is cancer resistant.

The naked mole-rat has been described as the ugliest animal in the world. It is also one of the few species which is resistant to cancer. Fazal Hadi’s research seeks to understand why. 

He describes the animal, which lives up to 32 years, as fascinating. It hails from East Africa where it lives in underground burrows in very organised colonies with a  single breeding female called the queen and around three mating males. 

All other members of the colony carry out different functions, such as protecting the colony from outsiders, looking for food and helping the queen take care of the pups.

“It is not known why naked mole-rats are cancer resistant and my PhD seeks to understand that,” says Fazal [2015]. “There has been some research on its cancer resistance, but that has not yielded much information. There is still a lot we don’t know.” He is beginning to see some interesting data which he says could change the way we think about naked mole-rats and their cancer resistance.

Fazal’s research has recently earned him a Bye-Fellowship at Magdalene College. The Fellowship is for second-year graduate students who show outstanding academic progress  and promise, whose career is likely to benefit from election to a Fellowship and who will contribute most to  the Fellowship and College academic life.

A circuitous career path

Fazal’s PhD is in Pharmacology, but his academic career has not been a straightforward one. He has not been afraid to question what he wanted to study and to change course along the way until he arrived at his current research path - a path to which he is wholly committed.

He showed very early academic promise. He grew up in a rural village in Swat Valley in Pakistan. From an early age he would rarely go to sleep without reading beforehand. His family soon noticed his academic prowess and encouraged it. His eldest brother helped him with his maths, going through everything he had been taught at school with him and making him redo exam papers so that he learned from any mistakes he had made. “My eldest brother was a real support and it helped me a lot. He has been there for me ever since. He and my parents always encouraged me and told me I could achieve,” says Fazal. “If it was not for them I would not be where I am now.”

Fazal went to his local primary and middle school. In his final two years of school he moved to a strict school with long hours of study. He says the training has stood him in good stead and he still visits his teachers every time he returns to the area.

At school he also became involved in conservation work and volunteered for the Red Cross. He continued that community work at university where he ran a blood donor society and organised blood donations camps. He also worked with the World Health Organisation and Unicef on a vaccination campaign for polio and measles. “I felt I needed to give back and do something for society,” he says.

Fazal wasn’t sure whether he wanted to do medicine or pharmacy at university, but ended up choosing a pharmacy course at the University of Peshawar. However, he was also offered a place in mechatronics engineering. After a year of deliberation he decided to change course and apply to  study in Europe. He decided to go to Italy to study Biomedical Engineering which brought together medicine and engineering, but the course was not what he had imagined and adapting to the Italian education system was a challenge. After a year Fazal switched to Biotechnology at the University of Camerino with his family’s support. 

He was able to do his first two years in one so he could catch up. He took to biotechnology immediately. He had found his focus.

Bioetechnology and cancer research

Fazal was inspired to do research by epidemiologist Professor Fulvio Esposito who taught him biology in his first year. Fazal’s undergraduate thesis, supervised by Dr Valerio Napolioni, was on human genetics with a  focus on DAT1 - a gene encoding dopamine transporter. Using a genetic-demographic approach, Fazal and his fellow researchers were able to identify an association between a particular DAT1 variant with human lifespan.

During his undergraduate studies, Fazal spent six months on an Erasmus placement at Dr Walid Khaled’s lab in Cambridge because he wanted to get a broader experience of his subject and was interested in cancer research. He initially came for three months to work on breast cancer research, but that was extended to six months. At Cambridge he met Gates Cambridge scholars and Pharmacology students. The experience led to him applying to the university for his postgraduate studies. “This experience cemented my interest in cancer research and I knew Cambridge was the place I wanted to continue my studies,” he says.

Fazal applied before he completed his undergraduate degree in February 2015 and started his PhD in October 2015. He hopes to continue in academia when he has finished and says he is very happy to be a Gates Cambridge Scholar. He says: “It is very diverse and open. There is a great sense of community and you can collaborate with people from different disciplines over a coffee. Whole new ideas can be born just in that moment.”

22/11/2017 - 09:40Double success for Gates Cambridge coupleDouglas Brumley and Natalia Egorova both win Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards.

A Gates Cambridge couple have been doubly successful and have both won the competitive Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) in Australia.

Husband and wife Douglas Brumley [2009] and Natalia Egorova [2010] were both successful in this year’s round of Australian Research Council Grants. The success rate for the competitive Discovery Early Career Researcher Award is just 16%.

Douglas won a $365,058 grant for a project which aims to apply advanced video-microscopy to characterise microbial motion at the single cell level, interrogating their navigational responses in precisely controlled physical and chemical conditions. Douglas says ocean carbon cycling is driven by the concerted action of marine microbes, but the fine-scale interactions between these microbes and their physical and chemical environments remains elusive. “The project findings will unravel the fundamental processes governing microbial motion in real environments, and develop the mechanistic modelling tools required to make quantitative ecosystem-level predictions of how soil-atmosphere-water-marine systems respond in the face of environmental change,” he states in his submission. Douglas, who did a PhD in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge, is currently a Lecturer in Applied Mathematics at the University of Melbourne.

Natalia’s $366,403 grant is for a project which aims to generate a novel neurobiological account of word learning, going beyond a simple mapping between words and objects and recognising the sensory and socio-communicative embedding of language. Capitalising on interdisciplinary approaches to research, the project will use state-of-the-art neuroimaging to reveal the neural architecture and mechanisms supporting contextualised sensory word learning. Natalia says the results are expected to bring about a paradigm shift in the fields of neurobiology of language and learning, having a profound impact on the practice of language teaching and improvement of language functioning. Natalia who did her PhD in Biology at Cambridge, is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and the University of Melbourne.

21/11/2017 - 12:52Scholar leads review of self-assembled molecules researchDr Derrick Roberts leads review of growing field of research in chemistry.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has led a review of the growing research on self-assembled molecules and "post-assembly" chemical reactions.

The review, led by Dr Derrick Roberts, was commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry's journal Chem. Soc. Rev. and recognises the expertise of Dr Roberts and his University of Cambridge co-authors, Professor Jonathan Nitschke and Dr Ben Pilgrim, in this growing area within chemistry and its importance as a new way of transmitting molecular signals using artificial molecular cages.

The review summarises the existing methods for modifying self-assembled molecules using irreversible chemical reactions. It focuses on the state-of-the-art achievements that have emerged over the past five to eight years, during which time this area of research has grown rapidly.

"Post-assembly" chemical reactions are powerful because they can greatly stabilise self-assembled molecules, making it possible for them to withstand harsher environments, such as those found in chemical sensors. These reactions can also drive self-assembled molecules to transform from one type of structure (for instance, a 2D triangle) into another such as a 3D polyhedron. They can also be used to change the chemical functionality of a self-assembled molecule in a simple, modular fashion — making it possible to generate libraries of different compounds.

Dr Roberts [2012] says the review is based on his PhD work at the University of Cambridge. He states: "Post-assembly modification (PAM) reactions are analogous to renovations on a plain house — starting from a simpler architecture (your basic no-frills house), you can add on extra bits here and there (a carport, solar panels, a gym room, a swimming pool) to tailor the architecture to your specifications. This modularity is super useful for taking a basic self-assembled molecule and adapting it to a wide range of applications. Since PAM is a general tool, our review collects together all the existing examples and looks at what types of reactions work and why — sort of a brief encyclopedia that summarises what has been done, and where there are gaps in our current knowledge of the field.”

The review also highlights challenges for the future with regard to the development of more PAM reactions to increase the diversity of possible modifications.

Dr Roberts, who is currently a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, says there are roughly 10 reactions types that can be used for PAM, and each reaction introduces a specific set of atoms (called a "functional group") to the self-assembled architecture. He adds: "Developing new reaction types will increase the range of functional groups that can be introduced to the architecture, leading to a more versatile set of tools for adapting self-assembled molecules to various applications, including chemical sensing, biomedical materials and reaction catalysts."

*Picture of bilayer formation through molecular self-assembly courtesy of Youtube and Professor Axel Kohlmeyer.

16/11/2017 - 17:49Rising Tides bring innovation prizeVictoria Herrmann wins the JM Kaplan Fund Innovation Prize to fund a research project on the impact of sea-level rise.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has won a prestigious US social entrepreneurship prize for a research project on US towns and cities at risk of partial submersion due to climate change.

Victoria Herrmann's was one of 10 projects to scoop the JM Kaplan Fund Innovation Prize.

Her winning Rising Tides project will create a new online matchmaking platform that connects pro bono experts with climate-affected communities. Whether taking on archaeological work in Alaskan villages or oral histories in Mississippi’s historic black communities, the project will seek to safeguard heritage by connecting national expertise to some of the 13 million Americans who stand to be displaced due to rising waters in the coming years. It will initially focus on bringing technical assistance directly to small and medium-sized towns that are geographically remote and socioeconomically vulnerable. By connecting communities with volunteer professionals looking to donate skills - from a one-hour consultation to a fully fledged cultural resources management plan - the project seeks to build social cohesion, preserve historic sites and empower local traditions to withstand climate threats.

It is thought that by the end of this century, at least 414 towns and cities across America will be partially underwater from sea-level rise and accelerating extreme storms. The Rising Tides project will draw on Victoria's experience of working with community champions from Alaska to American Samoa through her America’s Eroding Edges project, a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The J.M. Kaplan Fund has provided catalytic funding for projects in their early stages of development in the form of grants. The Prize leverages this legacy of catalytic grant-making in the field of social innovation.

In addition to cash support of $150,000, paid out over three years, plus a $25,000 bank of funds for project expense, the Prize includes capacity-building counsel from experts in organisational development, board cultivation, media coaching and leadership training. The three areas considered for the US prize are the environment, heritage conservation and social justice.

The Fund says: "The J.M.K. Innovation Prize is awarded to projects or ideas that represent a game-changing answer to a clearly identified need; are innovative within the Fund’s three funding areas; demonstrate the potential to develop an actionable pilot or prototype with Prize funding; and hold out the promise to benefit multiple individuals, communities, or sectors through a clearly articulated theory of change."

Earlier this year Victoria [2014], who won the 2017 Bill Gates Sr Award and is currently completing her PhD in Polar Studies, was named on this year's Forbes 30under30 list for Law & Policy.

15/11/2017 - 11:52Supporting innovation and business ideas in Africa Queen Nworisara Quinn on creating spaces where different sectors can collaborate in the interests of African innovation and enterprise.

During her time at Cambridge, Queen Nworisara Quinn co-founded the Cambridge Africa Business Network, a yearly conference focused on Africa which brought academics and practitioners together as well as politicians such as Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria. It was a huge achievement and one that exemplifies her commitment to creating spaces where different sectors can collaborate in the interests of African innovation and enterprise.

She says: “I feel really proud of what we achieved. It’s important to create networks between academics and practitioners in Africa and students and practitioners in the UK. The network aims to promote more entrepreneurs and research focused on Africa.”

The first conference took place in the spring of 2012 and the following year Queen advised MBA students to run it, helped find speakers and was a speaker on one of the panels. It built on her experience at the African Development Bank and has stood her in good stead for her present job as co-founder of Kupanda Capital, an organisation which creates and scales innovative business ideas.

Early years and studies

Queen [2011] has always had a broad world view. Born in Nigeria, her family moved to the US after her father received a scholarship to study engineering. Queen attended elementary and secondary school in Orlando, Florida, but in her last two years of high school her family moved to Pennsylvania. Although she was a good all-round student, she developed a particular interest in political history, inspired by a particularly good teacher. She attended Advanced Placement classes in history and was drawn to international relations. “Being born outside the US meant I had a bigger world view. I was interested in what was going on geopolitically, especially on the Africa continent,” she says.

When she started university at Penn State, Queen wasn’t initially sure what she would major in. While she loved politics and international relations, her parents favoured medicine, engineering or law.  She benefited from a good teacher, Professor Michael Berkman, Director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, who had a big influence on her early academic career. While she was at Penn State she took part in the Fund for American Studies economics and political science programme. That included being placed in an internship at BAMPAC, Black America’s Political Action Committee, in Washington DC. The organisation supported fiscally conservative policies and African-American candidates. The experience taught Queen a lot about how the government works and got her thinking more about public policy.

After graduating in 2001 and marrying her husband Matthew the following year, Queen moved to Washington DC and worked as a programme officer for the Fund for American Studies, managing its international programme which involved bringing students together to study conflict management and political economy courses.

Master's course

Two years later, with the advice of Professor Berkman, she applied to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to do a master’s in Public Policy, with a concentration on International Trade and Finance to give herself experience in both the practical and theoretical issues around public policy making. She describes the experience as “transformative”. “It shaped the direction of my professional life,” she says. The first year focused on economics and Queen became interested in social enterprise and social entrepreneurship which covered the public, private and non-profit sectors. Queen spent half her first summer in Nigeria working for Partners for Development, evaluating microfinance and health programmes. For the other half she interned at the African Development Bank working in the risk management and the private sector departments. It was her first exposure to working in a financial institution. The experience led her to start exploring the idea of working in banking.

Later that autumn, during the final year of her master’s programme, she attended a Citigroup event and met the head of global recruiting there. She spoke about her work at the African Development Bank and the Citi recruiter asked for her cv. It was serendipity, but Queen was ready to get the training she needed. She joined Citi’s management associate programme in New York and stayed at the firm for two years. The experience gave her a good grounding in the financial sector, but she eventually wanted to do something that was more Africa-focused. She applied to the young professionals programme at the African Development Bank and moved to Tunis.

African Development Bank

Colleagues said she was taking a risk as she was in line for promotion, but it turned out to be very prescient timing. It was 2008 and the global recession was just about to set in. “It was a wonderful time to be at the African Development Bank (AfDB).  Due to the credit freeze, lots of companies could not get capital from private banks. The African Development Bank was able to provide much needed capital. As an investment officer, I worked on a lot of transactions. It was a tremendous experience. We worked on private and public projects across Africa which had a huge impact,” says Queen. She also became interested in the newly evolving space of impact investing whereby private capital investments are made to generate a social and/or environmental impact. She decided she needed some time to reflect on what she had learned and to get a wider perspective on it.

Queen met two Gates Cambridge Scholars at the African Development Bank and looked into applying for an MPhil with a view to continuing on towards a PhD. She contacted Professor Michael Barrett at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School who encouraged her to apply. She only applied to Cambridge and to Christ's College and says that the Gates Cambridge scholarship made it easier to continue her studies, especially given the decision to leave a job she really enjoyed. Her MPhil was in Innovation, Strategy and Organisation and was followed by a PhD in Management Studies which focused on the emergence of impact investing and the flow of capital towards frontier African markets. Her dissertation was supervised by Dr Kamal Munir, Reader in Strategy & Policy at the Judge Business School.

Kupanda Capital

On completing her PhD, Queen started working at Kupanda Capital full time. Kupanda Capital is an investment platform she co-founded with her former colleagues from the African Development Bank, Bobby Pittman and Linda Oramasionwu. The organisation creates, capitalises and scales new investment opportunities focused on Africa. One of the firms it is has created is Fraym, a geospatial data analytics company which improves decision-making for development finance institutions, corporates and US government agencies operating in Africa. Queen serves as a member of the board. “At Kupanda Capital we see ourselves as entrepreneurs and business builders. We co-create with entrepreneurs, cultivate high performing teams and scale up pan-African companies. It’s very collaborative and not just about deploying capital. We are focused on how to build sustainable businesses in Africa,” she says.

Queen is also on the board of OXOSI, a design-centred platform for African brands and designers who want to reach a global market. In addition to its investment work, Kupanda Capital partners with the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in South Africa to recruit new associates from within the ALA network of talented young African leaders. Queen has also connected ALA staff to the Gates Cambridge staff in order to encourage ALA students to do further studies abroad through a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and to get the experience they need to progress in their careers. “These are some of the most talented people on the planet,” she says.

Queen says she feels like she has come full circle through this work. She says: “Everything I have been able to accomplish professionally is due in larger part to my access to education. It has transformed my life. Working at Kupanda Capital is one of the best ways to leverage all the opportunities that have been given to me, including Gates Cambridge which has inspired me to help others.”

09/11/2017 - 11:08The politics of whiteness in AfricaDanelle van Zyl-Hermann has co-edited a special issue on contemporary discussions around white communities in Africa.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has co-edited the first comparative study on white privilege, power and subjectivities in post-colonial Africa in an academic journal.

Danelle van Zyl-Hermann [2010] is currenty a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of the Free State, South Africa. Along with Jacob Boersema from Columbia University, she has edited a special issue on 'The politics of whiteness in Africa' in the latest edition of the journal Africa. ​Africa, the journal of the Interational African Institute, is the premier journal devoted to the interdisciplinary study of African societies and culture. 

The edited collection brings together research on Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Danelle says it provides timely new insights into contemporary discussions around white citizenship and belonging under black majority rule; into how race in contemporary Africa articulates not only with post-colonial struggles but also with new racialised forms of globalisation; and into the fragility of the cohesion of white communities in the post-colony.

In their introduction to the issue Danelle and Jacob talk about the need to understand the construction, representation and functioning of whiteness in Africa vis-à-vis the white other as well as vis-à-vis the racial other.

They underline the need to consider the heterogeneity of whiteness in contemporary Africa, including variations in whiteness in disparate geographical contexts and within white communities. They write: "White subjectivities or patterns of white power and privilege both assume different forms in, say, Kenya than they do in Zimbabwe, and differ between, for instance, urban and rural white communities within Zimbabwe. As different white communities seek to negotiate the challenges posed by the postcolonial context in particular ways, we thus see a multiplicity of configurations of white identity and power. At the same time, the articles reveal similarities in racist ideologies, cultural repertoires and material practices of domination across varying African contexts. Whiteness in postcolonial Africa emerges as dynamic and constantly adapting."

The co-editors talk about certain trends, for instance, the growing use of the language of victimhood, mainly in relation to postcolonial policies of black majority regimes ostensibly disadvantaging or even threatening whites and how this is being used to preserve power structures.

Danelle and Jacob argue that the studies have wider implications beyond Africa. They write: "Population projections for the United States estimate that by 2042 whites will no longer form the majority of the population but will be outnumbered by Americans of other races. In many American and European cities, whites already form a minority in relation to labour migrants, immigrants and their descendants. Foreshadowing broader, global trends, the ethnographies [we have] collected illuminate aspects of future race relationships far beyond the African continent.

*Picture credit: Youtube.

06/11/2017 - 10:35Speeding up the spread of informationHayk Saribekyan talks about his research on distributed computing and how it could eventually be applied to biological systems.

Technology is evolving fast and it is only fairly recently that rapidly increasing speeds in communication networks have allowed the field of distributed computing to flourish. Distributed computing allows the resources of a large number of computers in a network to work together to tackle computational problems that would otherwise be impossible to solve. Examples include the the bitcoin network where the monetary transactions created by individuals have to be spread to all nodes in the network as quickly as possible. 

Hayk Saribekyan's research draws parallels between distributed computing and biological systems, such as ant colonies, where individuals communicate and try to solve common tasks. His PhD focuses on designing methods to improve the speed at which information is spread in networks and analysing their efficiency.

Using mathematical models he will try to see what are good algorithms for managing information efficiently. He is hopeful that one day his theoretical work can also be used to understand complex biological and chemical systems. He says: “Information can be encoded in molecules, which then undergo a series of reactions that can be thought of as computation. This type of computation can be useful for tasks requiring ‘parallelism’ - a type of computation in which many calculations or the execution of processes are carried out simultaneously.”

Hayk [2017] is the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from Armenia and is keen to give back to his country. At MIT where he did his undergraduate studies, for instance, he became involved in the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives [MISTI] programme. It has a global teaching lab [GTL] initiative which sends MIT students to teach in high schools around the world. Hayk taught in a high school in Italy in his second year and thought it would be good to have a similar programme in Armenia. With the support of the Luys Foundation in Armenia, he helped to launch a GTL programme in his home country in 2015 and also taught on it in 2016.


Hayk came to Computer Science as a result of his experience at his secondary school. After having grown up in a village in Armenia until he was 10, he and his brother were enrolled at one of the best schools in the capital Yerevan. Both his parents and older brother had a background in applied mathematics so it was not surprising that he grew up with an early interest in mathematical and technical subjects. Computer Science was therefore a good fit for him and his school was more innovative than most in Armenia, particularly when it came to informatics. It was one of the first schools in the country to teach computational thinking to young children using a game-like programming language developed at MIT. Hayk took classes in informatics from age 11. “I liked to build things and through programming I could build software,” he says. “There was a lot of support for informatics at the school. It was a wonderful environment to grow up in.” The school had such an impact on his subsequent career that every time he goes home he visits it.

When he left school where he graduated with the best marks in informatics, Hayk never considered doing anything other than Computer Science. While he was at school he had entered several international Olympiads in science subjects and met and was mentored by students who went to top universities, including MIT.  That broadened his outlook when it came to deciding where to apply for his undergraduate studies. He opted for MIT where he was given almost full financial support.


During his five years at MIT, where he completed an undergraduate and masters in Computer Science, he did various internships and spent his third year at St John’s College in Cambridge where he is now based. In his last two years at MIT he was involved in research in connectomics, a branch of computational neuroscience. Connectomics aims to understand the nanoscale structure of the nervous system from high resolution electron microscopy images of brain tissue. The field was founded in the 1980s when work was done on the nervous system of a worm, but has progressed rapidly in recent years due to technological advances. Its findings may have medical applications in neurology as well as help us understand the process of learning and memory. The brain images that Hayk was working with allowed him to see every cell in a particular part of a mouse’s brain. “We were using machine learning techniques to try to map the structure of the brain at nanoscale,” he says.

From MIT, Hayk applied to Cambridge after his earlier experience at St John's, but before he arrived he spent the summer doing an internship at INRIA - the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation - working on distributed computing, the subject of his PhD. He says that after his studies finish he would like to stay in academia, but also to maintain a professional connection with Armenia.

02/11/2017 - 13:22Preventing a genetic uprising in early lifeResearch study led by Dr Rebecca Berens finds first evidence that endosiRNAs moderate transposon activity during DNA demethylation.

Molecules called endosiRNAs help us avoid genetic chaos, according to a new study from the Babraham Institute, led by a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

Much of the human genome contains pieces of DNA called transposons, a form of genetic parasite. When active, transposons can damage genes so it is important to keep them inactive. Early in the human life cycle controlling transposons is particularly difficult. This latest research, published in Cell Stem Cell, reveals how endosiRNAs keep our genes safe during this vulnerable stage.

Transposons, also called transposable elements, are ancient viruses that have become a permanent part of our genes. Around half of the human genome is made of transposons, many are damaged, but some can become active. Active transposons can be harmful because they move about the genome. When transposons move they can damage genes, leading to genetic illnesses and playing a part in some cancers.

Chemical markers in DNA called methylations can keep transposons inactive. Cells often use methylations to inactivate pieces of DNA, whether they are genes or transposons. Yet, in each new generation most methylations are temporarily erased and renewed by a process called epigenetic reprogramming. This means that, during sperm and egg production, there is a short time when methylations do not control transposon activity, leaving them free to damage genes and shuffle DNA.

The new findings show that transposons become active when cells erase DNA methylation and they are shut down by the endosiRNA system. Just like active genes, active transposons produce messages in the form of RNA molecules, which have many similarities to DNA. The study reveals that cells can detect these transposon RNA messages and use them to create specific endogenous small interfering RNAs (endosiRNAs). The endosiRNAs then act like a trap, allowing a protein called Argonaute2 (Ago2) to seek and destroy transposon messages before they cause any harm.

Speaking about the research lead author on the paper Dr Rebecca Berrens [2012], who completed her PhD in Biological Science with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, said: “Epigenetic reprogramming plays a vital role in wiping the genome clean at the start of development, but it leaves our genes vulnerable. Understanding the arms race between our genes and transposon activity has been a long-running question in molecular biology. This is the first evidence that endosiRNAs moderate transposon activity during DNA demethylation. EndosiRNAs provide a first line of defence against transposons during epigenetic reprogramming.”

The effects of active transposons vary, often they have no effect, only occasionally will they alter an important gene. Yet, transposons can affect almost any gene, potentially leading to different kinds of genetic disease. Studying the control of transposons, adds to our understanding of the many ways that they can impact on human health.

Transposons sit within genes and are read in the opposite direction to the surrounding gene. It is this arrangement that allows cells to identify RNA messages from transposons. RNA messages read from the same piece of DNA in opposite directions are complementary, meaning they can join to form a structure called double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), which initiates the creation of endosiRNAs.

Senior scientist on the paper, Professor Wolf Reik, Head of the Epigenetics Laboratory at the Babraham Institute, said: “Transposons make up a large part of our genome and keeping them under control is vital for survival. If left unchecked their ability to move around the genome could cause extensive genetic damage. Understanding transposons helps us to make sense of what happens when they become active and whether there is anything we can do to prevent it.”

Much of this research was carried out using embryonic stem cells grown in the lab, which had been genetically modified to lack DNA methylations. Natural epigenetic reprogramming happens in primordial germ cells, the cells that make sperm and eggs, but these are harder to study. The researchers used primordial germ cells to verify the key results from their study of stem cells.

*Picture shows IAP activity.
02/11/2017 - 12:18Monitoring bridge infrastructure Kasun Kariyawasam speaks at UK Bridge Owners Forum on safeguarding national bridge assets in the UK against scour-induced failures.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has spoken at a major UK meeting of bridge owners on one of the main causes of bridge erosion.

Kasun Kariyawasam spoke at the UK Bridge Owners Forum, a triannual meeting of major bridge owning organisations in the UK such as Network Rail, Highways England, London Underground and the transport authorities of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Ireland. The forum, held on 31st October 2017 at King's College, Cambridge focused on safeguarding the national bridge assets in the UK against scour-induced failures.

Scour is the erosion of soil from the bed and banks of a river channel due to the effects of fast-flowing water. High scour levels around a bridge foundation can lead to bridge instability and even collapse. Scour has been identified as one of the most prevalent causes of bridge failure around the world. For example, in the United States, scour and flooding related events have accounted for more than 50% of the reported bridge failures since 1989.

There are numerous techniques available to monitor scour, ranging from scuba divers using crude depth measuring rods to high-tech autonomous underwater vehicles. However, most of these techniques have serious limitations related to reliability, robustness and cost.

Kasun [2016] talked about the recent developments of scour monitoring techniques around the world, highlighting their advantages and limitations. Kasun, under the supervision of Professor Campbell Middleton at the Department of Engineering, is developing a scour monitoring technique that can identify structures at risk from scour which has the potential to assist bridge managers to make more reliable maintenance decisions.

*Picture of Reading Bridge courtesy of Wikipedia.





30/10/2017 - 11:35Scholars to speak at Internal SymposiumFour Scholars will address subjects ranging from memory formation to the ethics of cancer screening.

Four Gates Cambridge Scholars are presenting their research at an Internal Symposium on 1st November on subjects ranging from the mental health of women in the slums of Mumbai and memory formation to migration between Japan and Mexico and the ethics of cancer screening.

Saloni Atal’s talk is entitled Suffering, Survival & Transformation: Lay Understandings of Mental Illness Among Women in Mumbai’s ‘Slums’. It covers depressive and anxiety disorders among slum-dwelling women in India. Her research explores local understandings of distress and healing among slum-dwelling women and found that mental ill health was understood in essentially social terms through the idiom of ‘tension’ and defined against community norms surrounding family responsibilities, gender roles and economic productivity. Saloni, [2017], who is doing a PhD in Psychology, says: “Treatment for mental ill health was seen to require the mobilisation of community resources through social networks, seeking expert advice and generating employment. Women also stressed the need to be self-reliant and cultivate psychological resources through re-framing, endurance and moral fortitude.” She hopes her findings will help in the development of methods of intervention which are appropriate to local contexts and which make use of local cultural and linguistic resources.

Alex Quent’s talk is entitled Interaction between reward anticipation and stress hormone during memory formation. It looks at how memories are encoded in the brain by focusing on those associated with stress or reward. His research found that, while there were no significant effects of stress or reward on overall memory performance, for events where no reward was anticipated, increases in stress-related cortisol in stressed participants were related to increases in recall and increases in recollection-based recognition responses. In contrast, for events where a reward was anticipated, increases in stress-related cortisol were not related to increases in memory performance. Alex [2017], who is doing a PhD in Biological Science, says the results indicate that the stress and the reward systems interact in the way they impact episodic memory and shed light on the neurobiological mechanism of how memories are formed.

Jessica Fernandez de Lara Harada [2016] will speak about her research on United States - Japan - Latin American relations and their impact on large-scale long-distance migration from Japan to Mexico at the turn of the 20th century. She will address state policies, national politics and institutional and popular discourses on migration, nation and miscegenation and citizenship, but she is more concerned with the individual experiences, motivations and trajectories of Japanese migrants and their descendants across generations. Jessica, who is doing a PhD in Latin American Studies, says: “My research addresses globalisation as everyday process, race and multi-culture and world history."

Joseph Wu’s talk is entitled Should you get screened for cancer? He will explain the benefits and harms of cancer screening and map these onto the main points of controversy around the early detection of cancer. In doing so he will look at the ethical issues screening raises and look at the implications for medical practice and health policy. Joseph [2016] is doing a PhD in History and the Philosophy of Science.

*The Internal Symposium takes place on 1st November in the GCSR from 7-9pm. All Gates Scholars and their guests are welcome. Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons.

27/10/2017 - 13:12A tale of the messenger’s tailNew research reveals the architecture of an essential mRNA processing machinery.

DNA contains information needed to make proteins - the basic building block of a cell. The information in the DNA is first transcribed into an intermediate messenger RNA (mRNA), which is then used as the template to make proteins. In a nutshell, this is the central dogma of molecular biology.

Our cells consist of numerous molecular machines that are made up of proteins and nucleic acids. These large molecular machines carry out most of the tasks necessary for cell survival including transcription of DNA into mRNA, additional processing of the mRNA and translating the information in the mRNA into proteins. An essential and poorly understood step in the central dogma involves the cleavage of an mRNA and the addition of a polyadenosine or poly(A) tail. This is carried out by a complex multi-protein machinery known as the Cleavage and Polyadenylation Factor (CPF).

The mRNA poly(A) tail is essential for the efficient export of the mRNA into the cytoplasm and subsequently has an influence on mRNA translation into proteins. Not surprisingly, defects in mRNA poly(A) tail addition are associated with several diseases, including cancer. Despite the central role of poly(A) tails in the life of an mRNA, the mechanistic underpinning for the poly(A) addition by CPF has remained elusive.

Gates Cambridge scholar Anantha Kumar [2015] and EMBO fellow Dr Ana Casañal worked with a team of scientists led by Dr Lori Passmore in the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge to study this. They now report a major advancement in our understanding of the structure and function of CPF and how poly(A) tails are added. The research, Architecture of eukaryotic mRNA 3-end processing machinery was published in the journal Science this week.

Experiments, done in collaboration with Dr Carol Robinson’s group at the University of Oxford, revealed that CPF is assembled from 14 different protein subunits organised into three modules. These modules are segregated around the cleavage, polymerase and phosphatase enzymes of CPF. “Although we have known the identities of the proteins that make up CPF for many years, it was not clear how they assemble into one complex. Our interaction map provides a new conceptual framework to understand how the CPF functions. It also allowed us to produce individual modules for structural studies,” explains Dr Passmore.

The polymerase module identified by the team consists of five protein subunits, including the polymerase enzyme Pap1, and is also present in humans. Anantha [2015], who is a third year PhD student in Biological Science at Churchill College, said: "Pap1 can add a poly(A) tail to a substrate mRNA by itself. But in the cell, Pap1 exists as a part of a bigger complex along with several other protein subunits. We were really tantalised by the roles of these other subunits in poly(A) tail addition."

"We took a biochemical and structural biology approach in order to clarify the interactions, architecture and functions of the subunits," added Dr Casañal.

The team purified the polymerase module and captured it in vitreous ice in its native state. They then imaged it using a transmission electron microscope – this technique, known as cryo-EM, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year. This led to the determination of an atomic-resolution structure of the complex. For the first time, the team was able to visualise the intricate and extensive interactions between the different protein subunits that hold the complex together. To their surprise, the structure of the polymerase module resembles other protein complexes in the cell that are involved in RNA splicing and DNA repair. Furthermore, by combining the structure of the polymerase module with previous data from other groups, the team provides a new explanation for how the influenza A virus could take control of the host cell. “We were trying to understand how this fundamental molecular machine works in the cell. We were delighted to also gain insight into influenza infection,” explained Anantha.

By combining data from biochemical experiments, cryo-EM and mass spectrometry, the team found that the polymerase module acts a hub for facilitating specific and efficient poly(A) tail addition. One can think of the polymerase module as similar to the international space station docking and berthing. It's a busy hub where all the interactions take place," added Anantha and Dr Casañal who are currently focussing on trying to get detailed structural information about such interactions.

“This work is a big achievement. It opens the door to future studies directed at understanding how expression of genes is controlled by this cellular machine,” Dr Passmore concluded.

The research was funded by the Gates Cambridge, MRC, the European Research Council (ERC), and EMBO. The researchers used electron microscope facilities at the MRC LMB and the Diamond Light Source.

*Picture credit: Ana Casañal and Thomas Martin.

27/10/2017 - 09:49Crime down the generationsSytske Besemer leads new study on intergenerational transmission of criminal behaviour.

Children with criminal parents are more than twice as likely to themselves exhibit criminal behaviour, according to a new wide-ranging study led by a Gates Cambridge Scholar which suggests intergenerational transmission of criminal behaviour may increase under more punitive penal regimes.

The research, published in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior and led by Sytske Besemer [2008], shows children of criminal parents are 2.4 times more likely than those without criminal parents to exhibit criminal behaviour. When the figures were screened for other factors, including socioeconomic status, family size, teenage parenthood, parental conflict, education and child abuse, children of criminal parents were still 1.8 times more likely to offend.

The study of intergenerational transmission of criminal behaviour involved a systematic review and pooled results from 23 samples in 25 publications including 3,423,483 children.

Transmission was strongest from mothers to daughters, followed by mothers to sons, fathers to daughters, and fathers to sons. Moreover, transmission appeared stronger for cohorts born after 1981. The researchers say this is significant since, in the 1980s, following a focus on reintegrating and rehabilitating offenders in the 1960s and 1970s, the penal climate in the US and Europe turned more punitive, with more people being sent to prison and receiving longer prison sentences.

Moreover, the researchers found stronger transmission in the United States versus Sweden and Denmark. The United States is characterised by a punitive crime policy: rates of incarceration are among the highest in the world. On the other hand, in Sweden and Denmark, sentencing policies and public opinion on crime and punishment are quite different.

While they say there is no conclusive proof of a causal link between criminal parents and criminal behaviour in children, they say children whose parents are involved in CB experience a strong combination of risk factors for crime, including opportunities for social learning of antisocial behaviour, criminogenic environments, official bias against them and genetically mediated antisocial proclivities, often interacting and transacting over time.

The researchers say their findings suggest governments should switch from a short-term focus on crime control to crime prevention to break the cycle of crime. They say: "This meta-analysis provides a compelling case for the existence of intergenerational transmission of criminal behaviour and underscores the importance of interventions intended to break the cycle of offending. Clearly, interventions targeted at children of convicted parents would be a viable starting point. A first suggestion would be to provide family-based intervention programmes, such as parent education and parent management training."

Sytske Besemer did a PhD in Criminology at the University of Cambridge and is currently a Criminal Justice Researcher at Uber.

*Picture credit: Wikimedia commons.

18/10/2017 - 19:29Scholar appointed to Latino Affairs commissionCarlos Adolfo Gonzalez is appointed as Commissioner on the Pennsylvania Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been appointed as a Commissioner on the Pennsylvania Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs.

Carlos Adolfo Gonzalez [2015], who did his MPhil at the University of Cambridge in Latin American Studies, will represent Lancaster County on the Commission.

The Commission describes him in the following words: "Originally from the Dominican Republic and raised in the United States, Carlos Adolfo Gonzalez is a passionate scholar, speaker and advocate. As a DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] beneficiary, his commitment to immigrant rights is rooted in his experience living undocumented."

Carlos said: “I am honoured to be appointed by Governor Tom Wolf to represent Lancaster County on the Commission. As a millennial, first-generation college graduate, and undocumented Pennsylvanian, I hope to bring a unique perspective and skill set to the work of the Commission as we advise the Governor on policies that empower and uplift our Latino Community in Pennsylvania.”

The Commission has been in place since 1971 and is dedicated to advising the governor on policies and legislation that impact the one million Latino residents in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It aims "to contribute to the governor’s goal of government that works, schools that teach, and jobs that pay". It is composed of 20 volunteer members appointed by the governor for a term of two years.

Carlos' family moved to Lancaster Country shortly after immigrating to the US from the Dominican Republic. He first became involved with community politics when he attended community college there. He reactivated the Latino student organisation and interned at the Pennsylvania’s Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino affairs, his first contact with the body. At Amherst College, where he completed his undergraduate studies, Carlos chaired La Causa, a student-led organisation focused on promoting Latino culture and raising awareness about the issues facing Latino students on campus. He also successfully collaborated with students, faculty and administrators to establish a Latinx and Latin American Studies major and sat on the Centre for Community Engagement Board.

After graduating, Carlos become involved in campaigns to engage voters in immigrant and low-income communities in Chicago, working on the Raise the Wage campaign in Illinois that targeted low-income workers. He also won a Lantos Legislative Fellowship to the US Congress and worked as a legislative assistant in the Office of Congressman Michael Honda in Washington, DC for six months before he came to the University of Cambridge. His role focused on legislation around immigration and Latin American issues. In addition he has worked with newly arrived Cuban refugees to help them become economically self-sufficient as an Employment Specialist at Church World Service, one of the largest refugee resettlement organisations in the US.

After Cambridge Carlos won a Schwarzman Scholarship for graduate studies in China and was appointed a Youth Panelist to the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. He currently works as a Statewide Capacity Building Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Immigration & Citizenship Coalition.

18/10/2017 - 13:22Gates Scholar to speak at Black History Month eventWale Adebanwi will speak at a Black Cantabs dinner to commemorate 30 years of Black History Month.

Gates Cambridge Scholar Wale Adenbanwi will speak at an event to commemorate 30 years of Black History Month next week.

Wale, the first Black African Rhodes Professor of Race Relations at Oxford University and Director of its African Studies Centre, and award-winning documentary filmmaker, journalist and author Yaba Badoe will give keynote speeches at the Black Cantabs annual Black History Month Dinner on 24th October at Downing College.

Wale Adebanwi [2003], who did his PhD in Social Anthropology, is author of several books, including Authority Stealing: Anti-Corruption War and Democratic Politics in Post-Military Nigeria and  Yoruba elites and ethnic politics in Nigeria: Obafemi Awolowo and corporate agency, the first academic book on one of Africa’s most powerful and progressive elites. Before taking up his current post, he was Associate Professor at the University of California-Davis.

Black Cantabs was co-founded in 2015 by Gates Cambridge Scholar Njoki Wamai [2012]. It is a historical and research focused society that aims to highlight and share the past and present stories, experiences and achievements of the University's black students. Through its activities, the society documents and features the diverse and rich histories of these pioneering scholars.

They include:

- Gloria Claire Carpenter, who was probably the first black woman at the University of Cambridge. A Jamaican, she studied law at Girton College in 1945 and became a prominent social reformer, playing an instrumental role in the foundation of the Law Faculty of the University of West Indies in Jamaica.

- Efua Sutherland, from Ghana, studied at Homerton College, Cambridge, in 1947, a year before women were admitted as full members of the university. A playwright and filmmaker, she contributed to the development of theatre in Ghana.

- Professor Thomas Odhiambo became the first black Kenyan to matriculate at Queens' College, Cambridge, in 1959. He went on to found the renowned International Centre for Insects Physiology which has helped farmers across the world to  protect their crops through biological pest control methods, contributing to food security in Africa in the process.

The society is holding an exhibition at St John's Chapel throughout the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. The exhibition runs until 29th October.

*Tickets for the annual dinner are available here. Image courtesy of Black Cantabs.

18/10/2017 - 13:07Scholar appointed co-director of human rights centreElla McPherson appointed Co-Director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at the University of Cambridge.

Gates Cambridge Scholar Ella McPherson has been appointed Co-Director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights at the University of Cambridge.

Ella is Lecturer in the Sociology of New Media and Digital Technology in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge, and a Fellow at Queen's College, Cambridge. She has been a long-time Research Associate of the CGHR and is the Centre's Theme Leader on Human Rights in the Digital Age which is launching a Digital Verification Corps in collaboration with Amnesty International. This global network of digital volunteers, many of them students from universities around the world, will help to speed up fact-checking of footage of human rights violations. 

Speaking about Ella's new appointment, Dr Sharath Srinivasan, fellow Co-Director of the Centre, said: "Ella has already brought to CGHR her passion for conducting innovative critical scholarship that aims at impactful real world application, and her ability to sustain deep engagement with practitioners and policymakers. She has also championed the role of students in CGHR's work. Now, through her leadership role, the Centre is poised to chart exciting new directions. CGHR has always prioritised interdisciplinary and collaborative research and its co-leadership from Sociology and the Department of Politics and International Studies [POLIS] marks an important new juncture. I have taken much inspiration and joy from working with Ella to date, and look forward to much more of that in the coming years."  

The CGHR is an outward-focused multi-disciplinary research endeavour strongly committed to advancing thought and practice within areas of critical importance to global justice and human well-being in the twenty-first century.

Ella [2004] did her PhD in Social and Political Science at the University of Cambridge. 

16/10/2017 - 17:39Scholars tell their stories Four Gates Cambridge Scholars will talk about the reality of field work at an event this week.

Four Gates Cambridge Scholars will tell their stories of life in the field at an event on 19th October.

The Scholar Stories event will cover archaeology from the Mediterranean to Central America, the role of technology in education, research on sex workers in Latin America and what our relations with dogs tell us about ourselves.

In her talk, Why we Dig It: Behind-the-Scenes Stories of Archeological Research, Sara Morriset [2016], who is doing a PhD in Archaeology,  will give an exciting, unpolished account of life in the field as an archeologist. From the islands of the Mediterranean to the jungles of Central America, Sara has had the opportunity to travel far and wide for her research and her presentation will include experiences as varied as getting caught in a huge rainstorm in the jungles of Guatemala amongst Mayan ruins, rushing to a jungle hospital after being bit by a poisonous spider in Belize and living for two months in the sand dunes of Ica without any cell phone reception or internet.

Mike Meany [2016], who is doing a PhD in Education, will be talking about the intersection of educational equity and technology. He will weave these themes into three stories about his former students: Alvaro, now attending Northwestern University; Ramon, a high school dropout; and Alejandra, a young woman who passed away long before her time. He says his reflections will “raise questions about the role that technology plays in our lives, how it holds tremendous promise for social good and human advancement while at the same time imposing insidious control and distortion onto our lives”.

Jessica Van Meir [2017], who is doing an MPhil in Development Studies, will speak about research she carried out in 2016 on sex work in Argentina and Ecuador. She will talk about how not obtaining security clearance in time for an intended internship with the US Embassy in Ecuador serendipitously helped her to be in just the right place at the right time to find sex workers to participate in her research. She spent her time wandering the streets of Buenos Aires till 5am, entering brothels with sex worker leaders in three Ecuadorian cities and working for a transgender rights organisation in Quito. She says: “While my talk is meant to be more entertaining than academic, most important for me is to convey the challenges that the 109 sex workers I interviewed faced in their daily lives and how they organised to demand their rights.”

Saba Sharma [2015], who is doing a PhD in Geography, will also talk about her fieldwork experiences meeting two dogs with very distinct personalities and a very antagonistic relationship with each other. One was endlessly affectionate and scared of everything and the other was aggressive, dominating and aloof. She will talk about an incident where one of the dogs was injured, how the other dog reacted, how she and others reacted as their carers and the different tricks of dog psychology that were tried on them to achieve peace between the two. She says: ”Our solution to the problem helps us realise why people/dogs can be aggressive or moody, and how dogs and humans tend to react much the same, depending on how you treat them, whether you decide to punish them, or just show them some love.”

Scholar Stories takes place from 7:00-9:00pm in the GSCR on 19th October.

12/10/2017 - 09:50A grander missionShefali Mehta on her time at Cambridge and starting her own agriculture consultancy.

Shefali Mehta has not had a conventional career path and has straddled different academic disciplines. Now working as a freelance consultant on conservation and agriculture issues, she says Gates Cambridge and its mission to improve the lives of others marked a turning point in her career, forcing her to re-evaluate what she really wanted and to have “a grander mission”.

Shefali [2001] grew up in a small town in New England. Her parents moved to the US from India in the early 1970s as her father wanted to study computer science. From him she absorbed a love of nature. He is a great outdoors enthusiast and Shefali remembers regular visits to national parks. "From a young age my view of nature was very positive," she says. Her mother is an artist so Shefali had a strong science and arts influence at home. At school she loved learning, especially science and maths, but she was also fond of English literature. "From my early childhood I don't remember a time when I didn't have my nose in a book," she says.

She has returned recently to set up a scholarship for women studying STEM fields from her high school and says she started it in order to give back because she has benefited from several scholarships. "My entire education has been based on scholarships and they gave me opportunities. I wanted to give others that chance," she says, "and to connect back to my childhood. Women bring a different perspective and experience, but their career path is not always conventional. The scholarship aims to support and elevate them."

From a young age Shefali thought she was destined for a career in science and did several Advanced Placement courses at college. At high school she looked around at various neuroscience programmes. However, within a week of starting her undergraduate degree at New York University Shefali had switched to Economics and Computer Science. Although her course was four years long, she finished in two and a half years due to the credits she had accrued from her Advanced Placement courses at school. She chose New York because of the excitement and vibrancy of the city at the time - the late 1990s. She had always loved Economics and at school had attended her local community college to take a course in the subject. “It helped me explain the world,” she says. 

Gates Cambridge
Shefali did her undergraduate thesis on microcredit programmes, evaluating what makes some successful while others fail, leaving participants in greater debt. At the time there was a lot of interest in the programmes and Shefali won a scholarship to carry out research in India which she did instead of completing her Masters in Public Administration following her degree. She relished the chance to get on-the-ground experience and learn some new languages. In fact she was in India interviewing women in a fishing village when she was found out about her interview for the Gates Cambridge scholarship. The scholarship was in its inaugural year and Shefali said it was exciting to be in the first cohort. “It was my lifelong mission to use my passion and skills to improve lives around me,” she said.

Her MPhil was in development economics - she had realised while doing her research in India that she needed to learn more about advanced techniques and modelling. She flew out of the US on 9th September 2001. When she arrived in Cambridge she was told her mother had been trying to get hold of her to tell her about the attack on the World Trade Centre. It was a traumatic start to her time at Cambridge - to be so far from home and family at such a time. Within months two close friends were killed, one in the US and the other in India. “Those three tragedies overshadowed my whole experience at Cambridge,” she says. She befriended an Anglican priest, one of the youngest woman priest in the Church, and started going to chapel which provided a different way of connecting with England.

Since it was the first year of the Gates Cambridge Trust Shefali got to meet Bill Gates Senior and heard him speak.  “It was very inspirational,” she says. “It drove home that we were torch bearers, that we were the beginning of something.” Shefali went on to be the alumni editor of The Scholar magazine and an initial board member of the Gates Scholars Alumni Association after leaving Cambridge.

The experience at the university, where she was based at Selwyn College, made her realise that she needed to do a PhD. She returned to the US and taught middle school art while applying for her PhD. While she had been in India she had realised the many environmental and agricultural challenges communities faced. Working in a fishing and farming village she saw how economics and agriculture were linked. At the time the two disciplines were often treated fairly separately. Shefali felt the solution lay in the nexus between the two.

Agricultural economics
She signed up for a PhD in both Economics and Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota as well as a Masters in Statistics. Her background in Economics meant she had a different perspective to other Agriculture students.  She puts her career switch down to her time at Cambridge. “Gates forced me to reevaluate my future and reinforced the need for a grander mission,” she says. At Cambridge she had also spent many nights talking about global issues with two close college friends – one was  Tobias Billström who went on to become minister for migration and asylum policy in Sweden.  Shefali had the chance to support the parliamentary campaign that led to him becoming Sweden’s youngest MP. “Those debates and experiences were an unintended consequence of Cambridge. Cambridge is a wonderful place for intellectual discussions. We focus a lot on our studies, but sometimes forget that what shapes us are these unintended interactions,” she says.

At the University of Minnesota, Shefali also held several other posts. These included working for the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, receiving a research assistantship for from the US Forest Service, teaching at St Olaf College, where she developed and taught courses in Economics and Environmental Policy, and working as a research assistant in the Minnesota Office of Higher Education where she identified critical issues of access and affordability in higher education and student finances. Shefali also founded a University of Minnesota outreach programme, Teaching SMART, which saw graduate student volunteers go into local schools to encourage under-represented students to take maths and science and to see higher education as an option for them.

Her PhD was focused on two different areas: lion conservation [the University of Minnesota has a programme in Tanzania] and optimal management strategies for invasive species in forests. When she had finished it, she knew that she did not want to stay in academia. So she got a job with McKinsey where she stayed for four years, travelling extensively and working on critical business issues such as global supply chains. She realised there that she liked helping companies, government and non profits get their mission right.  She moved to agriculture business Syngenta, rising to head of data analytics in seeds research and development after four years. 

In 2016 Shefali decided to leave and went hiking in Utah to reflect on what she wanted to achieve in her life. “I was a little jaded after eight years of corporate life,” she says. “I had learned a lot, but I felt I was not doing what I was meant to do. I questioned whether I could both use my knowledge and work in areas that appealed to me.”

At the same time some of her former colleagues were starting a private/public alliance for agriculture. Shefali founded Open Rivers Consulting Associates. She was not sure about taking the jump into self-employment, but it meant she could work on the kind of issues she is passionate about - invasive species, wildlife and habitat conservation and agriculture. It builds on her non-conventional career path and, in a world where many of the big challenges are multidisciplinary, it allows her to make the best use of her knowledge of different disciplines. “It was scary at first, but it brought me back to my original values,” she says. “It gives me the freedom to be my own boss, but the structure I was used to is not there. I have to do everything - there is no safety net and the risk is real. But on the other hand I get to do what I love.”

06/10/2017 - 12:28Power and visionGates Scholar and fellow PhD students to set up research group on the politics of vision, perception, memory and history.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar and fellow PhD students have won funding for a graduate research group on the politics of vision, perception, memory and history, which will address issues of media representation, power and responsibility.

Jessica Fernandez de Lara Harada [2016] was one of six graduate students who applied for funding from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) to form the ‘Power and Vision: The Camera as Political Technology’ research group.

The application process is highly competitive and, to be selected, the intellectual work of the group must provide a stimulating forum for a cutting edge question.

Her fellow co-convenors are Natalie Morningstar from Social Anthropology, Katherine Anne Mato from Latin American Studies, Engy A. S. M. Moussa from Politics and International Studies, Matthew Mahmoudi from Development Studies and Karoliina J. Pulkkinen from History and Philosophy of Science.

The group seeks to address the disconnect between popular and academic critique of the way contemporary political crisis is covered in mainstream media.

Jessica says: “We assert that there is a dearth of pragmatic, accessible discussions about how images work, rather than what they purportedly show. As fake news and multimedia increasingly suffuse the visual landscape, it is imperative to initiate an academic and public discussion about how what we see, and the way it is contextualised, underpins popular claims about how contemporary political power operates. We ask: can academics, artists, and visual practitioners help us all better understand how political issues are imagined and imaged?”

In order to achieve this aim, the group will organise a series of reading groups, seminars, film screenings, master classes, and practice-based events focused on dissecting the camera as a political technology of power.

Jessica says she is particularly interested in encouraging a better understanding on the political technologies of seeing others, how images are used to make claims about difference and their impact on the experiences of migration, a central aspect of her PhD research. It is concerned with the histories, representations and memories of migrants, as well as the Japan-US-Mexico relationship, the politics of racism and migration, and the production of the ‘other’.

A webpage on the CRASSH website includes the events programme for the academic year 2017-2018, which include The Production of Journalism and Fact-Making and a screening of Reconstructing the Effects of a Drone Strike.

*Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

05/10/2017 - 13:50Trailblazing woman in ArchaeologySuzanne Pilaar Birch has combined her research on migration and environmental change with promoting the role of women in Archaeology.

How do human populations adapt to environmental change? One answer is to look at ancient civilisations who have undergone similar change. Suzanne Pilaar Birch’s research uses oxygen isotopes to investigate animal and human migration patterns in ancient times. The isotopes vary with factors such as temperature and are absorbed into animals' teeth. “By drilling the teeth we can get their isotope signature,” she says. “We can see if animals were migrating from different climates through studying their teeth.”

She has combined her research with working on Trowelblazers, a pioneering website which highlights the often hidden role of women in the fields of archaeology, palaeontology and geology. The Trowelblazers team have given talks and guest lectures at academic conferences about past female archaeologists, geologists and palaeontologists. They have also been consulted over the design of a doll, Fossil Hunter Lottie. This year they have collaborated with photographer Leonora Saunders on a photographic exhibition which has been touring the UK where two of the team are based. Suzanne attended the launch of the Raising Horizons exhibition at the Royal Geological Society in February and the tour continues until early next year. It covers two centuries of women’s achievements in the fields of Archaeology, Palaeontology and Geology and consists of portraits of 14 contemporary women working in these fields and posing as their historic counterparts. There are plans to take it to the US in 2018/19.

One issue that comes up for women is the impact of starting a family on their career. Some of the women Trowelblazers have featured have taken their babies on digs with them. This is a pertinent issue for Suzanne, who has just had her first child, a son. The Guardian recently featured an article on Suzanne and being pregnant on fieldwork.

Archaeology and environment

Suzanne [2010], who was born in New Jersey, had been interested in Archaeology from an early age, although she was intending to major in biology at Rutgers University where she did her undergraduate degree. She soon discovered Human Ecology, however. “I was always interested in Biology and Archaeology,” she says. “I realised I could put them together and study human environmental interaction in the past.”

She majored in both evolutionary anthropology and something called paleoecology, a subject not offered before at the university but which she put together with her adviser at the time. During her undergraduate degree she did several internships, including one at the Smithsonian where she did research on early domestication of sheep and goats and how to distinguish between the skeletal remains of the two.  She looked at changes in the way people managed animals, based on evidence excavated from sites in Iran and Iraq in the 1970s, and published her research in an academic journal in her final year.

For her masters, which she did at the University of Cambridge through a Gates scholarship, she focused on changing human mobility and the transition from hunting and gathering to using domestic animals on one Adriatic island. She was looking at whether existing societies were becoming more sedentary and adopting animals while continuing to hunt and gather or whether other groups were coming in from outside to replace them.

She stayed on at Cambridge, where she was based at St John's College, and did her PhD in Archaeology, also with support from Gates Cambridge.

Research findings

Her research connected changes in diet and human mobility with environmental change in the Eastern Adriatic between 11,000 and 7,000 years ago. This was during the early Holocene period which saw the transition to the introduction of domestic animals and agriculture in Europe. Suzanne studied excavated bones to check what people were eating and whether they were migrating from other areas. She also used stable isotope analysis to study environmental change. She compared these and other evidence from isotope analysis of shells with information on pollen levels to get a broader picture of environmental change at this time.

What she found suggests that people were becoming less mobile and settling into local regions. “They might still be moving around, but they were not roaming so far,” she says, “and they stayed longer in the same place. They were also eating a greater variety of food, including plants, and incorporating shellfish and fish into their diet as sea levels rose.”

During her master’s Suzanne had a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science based on her undergraduate work and then submitted several papers on her research at Cambridge. So far she has published seven articles and book chapters based on her PhD work.

Suzanne graduated in summer 2013. She moved to a post-doctoral fellowship at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University and began work on a new research project. She also taught one class per semester.

Suzanne stayed at Brown for a year and a half and then moved to the University of Georgia to her current position which she describes as “being written for me”. As Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Geography, her role brings together the temporal and spatial aspects of her research. In addition she is Director of the Quaternary Isotope Paleoecology Laboratory and Adjunct Curator of the Georgia Museum of Natural History. She also teaches two days a week and will cut back on this for the next few months while she is on maternity leave while continuing her research work.


Since leaving Cambridge, Suzanne has worked in Turkey, Malta and Cyprus with the aim of reconstructing past environments using the same isotope analysis of animal teeth that she used at Cambridge. In Cyprus she was working on a Bronze Age site - around 5,000 years ago - and in Malta she was researching the Pleistocene era.

Suzanne has been doing her research alongside her work on Trowelblazers. The founding of the organisation dates back to her time at Cambridge. When she was finishing her PhD she won a small Arts and Humanities Research Council grant to develop a social media knowledge exchange project. She made some animated videos to explain her research and began sharing them on Twitter.  Through a conversation on Twitter about how women tend to be “casually erased” from the history of Archaeology, Geology or Palaeontology, Suzanne got together with three other women with PhDs in the disciplines to found Trowelblazers. It aims to highlight women’s contribution across all three disciplines.

“It was the product of a certain time,” says Suzanne. “I was leaving friends in Cambridge and being able to be online and make connections helped me. We had no grand visions at the time. We just set up a blog to write about the women we knew about.”

From humble beginnings, however, it has now become one of the main focuses of her work. “It felt like we had fallen down a rabbit hole and we found out about so many other women,” says Suzanne. “The lone wolf narrative is not true. There were so many connections.”  Trowelblazers launched its website in 2013 and has built a lot of followers on social media. Now Suzanne and her colleagues hardly write at all because they are getting so many submissions, all of which they source and edit. They have built up good relationships with archivists and have, in some cases, been the first site to publish photos of some of the women.

Suzanne says her experience of being a Gates Cambridge Scholar continues to have an impact on her career and that some of her best friends are scholars. She has also advocated for other students to apply for the scholarship. Towards the end of her PhD she worked with fellow scholar Corina Logan on research on red deer. Corina’s work is on animal behaviour. She needed some deer skulls to work on and this overlapped with research Suzanne was doing at the time. “I’m really grateful for the opportunities the scholarship gave me,” she says.

03/10/2017 - 18:46Top prize for play that incorporates academic researchRagnhild Freng Dale was researcher and assistant director on a play which scooped one of Norway's top theatre awards.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar whose research contributed to a theatre production has seen the play that she worked on and helped to direct scoop a top theatre prize in Norway.

Ragnhild Freng Dale was the researcher and assistant director on The Trial of the Century, a play which deals with the upcoming court case over the 23rd licensing round for petroleum in the Norwegian Barents Sea.

Norwegian environmental organisations Greenpeace and Nature and Youth have contested the licenses on the grounds that they are unconstitutional. The theatre production staged the trial in Kirkenes, Northern Norway, posing the dilemma to people in the region who will feel the effect of the decision, whatever the outcome in the courts.

The play has won the Norwegian Critics' Association prize for theatre with the jury praising it as 'one of the most important reference works in recent political Norwegian performing arts'.

For the production, which took place in February, Ragnhild worked with director Morten Traavik of and Pikene på Broen as co-producers. Other academics and scientists were also involved in the play as witnesses, acting as themselves on stage alongside politicians, oil workers and other expert witnesses.

Ragnhild [2013] is doing a PhD in Polar Studies focusing on issues of conflict and consent around the rise of petroleum and mining industries in Northern Norway and Sápmi.

She has always been intrigued by the possibilities that lie at the intersection of arts and academia. She says: "To work with was a chance to bring what I’ve learned through my PhD research into a project that both functioned as an arts piece in its own right and yielded new insights into my thesis work. It's been a very rewarding experience with a great team of collaborators."

Ragnhild has had smaller collaborations in the past in the UK and Germany and she recently contributed to the development of SOS Dobrie by author and playwright Siri Broch Johansen. Johansen toured in Sápmi with scripted readings before staging the piece as her MA production at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts this spring.

Ragnhild adds: "I see theatre as not only playing a role in getting vital academic research across to a broader public, but also to develop new understandings for everyone involved."

*Picture credit: Ole Gunnar Rasmussen

03/10/2017 - 09:26Protect water supplies from storm damagePaul Bergen argues that more needs to be done to ensure vital water supplies can get up and running quickly after major storms.

Clean water matters. My father manages a small water treatment system on the Southeast coast of Florida which provides water to fewer than 1,000 customers. I have seen first hand how, in an emergency, the response services often fail to coordinate with smaller systems like his. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma I worked 14-hour days to ensure my father’s customers had access to safe drinking water. It took four days to receive power back to all our treatment systems and pumping stations. The last pumping station, the main one in the system, was without power for six days due to a lack of communication from the local power utility. All it took to restore power was a 15-minute reset of a transformer fuse. If power had been down for much longer or we ran out of fuel, both the environment and people’s health could have been severely compromised by water-borne pathogens, potentially spreading disease quickly throughout communities who were already suffering. Luckily, our region did not experience the full force of Irma and my father’s system has enough generator power to run until full power is restored. Even so, our recovery had its challenges because sometimes generators don’t want to start.

I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for water treatment staff in Puerto Rico or Dominica. They face the daunting and Herculean task of bringing critical public health infrastructure back online without power, without fuel and without time. People are suffering. Water is scarce. And this has carried on for over a week. Eventually, if they haven’t already, people will become angry and angry people may do regrettable things to those employees and volunteers who are working around the clock to return things to a sense of normality.

Water treatment infrastructure is something we rarely think about in wealthy countries. We just turn the tap and expect quality drinking water to come out. We don't think about how it gets there or how it is taken away to wastewater treatment facilities that remove the biological and chemical contaminants before releasing the water back to the environment. 
Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, can cripple our ability to deliver safe drinking water and remove contaminated flood and wastewater. The devastation that Hurricanes Irma and Maria wrought on the US territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and island nations such as Barbuda and Dominica have left millions without safe drinking water. This threatens the health of these communities - pregnant women, the elderly, the young, the sick. Your neighbours, your children, your friends. Images flash across the media of people sourcing water from springs, lakes or streams. Untreated water of course, and of unknown threat as waste and debris flows into these (hopefully temporary) sources. In preparing and responding to these storms, water treatment infrastructure is often, and must continue to be, considered critical to public health. Even more so than power infrastructure, I’d argue, although the former is dependent on the latter without generator power and fuel. We should also consider environmental infrastructure that protects source waters as vital so that, when treatment systems come back online, the water supplying these systems has not been compromised beyond the capabilities of the treatment processes to produce safe drinking water.

If you want to improve a person’s health, a continuous supply of safe drinking water is the foundation. As we face the prospect of stronger hurricanes due to climate change, we must improve water-related infrastructure to withstand these storms and pay greater attention to where systems remain vulnerable during long recovery periods, such as ensuring there is fuel for generators or giving special protection to areas that may sustain damage and allow untreated water to flow in or out of the system. This means we, the public and utility workers, must put pressure on our governments, emergency response management teams and utility management to ensure they are adequately prepared for storms and a potentially long recovery period. Some of this will come from new regulation that is created in the aftermath of recent hurricanes and the lessons they have taught us.

But much of it needs to come from us. Pressure on the Trump Administration has led to a more robust response to the crisis in Puerto Rico, although it remains woefully inadequate. In my own community, pressure and new regulations imposed on the local power utility resulted in a swifter (although still somewhat inadequate) recovery response compared to past storm recovery efforts. Those images of Puerto Ricans desperately seeking water from a mountain spring should move us to demand more investment in water treatment infrastructure. People normally ignore water until it isn’t there. By that time, it’s often too late to help those most in need.

*Paul Bergen is doing a PhD in Molecular, Structural, and Cellular Microbiology at the Department of Pathology, University of Cambridge. Picture credit: Wikimedia commons.

29/09/2017 - 09:36Call to tackle huge rise in use of antimicrobials on animalsEmma Glennon co-authors study highlighting risks to human health of increased use of antimicrobials in farming.

The amount of antimicrobials given to animals destined for human consumption is expected to rise by a staggering 52% and reach 200,000 tonnes by 2030 unless policies are implemented to limit their use, according to new research co-authored by a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

Researchers, from ETH Zürich, Princeton, and the University of Cambridge, conducted the first global assessment of different intervention policies that could help limit the projected increase of antimicrobial use in food production. Their results, reported in the journal Science, represent an alarming revision from already pessimistic estimates made in 2010, pushed up mostly by recent reports of high antimicrobial use in animals in China.

In modern animal farming, large quantities of antimicrobials are used for disease prevention and for growth promotion. "Animals receive more antibiotics globally than people, both relative to their body mass and in absolute terms, although much of this use is not medically necessary. Many new strains of antibiotic-resistant infections are now common in people after originating in our livestock. These include infections resistant to "last resort" antibiotics such as colistin, which has frequently been used in pigs,” said co-author Emma Glennon [2016], a Gates Scholar and PhD student at Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine. “As global demand for meat grows and agriculture continues to transition from extensive farming and smallholdings to more intensive practices, the use of antimicrobials in food production will increasingly threaten the efficacy of these life-saving drugs. This paper evaluates strategies to reduce antimicrobial use in livestock and mitigate this growing burden."

Global policies based on a user fee and stricter regulation could help mitigate those ominous projections. “Under a user fee policy, the billions of dollars raised in revenues could be invested in the development of new antimicrobial compounds, or put towards improving farm hygiene around the world to reduce the need for antibiotics, in particular in low- and middle-income countries,” said Dr Thomas Van Boeckel from ETH Zurich, the study’s first author.

Compared to a business as usual scenario, a global regulation putting a cap of 50 mg of antimicrobials per kilogram of animal per year in OECD countries could reduce global consumption by 60% without affecting livestock-related economic development in low-income countries.

However, such a policy may be challenging to enforce in resource-limited settings. An alternative solution could be to impose a user fee of 50% of the current price on veterinary antimicrobials: this could reduce global consumption by 31% and generate yearly revenues of between US$ 1.7 and 4.6 billion.

An important limiting factor in performing this global assessment was accessing sufficient data on veterinary antimicrobial sales volumes and prices. The present study is based on publicly available data, limited to 37 countries. Representatives from the animal health industry were approach for this study but all declined to share information on antimicrobial sales or prices.  

The research was funded by the programme for Adaptation to a Changing Environment, the ETH postdoctoral fellowship program and the European Research Council.

*Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons.

28/09/2017 - 17:14From literature student to authorAmanda Dennis talks about her research on philosophy and literature and her first novels.

Amanda Dennis has grown up immersed in literature. After years of studying the subject and teaching courses in comparative literature, she has now written her first novel and is working on a second.

Her first novel, The Trace, incorporates some of the research from her time at the University of Cambridge and her other studies and turns it into an accessible narrative.

Amanda describes it as “an existentialist detective story”. It is about a girl who goes missing in Thailand. The girl is adopted and her biological mother finds journals she wrote before she disappeared. She gives them to a student who writes them into a story to figure out why she disappeared. The focus is on the relationship between the mother and the student who gradually takes on the identity of the missing daughter.

A literary childhood

Amanda [2006] grew up in a literary family. Born in Philadelphia, both her parents are literary professors. Her father was a Renaissance literature and Shakespeare expert; her mother’s specialism was Irish literature. “I was surrounded by books and my bedtime stories at the age of six were by TS Eliot and Yeats,” she says. Inspired by her mother teaching an Oscar Wilde course Amanda wrote and put on a play about Dorian Gray when she was 11. Because she had used the critical edition of the book that her parents owned she had her friends walking around with placards showing the footnotes.

Amanda grew up reading avidly and trying out different styles of writing. She wrote for and edited her high school newspaper, which gave her the opportunity to explore different experiences. She also did a lot of playwrighting and says she loved the excitement of live theatre, the interaction with an audience and the fact that each performance is unique. “There is a sense of accountability for your words because you are writing them for others to speak,” she says. Amanda spent one summer at high school doing a Stanislavski programme in London and did several theatre camps in the summer holidays.

Literature and philosophy

She chose to study Comparative Literature at Princeton, attracted by the chance to be taught by the likes of Professor Robert Fagles who had translated the Iliad and Odyssey. The course was four years long and after spending the summer of her second year learning German in Munich, Amanda spent a semester in Berlin where she studied philosophy and did a course on Nietzsche which made a deep impression on her. She also took a course in art and emotion and discovered a love for painting.

When she returned to Princeton she completed a dissertation on the links between literature and philosophy, drawing extensively on Nietzsche, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Mann and Robert Musil. It was an ambitious broad-ranging project and it taught her that she needed to specialise more. She came upon the subject after her mentor Michael Jennings gave her a Beckett short story, First Love, which addressed philosophical questions about what it means to be human. “It was more than a story. It was a mix of poetry and philosophical prose which communicated more than a straightforward philosophical argument. By bringing the two disciplines together each was enhanced,” says Amanda.

When she left college she decided that, even though she was drawn to academia, she needed to get some variation in her life. “I had grown up in a literary family and studied literature. I wanted to experience a different way of living so when I went on to do further studies it would feel more like a choice,” she says.

She signed up for the Princeton in Asia programme and was posted to a village in the north of Thailand where, ironically, she taught English literature at a university. The experience was a sensory awakening. “I had been reading very abstract literature, but being in the market and seeing the colours and tastes of northern Thailand made me feel very alive,” she says. She spent a year teaching and then travelled widely afterwards, living in a monastery at one point.

It was an experience which had a profound impact on her and influenced her later choice of PhD subject and her first novel.

Back in the US, she worked as an intern for the literary magazine Atlantic Monthly by day and worked in a chocolate and coffee shop in the evening. Initially she felt long-form journalism might be for her, but says she “missed the footnotes”.

It was at this point that she applied to the University of Cambridge and to Gates Cambridge. She was excited by its commitment to engagement with the problems of the contemporary world.  “Knowledge for me is not a purely academic exercise. It was that message of knowledge working for the world in the world that appealed to me,” says Amanda.

She was admitted to two PhD programmes - one at Berkeley in the US and Cambridge. She deferred Cambridge for a year and then tried for a while to juggle two PhDs. In the end she got an MPhil in French from Cambridge and opted to finish her PhD at Berkeley since she felt a US PhD would be more helpful for getting a job.

At Cambridge, where she was based at Trinity College, she deepened her interest in Beckett and read everything he wrote, although she wrote her thesis on Nietzsche and published an article based on that later. She also did an exchange in the Ecole Normale in France and became interested in French philosophy.

At Berkeley she taught alongside her studies, focusing on the influence of French theory - in particular phenomenology - on Beckett’s work. “Beckett’s work is very interested in the body, but it is rarely a good thing in his work. It’s a reminder of mortality, of weakness and impotence,” says Amanda.


She is currently exploring this theme of embodiment and agency, of human integration in the environment, through the work of the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty in an academic book she is working on on Samuel Beckett.  She argues that sensuality in Beckett suggests “passive” agency by orienting the human within its immediate, physical environment and compares this to voluntarism which promotes an embodied, more active relationship with nature.

Following on from her PhD, Amanda taught in various places, including the University of Nottingham, Sciences Po in Paris and in Madrid. She began writing her first novel and decided that doing a creative writing course would not only mean that she could learn more about the craft of writing and get the book finished faster, but that she could make it stronger.

She received a fellowship to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she taught an undergraduate fiction class, drawing on writers such as Beckett to illustrate how dialogue between characters, perplexing situations and surprising language can stimulate sensation in readers. She has been supplementing this with writing prompts which enable students to invent scenes, develop characters and experiment with voice and tone in a playful, informal environment. Amanda’s first novel is written in three first person voices which were in some ways part of the same identity and she says the creative writing course helped her to differentiate them. The first seeds of the idea for the novel came during the summer of 2006 which she spent in Paris learning French just before starting at Cambridge. But it was not until 2014 that she started dedicating considerable time to the book. Many of the germs for it came from her courses on French theory at Cambridge and Berkeley.

The novel is now with an agent and will be sent to editors in the autumn.

Amanda is now starting on her second novel, tentatively called Energy. It will be about a group of four people who leave city life behind and found a temporary community on an island where they attempt to build a sustainable lifestyle through alternative energy.

“It’s a disastrous utopian project that this is more difficult than they anticipated,” she says.  The idea for the novel comes from research funding she received from a Whited Fellowship to spend a month on the island of Samsø off Denmark which is run wholly on alternative energy.

Amanda says her time at Gates Cambridge was important in her formation as a writer. “I am grateful for the opportunity to explore philosophical issues and to the Gates’ focus on engaging with the world. The novel is a bridge from my research to the world. It allows me to bring the ideas from my research to a broader readership.”

27/09/2017 - 10:59A celebration of ideas and debateTwo Gates Cambridge Scholars will take part in events at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

Two Gates Cambridge Scholars are taking part in this year's Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

Asiya Islam and Surabhi Ranganathan are speaking at the Festival, which celebrates the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. It runs from 16th to 29th October and has a programme of over 200 events, including talks, debates, exhibitions, film and theatre performances.

Asiya [2015], who is doing a PhD in Sociology, has co-curated an exhibition called The New Woman: 150 years of British and Indian women's magazines which takes places on 21st October. The exhibition shows the shared history of Britain and India through the way women's magazines in the two countries have portrayed changing ideals of femininity. 

Surabhi [2008] is speaking in a discussion entitled Technology and Nationalism in India. It asks what role technology has played in India's recent economic development and how this links to equality issues and the rise of nationalism. Surabhi, who did her PhD in Law with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and is now a lecturer in International Law at Cambridge, will talk about technology in terms of India's posture in international negotiations on nuclear technology and oceans exploitation and about how that illuminates the issues of nationalism, equality and pride. 

Surabhi is the author of Strategically Created Treaty Conflicts and the Politics of International Law, a study of international legal thought and practice, exploring treaty conflicts in nuclear governance, the law of the sea and international criminal justice. She is also assistant editor of The Cambridge Companion to International Law.

*Picture credit of Mumbai at night: Wikimedia Commons.

26/09/2017 - 14:50Inspiring underrepresented youthKevin Beckford and colleagues have started an organisation to encourage underrepresented groups into innovative careers.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar who worked in the Obama Administration has co-founded an organisation which aims to help young people from underrepresented groups to develop innovative career paths.

Kevin Beckford and two colleagues from the Obama Administration, Jason Spear and Yasmin Salina have founded the Hustlers Guild. They came together through their shared experiences as young black professionals under 30 working at the White House.

During his time with the Obama administration, Kevin was the Domestic Policy Portfolio Lead and Casework Analyst from 2014 to 2016 in the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence and a Special Adviser in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

The Hustlers Guild’s mission is to focus on the development of underrepresented youth aged 10 -19 and push them towards innovative career paths. The hip hop themed organisation runs workshops and seminars built around four key values - developing young people’s skills, integrity, empowerment and teamwork.

The Guild has three main programmes: one aimed at those pursuing careers in performing arts and mass communications; one aimed at those specialising in Science Technology Engineering Arts Math (STEAM) studies; and another focused on mentoring and role models. The latter, called Hustler’s Ambition, pulls in a wide range of minority professionals working in organisations such as Facebook, Google and federal agencies who will speak to students about their different career paths.

Kevin [2011] did an MPhil in African Studies at Cambridge, specialising in hip hop culture especially in an East African context.

19/09/2017 - 13:36Culture detectiveAnke Timmermann speaks about her career and her interest in tracing the links between alchemy and modern medicine.

Anke Timmermann is a culture detective, discovering historical texts which connect past knowledge to the present. An independent antiquarian bookseller, she specialises in the history of science, scientific exploration and recipe books, subjects that represent a continuation of her academic studies on the history of alchemy and medicine.

With alchemy linked in the popular imagination to magic, Anke has been keen to trace its historical roots and correct some common myths. In fact, she says, alchemy’s links to the occult are a fairly recent development. Between the 15th and 17th centuries alchemy was very much a vital stepping stone to the foundation of modern chemistry.

Anke [2003], who is from northern Germany, became interested in alchemy while doing her first degree at Heidelberg University. She took a course in metaphysical poetry, which was where she first encountered metaphorical references to alchemy. She was intrigued. “There was something going on that was not about mere metaphor. It seemed to refer to some aspect of culture which the poets’ readers would understand,” she says. She was working as a library assistant at the time, so she looked up alchemy, but couldn't find much information. She asked her professors, but they didn't know much about it either. So she went to a bookshop and there she met a bookseller who invited her to a graduate seminar on the history of medicine and alchemy.

Professor Joachim Telle, a scholar in Germanic studies and expert on the alchemist and 'father of modern medicine' Paracelsus, led the seminar, which was attended by postgraduates, journalists and other writers. He gave Anke a list of books to read, told her to write reviews of them and to come back the following week. She passed the test, proving she had the critical skills necessary to contribute to the seminar. The professor then gave her reproductions of 16th-century alchemical manuscripts and encouraged her to learn how to read them. “He was very generous with his knowledge if he knew you were doing your part,” Anke recalls. He knew she was doing English, so he steered her towards doing more research into English alchemy, about which there were not many recent studies.

Anke did her master’s thesis on Yeats and his activities in The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult circle of the turn of the 20th century. She studied the mythological themes behind Yeats’ poetry – especially tarot cards, ancient symbolism and alchemy – teasing out the history from the myth.

Recipes in rhyming couplets

She knew by then that alchemy was where her interests lay. Professor Telle supported her application to do an MPhil in the UK and she was accepted on the research-based master’s course at the University of Glasgow.  It was her first opportunity to work intensely on manuscript archives and she produced a critical edition of an alchemical poem.

Tracing the medieval and Renaissance history of alchemy was difficult because alchemy was not a university discipline and was not officially documented. Anke studied alchemical recipes written in the form of poems, which were copied many times between the 15th and 17th centuries.

“They are recipes in rhyming couplets. The important information is mostly found in the rhyme words,” she says. “By analysing the changes from one recipe copy to another you can see what was important to alchemists and what was not, such as what the proportion of ingredients should be or how long to distil or heat a material for. Some things, like colour changes, might seem metaphorical, but they are not – they describe what the alchemist actually saw. The changes in texts really do tell us something important about a part of scientific history.”

For her PhD at Cambridge, where she was based at Robinson College, Anke had a much wider range of manuscript collections to study, including the notebooks of a 16th-century London doctor who had preserved alchemical texts with a view to using alchemy in the treatment of his patients. She also analysed a number of illuminated manuscripts containing alchemical poems.

Anke argues that studying alchemy provides a window into an important phase in the development of  human knowledge and early modern scientific culture. “There were discoveries being made that still have a bearing on what we do today,” she explains, “and there is comfort in knowing that people in the past had many of the same questions we do now, for example, questions about how we can live longer. In the 15th and 16th centuries the so-called ‘elixir of life’ was thought to remove illnesses and imperfections from the human body, allowing men and women to live to a very old age. Today we try to find cures for cancer.  There is a great benefit of stepping out of our immediate surroundings and understanding how the big questions have been dealt with in history.”

From the craft of alchemy to the practice of modern medicine

After Cambridge, Anke got a job at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, who were building the first museum of the history of chemistry in the US. Anke ran their fellowship programme, worked with the book collections and did a lot of outreach work. “It was a unique opportunity,” she says.

She missed academia after two and a half years, however, and won a fellowship back in Glasgow, researching and editing the correspondence of Bess of Hardwick, putting together the exhibition “Unsealed: The Letters of Bess of Hardwick” at Hardwick Hall and producing a related podcast series. From Glasgow she moved to the Medical University of Vienna, to work on the large holdings of manuscripts in Viennese libraries which show the crossover between the craft of alchemy and the practice of medicine. While researching, Anke taught medical students about the history of medicine and also published articles and a book based on her PhD, which is available via open access. She also gave a talk on alchemy and Harry Potter to a public audience. Her desire to spread knowledge beyond the academy is something that she attributes in part to her Gates Cambridge experience.

In 2013 Anke held a fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, where she investigated alchemical illustrations. “There is so much information concealed in seemingly simple drawings of alchemical equipment,” says Anke. These often show instruments, furnaces and techniques that would be difficult to describe in words alone. “The illustrations were the missing link – missing because they are rarely recorded in catalogues” she adds. From Berlin Anke moved back to Cambridge, where she had won the Munby Fellowship in bibliography to work in the University Library and catalogue alchemical works and illustrations, many of which she identified for the first time.

Detective work

When her Munby Fellowship at Cambridge ended, Anke was keen to keep working with books and manuscripts in the UK. “I had the option to stay in academia, but there are so many books and manuscripts that academics do not see. Large parts of historical books and manuscripts are in private collections and may be on the market for only a short time. That is where the real detective work takes place, in the connections between private collections, booksellers and institutional libraries,” she says.

So Anke decided to launch herself into the book trade.  She applied to Quaritch, one of the oldest antiquarian book firms in the country, who created a traineeship for her. Last year she catalogued the conductor Christopher Hogwood’s collection of recipe books. “I see it as my mission to uncover the history that the world would lose otherwise. It is very easy for a book to not be recognised for what it is and fall into disrepair or just be forgotten,” says Anke, who left Quaritch in July to set up her own business A. T. Scriptorium. “There is a real sense that you are preserving a country’s cultural heritage.”



18/09/2017 - 18:59Murakami under the microscopeGitte Marianne Hansen has been awarded an AHRC Leadership Fellowship to explore the works of Japanese writer Murakami Haruki

The award-winning Japanese writer Haruki Murakami was recognised as one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time in 2015, but his work has been criticised for its representation of women, with his fiction held up as a reflection of Japanese patriarchy.

However a new project, led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Gitte Marianne Hansen, will challenge such conclusions, showing how Murakami’s depiction of female characters is more nuanced, also portraying them as protagonists and narrators who act as subjects in their own worlds.

Gitte [2009] has been awarded an AHRC Leadership Fellowship which runs from February 2017-July 2018 to explore the works of the Japanese writer and is planning a conference, translation workshop, art exhibition and film screening. She will also write a monograph.

Born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1949, Murakami has received many international honours, including the Franz Kafka Prize, Jerusalem Prize and the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award. His most recognised novels include Norwegian Wood (1987), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-95) and 1Q84 (2009-10). In addition to exploring these widely read novels, Gitte’s project will also examine Murakami’s less known works, including short stories published only in Japanese.

It will focus on themes of gender and transmediality. Gitte says Murakami’s works are interesting to explore in terms of representations of women and gender issues in Japanese society. She adds that his writing has been translated into more than 50 languages and his stories and characters are increasingly becoming transmedial, inspiring global producers of cultural products such as film makers, artists, travelogue writers, computer game programmers and dance choreographers.

“By examining Murakami beyond his Japanese written word, we gain insight into how his stories and characters are understood, interpreted and imagined,” says Gitte, who is currently a lecturer in Japanese Studies at Newcastle University. “The aim is to shed light on the processes of translating Japanese literary culture - not only into other languages but also other mediums.”

Gitte first became interested in Murakami’s works while she was working as a teaching and later as a Research Assistant at Waseda University in Japan before she did her PhD in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her PhD touched on some of his work, but its main focus was on representations of femininity and what it means to be a woman in relation to the rise in eating disorders and self-harm in Japan. In 2016, Gitte published Femininity, Self-harm and Eating Disorders in Japan: Navigating contradiction in narrative and visual culture, which is based on her PhD.

*The call for papers for Gitte's conference is open until 27th October. Gitte has also put out a call for participants for the translation workshop which closes on 30 November. Picture credit: Wiki Commons.

15/09/2017 - 14:28A place of peace in the bustling citySofia Singler wins honorable mention for her design in an international architecture competition.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has won an honorable mention in an international architecture competition.

Sofia Singler [2016] and her design partner Luka Pajovic won the mention in the competition organised by ArchMedium, a European architectural competition organisation for their proposal 'Templum Sapientiae'.

Sofia began collaborating with Luka, a 2017 architecture graduate from Cambridge, during the first year of her PhD. The competition was for a contemporary non-denominational chapel in central Rome.

The competition brief was to rethink spiritual and worship spaces in the city of Rome, to create "a place of encounter, a space for dialogue and hope for peace in a complex world". 

The brief stated: "Nowadays with the vertiginous lifestyle of ever-changing cities, it is even more necessary to have a space where you can reflect and be calm. In a delicate European context, we propose to rethink spaces of worship as a place of introversion in the city with no association to any religion. A new place disconnected from the city and connected with the will of the people and the Rome of the 21st century."

The site chosen for the building was the historic Via Giulia of Rome, one of the most important streets in Rome and one directly affected by demolitions carried out during the era of Mussolini. 

The brief was highly relevant to Sofia's PhD research on modern post-war religious architecture and provided her with the opportunity to test some of her theoretical hypotheses and conclusions on contemporary religious space through design.

04/09/2017 - 14:01A foot in two worldsAngela Gui on campaigning for her imprisoned father and her research on political ideology.

Angela Gui [2017] has long been interested in ethical issues. As a child of Chinese parents living in Sweden she grew up fascinated by the difference between the ideologies behind the two countries. It is a fascination which has fuelled her academic research.

But in 2015 that academic interest burst into her real life. During the third year of her undergraduate studies at the University of Warwick, her father, Gui Minhai, disappeared from his home in Thailand and she has not seen him since.

He was one of five men linked to the Causeway Bay Books publishing company in Hong Kong who are thought to have been abducted by the Chinese authorities. The company sells a number of political books that are considered sensitive and banned in mainland China.

The Chinese authorities admitted the men were in custody in early 2016. They have alleged that Gui Minhai is held in connection with a traffic incident more than a decade earlier, but charges have yet to be brought against him.

Angela says there is no evidence that such a traffic incident occurred. She has been campaigning for his release ever since, speaking at events and writing articles in the press. She has received three brief phone calls from her father since his detention, the last in mid-2016. In each one he tells her to stop campaigning for him. “It was like talking to someone else through him,” she says.

Following international attention on the case, Gui Minhai appeared on Chinese television “confessing” to the traffic accident and stating that he had travelled to China of his own volition and handed himself in.

Angela believes firmly that campaigning is vital. “What has happened to my father is emblematic of a larger trend in China taking liberties and enforcing its system abroad. It has implications for everyone. So many countries do not dare criticise China now,” she says.

Angela, who has faced intimidation and whose emails are hacked, has been working with NGOs and others to keep her father’s case in the public eye. “It’s the only thing I can do. The worst thing would be to allow people to forget about him. If we are not watching China will see they can do what they want.”

Two contrasting systems

Angela has been interested from an early age in political ideology and its impact on society.

She was born in Gothenburg in Sweden, but at the age of five, after her parents divorced, she and her mother lived in China for a year and she began her formal education there.

It was an experience which had a profound impact on her. The contrast between the highly competitive, formal system in China and a liberal Swedish early years system, based on learning through play, was huge and Angela says it shaped her future academic interests.  In China she had to study and be graded on 13 subjects and take exams. Students, even at the age of five, were ranked on a list pinned to the blackboard and were not allowed to go to the toilet during class. They were expected to do homework or read or learn an instrument after school whereas in Sweden children would have time to go on playdates and learning was very informal.

At the age of 10 Angela became interested in the debate about the legalisation of euthanasia in Sweden and one of her teachers gave her a book on applied ethics which drove her interest in abstract, theoretical questions. “I was interested in why some societies thought something was ethical and others didn’t,” she says.

Angela was accepted at one of Sweden’s best high schools to do social sciences and philosophy. She chose social sciences because she wanted a career where she could make a difference.  She feels this desire was in some way shaped by her family - her mother is a teacher who was very involved in union activities and in trying to improve the quality of teaching. Meanwhile, her father had long been very politically active in freedom of speech issues in China and often spoke to her about this. “I grew up learning about values and about what I should use my education for,” says Angela. Although she only saw him once a year after her parents’ divorce, she spoke to her father regularly on the phone and when she was old enough to travel on her own she spent more time with him. Little did she realise, though, that she would end up an activist like him.


When it came to thinking about university, she was considering doing a course in analytical philosophy. She consulted her father who suggested it might not achieve the kind of social change she was seeking. So she opted for Sociology instead. However, the courses in Sweden were all applied and Angela didn’t want to commit to a career as a social worker. She was also keen to improve her English so she applied to the University of Warwick in England. She enjoyed living on her own in a new country, doing something she could make her own.

She did her undergraduate dissertation on how our sense of personal identity may be becoming more elastic with the emergence of new technology and especially social media. She looked in particular at how the law has responded to new ways of expressing personal identity, such as through online avatars.

During her course she became increasingly interested in the sociology of medicine, having developed a chronic illness at the age of 19. She was given a lot of support by her department to help her continue her studies, for instance, lectures were recorded for her if she could not attend.

Angela chose to stay at Warwick to do her master’s, but switched to studying the history of medicine because she felt Sociology didn't offer the attention to detail that she was interested in. She won a Wellcome Trust Scholarship and chose to bring together her interest in health and ideology. Her master’s dissertation focuses on mental health and the rise of the welfare state in Sweden. Sweden had the highest per capita statistics at the time for lobotomies and that fascinated Angela. “The shift to social democracy was a huge cultural and ideological shift. You could see it in literature and in science. I wanted to study how it was reflected in medicine and specifically whether the emerging social democratic view of life affected Sweden’s attitude to lobotomies,” she says.

Her dissertation looks at how the eugenics idea of maximising human potential through genetic and biological engineering transmuted into the social democratic view of social engineering. “Social engineering is the idea that everyone can be the ideal citizen; you just have to engineer the conditions to make that happen, for instance, by regulating behaviour. Lobotomy was to some extent a solution to enable people with mental health problems to work better, to rehabilitate them rather than biologically engineer them,” says Angela.

Health propaganda

For her PhD, which she begins in the autumn, she will switch from studying the links between Swedish health issues and ideology to investigating Chinese health policies.

She will study health propaganda during the Maoist period, particularly how health was visualised given that the majority of the population were illiterate. “I grew up hearing about the Cultural Revolution and working on my dad’s case opened my eyes to human rights issues,” she says.

“Public health is a huge rights issue. Many Chinese look back at the Maoist period as positive with regard to health issues and feel that it has become more fragmented since the 1980s with illnesses of the past returning. That perception is influenced by the propaganda they were exposed to during the Maoist period.  I hope that a historical study will aid contemporary public health debates.”

29/08/2017 - 11:46Breakthrough in artificial signallingDerrick Roberts co-first author on paper on the use of self-assembled molecular cages to transmit molecular signals.

Scientists have developed a way to transmit molecular signals using artificial self-assembled molecular cages - which could eventually lead to the construction of complex chemical sensors and reactors with broad applications for industry and medicine.

The research, 'Signal transduction in a covalent post-assembly modification cascade', was published in Nature Chemistry last week. Gates Cambridge Scholar Dr Derrick Roberts [2012] and Dr Ben Pilgrim from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge are co-first authors.

It investigates how self-assembled molecular cages can be used in artificial signal transduction, which is inspired by molecular signalling from a cell’s exterior to its interior. It focuses on reaction cascades, which are sequences of two or more chemical reactions connected so that the output of one reaction serves as the input of another. This is one of the main ways cells send and receive signals.

The co-authors write: “A reaction cascade is like the Olympic torch relay, where each runner represents a single chemical reaction, and the torch represents a chemical signal. The relay begins with the torch (signal) in the hands of the first runner (the first reaction), with each subsequent runner waiting for the torch before starting their leg of the relay. The torch travels great distances as it is passed from runner to runner until it reaches the Olympic stadium. Similarly, the sequential reactions in a cascade can carry a microscopic chemical signal across macroscopic distances. Cells make use of this relay effect to transmit biochemical signals around the body.”

Inspired by the role of reaction cascades in biological signalling, the researchers designed a non-biological signal transduction system that could model key features of its biological counterparts. The cascade system was comprised of two self-assembled molecular cages: a cube, which is empty, and a tetrahedron, which carries a payload (a negatively charged ion) within its central cavity. Initially, both cages are dissolved in a polar solvent called acetonitrile and they are not easily separated. The addition of a signalling molecule triggers the reaction cascade, which results in the addition of long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms (which are very greasy or ‘lipophilic’, meaning they tend to dissolve in fats or lipids) to the tetrahedron. As a result, the tetrahedron becomes less soluble in acetonitrile than the cube, allowing it and its payload to be extracted into a more oily (non-polar) solvent.

The researchers say their study offers the first proof-of-concept for achieving the transmission of molecular signals from a cell's exterior to its interior using a reaction cascade that features self-assembled cage molecules. They add that their ability to selectively separate two initially inseparable cage molecules may prove important for developing new separation techniques and more sophisticated catalyst systems.

Derrick, who was based at Trinity College, says: “One of the most promising applications for molecular cages to use them as "nanocontainers" - tiny little spaces that can trap specific molecules or that can host chemical reactions. My vision for our research is to use reaction cascades to control the behaviour of these nanocontainers, such as instructing them to capture or release a guest molecule, and to direct their phase behaviour (i.e., whether they will dissolve in a water-like or oil-like phase).

“This level of control could allow scientists to build sophisticated chemical reactors that would revolutionise how the chemical industry makes important compounds, from medicines to agrochemicals. It could also allow scientists to build complex chemical sensors to detect environmental pollutants or tiny levels of chemicals in the bloodstream for the early diagnosis of diseases like cancer.”

Picture credit of Seoul Olympic toruch: Wikimedia.

23/08/2017 - 11:38From the academic world to the Blue PlanetAlex Vail on how he is using his PhD in his work as a cameraman on nature documentaries.

Alex Vail’s PhD was fuelled by a long-term passion for studying fish behaviour. Having grown up on the remote Lizard Island Research Station in Northern Australia, he spent his childhood surrounded by visiting marine biologists. Now a few years after finishing his PhD he continues to follow that passion, but this time through documentary-making.

Alex [2010] started his work as a cameraman at the top – doing some research and a little filming on Sir David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef series. Over the last two years he has filmed primarily for Blue Planet 2 which launches in the autumn.

He says it was a difficult decision to leave academia, but that his documentary work fits his interests and personality. He states: "I spend a lot of time trying to understand what animals are doing, just as I did as a researcher, but instead of writing in scientific publications I am part of a team making documentaries that bring this understanding directly to the public.”

He admits it can be a challenge to portray scientific research in a way that is accurate and can also capture the interest of the wider public. "You have to use your discretion - sometimes if something is 100% correct scientifically people will not understand it. The main thing is to give people the general idea accurately. Most of my friends who are scientists love watching nature documentaries and they understand what they are trying to do. So many of them were inspired by them as children," says Alex.

For him a childhood growing up in a remote research station run by his parents, both biologists, was inspiration in itself.

Growing up on Lizard Island

From the age of four, Alex lived on Lizard Island, a 7 km squared speck of coral-fringed granite 270 km north of the Australian city of Cairns. He was the only child living on the island at the time and was taught via Australia’s School of the Air, a pioneering programme that has educated children throughout outback Australia since the 1960s using HF radio.

“Researchers came from all over the world to do their fieldwork, working on everything from worms and corals to sharks and whales. Apart from occasional visits from my cousins, it was just me and the biologists, which was just fine with me,” he says.

At 13, wanting to mix with other teenagers, Alex moved to a boarding school in Sydney. He then moved back to Queensland and James Cook University to study Zoology and Marine Biology, the subjects that had fascinated him since childhood.

If Lizard Island instilled in Vail a desire to study the natural world, volunteering on several African wildlife research projects during his time as an undergraduate exposed him to human poverty and its impact on other species.

But it was marine life that fascinated him. In 2010, before he came to Cambridge, Vail canoed around Indonesia’s Togean Islands and won an award from Australian Geographic for his account of the trip. It highlighted for him the problem of overfishing.  He had hoped to find evidence of local fishermen living sustainably in harmony with their environment, but instead he says there was a dearth of fish because they had been “hammered” by the local population.

Fish intelligence

When it came to deciding what to research for his PhD in Zoology, Alex decided to focus on investigating fish intelligence and cooperation between species over hunting for food.

He studied, for example, whether there are long-term relationships between morays and groupers - previous research had shown that grouper chase fish into coral and then waggle their heads to show the eels where the fish they like to eat are hidden. Alex also wanted to investigate whether groupers buddy-up with specific moray eels that are best at helping them hunt.  To test his theory about the tight relationships between eels and groupers, he implanted eels with transmitters to allow him to track them down daily and placed small video cameras in front of them to observe their behaviour.  This revealed a range of interactions with other species that have never been reported, and which shed light on the evolution of cooperative hunting.

Alex’s research at Cambridge, where he was based at St John's College, also extended to other species, including coral trout, and the results of that research were published in the journal Current Biology in 2014. A study he led was the first to show that chimpanzees are not the only non-human species that can choose the right situation and the right partner to get the best result when collaboratively working. His study  cross-examined the collaborative capacities of coral trout, which uses gestures and signals to flag the location of prey to an eel, with chimpanzees using comparably similar experiments, and found that the fish perform as well - if not better - than humankind’s closest evolutionary relative when it comes to successful collaboration.

Alex says his current work as a cameraman combines his studies on fish intelligence with a long-term interest in the creative arts. In addition to filming fish behaviour for his research, he had done a lot of stills photos and videos of animals as a hobby for years and says the option of becoming a cameraman had been at the back of his head for some time. Indeed he and his two companions filmed the canoe expedition around the Togean Islands. 

Part of the filming for the Great Barrier Reef documentary was done on Lizard Island and Alex helped with researching stories and setting up filming. "It was amazing spending a couple of days with Sir David Attenborough,” he says. “He was everything you would hope he would be - so switched on and genuinely interested in all the topics he was talking about. He talked to all the scientists, took in everything they said and then delivered it very eloquently to camera. It's not an easy thing to do.”

After that Alex started doing a bit of filming for Blue Planet and it snowballed from there. Initially he was working on Lizard Island, but he now works all over Australia on subjects ranging from shark behaviour to coral bleaching. He has also done a little bit of presenting on fish behaviour because of his knowledge of the subject.

Alex has also been working on his own documentary on fish intelligence for the last couple of years, but he is focusing more on getting more experience as a cameraman at the moment.

He is grateful for his time as a Gates Cambridge Scholar and says that, in addition to funding his research, it meant he was surrounded by scholars who were "united by big ideas of what they wanted to achieve from their work". It also gave him the opportunity to do more public speaking, including presenting at the Trustees symposium. "That meant I had to think how to convey complex science to people who were not necessarily scientists," he says. And he adds: "What marks Gates Cambridge people is a desire to communicate their research to the general public and make a big impact. That has shaped the direction I have gone in.”

22/08/2017 - 13:27Important role for citizen scienceNew study, led by Dakota Spear, highlights role of citizen science in data collection for museums.

Citizen science could play an important role in ensuring museum collections are up to date and aiding biological research, according to a new study.

The study, Citizen Science as a Tool for Augmenting Museum Collection Data from Urban Areas, is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. Lead author is Gates Cambridge Scholar Dakota Spear [2015], who worked on the study during her master's degree in Biological Science at Cambridge.

The study says museum collections are critical to contemporary biological research since they provide data that can be used for a variety of purposes, including assessing the history of infectious disease, historical and present levels of environmental contaminants, the effects of global climate change and patterns of biological invasion. Nevertheless, there has been a big fall in collections of new specimens in recent decades due in part to cuts in  funding and a drop in the popularity of scientific collecting. This fall has affected researchers' ability to use collections to assess species responses to habitat modification, urbanisation and global climate change.

The study suggests citizen science may be an important way of bolstering museum collections data, particularly from urban regions, where ongoing data collection is critical to an understanding of ecosystem dynamics in a highly modified and variable landscape.

It compares data collected as part of the citizen-science project Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals), hosted on the platform iNaturalist, to data in the VertNet database, which houses millions of museum collection records from over 250 natural-history collections, for four focal species, including a native lizard of conservation concern that has declined with urbanisation, a native lizard that is widespread in urban areas and two invasive aquatic species.

The researchers compared numbers of VertNet records over time to modern RASCals records and the number of records collected from urban, suburban and protected areas from both databases. For all species, citizen-science records were generated much more rapidly than museum records. For three of the focal species, RASCals participants over 27 months documented from 70 to 750% more records than were added to the VertNet database after 1990. For the urban-tolerant southern alligator lizard, RASCals participants collected nearly 45 times more modern urban records than are contained in the VertNet database. For all other species, the majority of RASCals records were collected within suburban or other highly modified landscapes. The researchers say this shows the value of citizen science for collecting data within urban and suburban ecosystems.

The results also highlight the relevance of citizen science to studies of urban biodiversity. Urban areas are a mosaic of private properties that can be difficult or even impossible to survey using standard techniques, it states. By partnering with citizen scientists, the researchers say this challenge can be overcome.

They add: "As new museum acquisitions decline, citizen-science projects like RASCals may become critical to the maintenance of modern species-distribution data."

*Picture credit of coast horned lizard: Wikimedia Commons.

10/08/2017 - 10:36Simprints wins $2M innovation prize Simprints wins Saving Lives at Birth challenge to prevent maternal and child deaths

Tech start-up Simprints has won a $2M innovation prize to prevent maternal and child deaths in the hardest-to-reach regions of the world.

Simprints was co-founded by Gates Cambridge Scholars Daniel Storisteanu [2012], Toby Norman [2011] and Alexandra Grigore [2012] alongside Tristram Norman. A nonprofit tech company, it builds open source software and biometric hardware to empower mobile tools used by researchers, NGOs, and governments fighting poverty around the world

After a rigorous review by global health experts, the start-up was selected among 15 of the world’s most promising ideas to prevent maternal and child mortality by Saving Lives at Birth, a 'Grand Challenge for Development' funded by the Gates Foundation, USAID, UKaid, and the Canadian, Korean and Norwegian governments. The 15 winners beat over 550 other applicants to secure funding to develop, refine and launch their innovations.

Simprints will use the $2M prize to scale their current project covering 22k patients in Bangladesh with BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, nationwide across 24 districts, reaching 4.85M mothers and children over the next three years. Simprints simultaneously received a $250k innovation award to begin R&D on neonate fingerprinting technology that can improve vaccination rates across the developing world.

Cambridge giant ARM Ltd, whose microchips power over 95% of the world’s smartphones, has announced that they will match the prize to the tune of $200k to expand Simprints’ integration with leading global health technology platforms. Through their 2030 Vision agenda ARM has previously supported Simprints with engineering expertise and $350k of funding, bringing the total to over $500k of support for their fellow Cambridge technologists.

Toby Norman said: "Simprints has developed biometric technology that is 228% more accurate with the scarred, worn fingerprints typical of 'last mile' beneficiaries. Simprints empowers already existing mobile tools used by NGOs and governments to deliver essential services like healthcare at the frontlines. Our goal is to radically disrupt the inaccurate way we currently track and deliver social impact, instead building a world where every person - not guesswork - actually counts in the fight against poverty."

The Saving Lives at Birth partnership, launched in 2011, includes the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada (funded by the Government of Canada), the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA). It aims to address the 303,000 maternal deaths, 2.7 million neonatal deaths, and 2.6 million stillbirths that occur each year around the world.

31/07/2017 - 20:32Education for changeNorman Wray stood for the presidency of Ecuador. Now he is looking to deepen his studies in conservation leadership.

Norman Wray has been at the centre of Ecuador’s political events for the last decade or more and stood as a candidate in the presidential elections in 2013.

After years of political tumult, he now wants to take some time to think more deeply about the best way of achieving the goals that he has spent his life campaigning for. His MPhil in Conservation Leadership dovetails with the Buen Vivir philosophy which proposes an alternative form of development for Ecuador, based on the rights of nature and rooted in the country’s indigenous populations. It is a philosophy which is now embedded in Ecuador’s constitution.

Norman says: “That focus on the governance of the commons, on the rights of people and of nature are central issues for the future and need to be part of a new economy.” The programme comes under the Department of Geography which brings all the themes Norman has been interested in for many years together.

Promoting change through Law

Norman was born in Bogota to Ecuadorian parents who were working there, but grew up in Quito. When he was about 13 he started doing community work at a liberation theology church, working with people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods on access to water, health and education. “It really made an impact on my life and was why I chose to do Law at a public university,” says Norman. “I felt Law should be a tool to help people.”

He opted to study Law at the Central University of Ecuador where he was drawn to constitutional, human rights and environment law. For the last two years of his six-year degree he switched to the private Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador because of a crisis in the public system, doing his thesis on the enforceability of social, economic and cultural rights. He had been working on research projects with indigenous communities in the amazon region which aimed to find mediation tools to solve conflicts in the region between individual rights and traditional justice. Traditional justice was not at the time recognised by the state which emphasised political rights over collective social rights.

Norman also worked for the Centre for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, where he used the law as a tool to promote human and environmental rights, collective indigenous rights and social justice and to create the conditions for  sustainable development as well as alternatives to oil and mining. The centre's work supported the Achuar and Shuar indigenous peoples in the South Amazon region of Ecuador.

Ruptura de los 25

On graduating Norman started working on the rights of children and adolescents and women as the national coordinator of a programme to promote Community Defenders. His work focused on improving the skills of mothers from disadvantaged rural towns and urban neighbourhoods with the aim of strengthening their communities, preventing abuse and giving them a political voice. “It was a political process to transform the community from inside and out and to promote advocacy around the individual and collective rights of women and children,” says Norman. “Through understanding the rights of their children, women would question their own rights around issues like domestic abuse. It was a kind of political awakening. At the end of the day, I believe education is political and not just pedagogical. It changes the lives of people.”

In 2004, Norman was one of the founding members of the Ruptura de los 25 which formed part of the movement which brought down President Lucio Gutierrez‘s government. The movement was a founding partner of the left-wing Alianza PAIS coalition which brought Rafael Correa to power in 2006.

Alianza PAIS sought to move away from Ecuador's neoliberal economic model by reducing the influence of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and to promote sustainable development and the Buen Vivir philosophy.

Norman was appointed political adviser to the Ministry of Defence in 2007. His work involved advising on situations ranging from border conflicts with Colombia to developing a military and social plan to help indigenous communities threatened by paramilitary groups.

A year later he was elected to the National Constituent Assembly, set up by the government to draft the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador. “I saw it as an opportunity to create a new political and socio, ecological and economic agreement for the country,” he says. “People were excited about the possibility of a new beginning and a new constitution, a new Ecuador. We wanted a break with the past,” says Norman. “We understood that we were part of something that was bigger than our movement and was about building the future of our country.” He was one of the main advocates of Buen Vivir which promotes rights of nature and water as a human right in the Ecuadorian Constitution.

Norman spent nine months in the Constituent Assembly which acted as a transitional government and then he stood for election for the Metropolitan Council of Quito where he stayed for three years, chairing the Gender Equity Commission and working on environmental issues as a member of the Environment Commission.

Presidential elections and beyond

In 2011 Ruptura 25 distanced itself from President Correa’s government and set itself up as a national political movement so that it could take part in the general election of 2013. Norman was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate.

He describes the electoral campaign as “really tough”. “We committed a lot of strategic mistakes,” he says. The movement had few resources and no media support. Norman won 1.31% of the vote and, due to changes in the election rules, which are still being contested, the movement disappeared.

He says he learnt a great deal from the political process. “As an activist you say what you want to do and you don’t think about how to make it a reality. But you learn about the limits of what you can do and you come up against lots of conflicts of interest, including the vested interests of the media. You have to learn to prioritise and that you have to win some battles and lose others. It is a learning process,” he says.

After the election, Norman found it difficult to get a job. “My work opportunities started to close down. No-one wanted to get involved with someone who opposed the new government. The country was very polarised between the government and its opponents. I was in the middle of nowhere,” he says. He spent a year and a half in Quito without a job and with mounting debts until his wife, who was from the Galapagos, was offered a job in conservation there.

The family moved and Norman was appointed legal adviser to the Consejo Nacional of Ecuador’s judicial system.

He then became programme manager of the Galapagos’ conservation programme and spent the next two years working on issues such as management of Ecuador’s national parks and the Galapagos’ agricultural framework.

His wife, whose father is British, had always dreamed of studying at Cambridge and she was accepted onto a PhD programme which began last year. Norman joined her with their two children [Norman has two older children from a previous marriage] in March. He had taught constitutional law at two different universities in Ecuador for several years and enjoyed being in academia. He decided to apply for an MPhil and for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

“I wanted time to think and synthesise all my years in politics and to work on better solutions for the challenges of promoting sustainable development in my country,” he says. Since being accepted on the master’s programme, he has been working as a volunteer for Bird Life International, supporting their capacity building advocacy strategy for the Americas in the fight against climate change.

Having experience the maelstrom of political activism, Norman, who will be based at Darwin College, is keen to look at the deeper issues of how you convert sustainable development policies into action. He says: “Law is the end of the process. First we have to build agreement through translating knowledge into public policy. Law by itself does not bring justice. There needs to be a more profound understanding of the issues affecting us and the impact they have on our lives, a realisation that we are all responsible. That is the role of education. Education is a political process.”

26/07/2017 - 13:58Scholar to be Scientific Director of major studyRajiv Chowdhury will be joint Principal Director of CAPABLE - a major public health programme in Bangladesh.

A Gates Cambridge scholar will be Scientific Director of an £8m four-year programme to address public health and environmental risks in Bangladesh.

Dr Rajiv Chowdhury will be joint Principal Investigator on CAPABLE [Cambridge Programme to Assist Bangladesh in LIfestyle and Environmental risk reduction], a programme which will see researchers from the UK and developing countries working together as equal partners. 

The £8M grant from the Global Challenges Research Fund of the Research Council UK, announced last week, will enable the establishment of a 100,000-person cohort study from across Bangladesh to study their long-term health. Bangladesh has had considerable success in cutting child mortality and fertility rate in recent years, but it faces an onslaught of chronic diseases that arise from an interplay of factors ranging from arsenic-contaminated drinking water to iron-deficient foods and from air pollution to the rise of the western lifestyle.

CAPABLE will gather data from the cohort and engineers, sociologists, health researchers and a host of other disciplines will try to understand how the risk factors interact – and build a model that can be used to test interventions before they are implemented.

“We aim to help develop simple, scalable and effective solutions to control major environmental and lifestyle risk factors in Bangladesh,” says Dr Chowdhury who is based at the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge.

He was earlier also awarded a £400k grant as principal investigator from the Newton Fund to set up a new cardiovascular study in Malaysia called the MAVERIK [the Malaysian Acute Vascular Events RIsK] study. The study will evaluate the cardiovascular risk factors of specific relevance to the Malaysian population, such as indigenous forms of tobacco consumption and local dietary patterns, with potential implications of results for public health policy.

Speaking about his research, Dr Chowdhury told the British Heart Foundation recently: “Almost 80 per cent of the global population live outside of western countries. In these lower and middle income countries we have the majority of global cases of heart and circulatory disease. But the research that has been done in those countries has been minimal.”

He added: “While important genes are often discovered in specific populations, they offer crucial insights into the mechanisms of disease as a whole, and therefore can progress medicine by developing new drugs that can target those pathways. And if we discover new genes, which can help us develop new drugs, that is very important to western medications and western populations too.”

Dr Chowhury [2009] did his PhD in Public Health and Primary Care and was the first Gates Cambridge Scholar to be awarded the Bill Gates Senior Prize in recognition of his work.

*Picture of Dhaka c/o Wikimedia Commons.

23/07/2017 - 21:24How mothers affect their daughters' educationAliya Khalid's research investigates the role mothers play in their daughters education in Punjab, Pakistan.

Aliya Khalid [2015] was born in Peshawar in North West Pakistan, a region which borders Afghanistan and which has suffered many suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. Although she doesn’t come from the tribal areas along the border, Aliya says the general mindset in the region has been affected by the presence of the Taliban and groups sympathetic to them. That includes the treatment of women.

She has seen how strong and resilient women in this region are. “If you invest in these women you are investing in something very sustainable,” she says. “If you invest in empowering them you are also supporting their daughters. But resources are limited so policymakers need to be strategic. They need to focus on what works. It is not enough to give women money. They need to feel some sense of agency, an agency they will transfer to their daughters.”

It is what creates that sense of agency which is at the heart of her research into mothers and daughters in Punjab and it is a sense of agency which she herself has struggled with as a result of patriarchal structures, despite being brought up in a non-traditional family which treated her and her four sisters essentially like sons, encouraging them to question the world around them, to speak up and to embrace education.

A love of learning

Her parents, indeed, started a girls school followed by a boys school. Aliya, however, was sent to a Christian girls school which shared a wall with a madrassa. “You could hear the azan [call for prayer] and the church bells from the same place,” she recalls.

Aliya moved from school to college at the age of 15, winning a scholarship to do so, and at 18 she got married. Her sister had married her husband’s brother so she knew the family a little.

It was a difficult and abusive marriage both physically and psychologically. Aliya had always wanted to go to university and loved science, especially Physics. “I love to learn,” she says. “If I am put in a situation where I can’t learn it kills me.” Her husband and his family did not want her to become more educated than the men around her. As a condition of her marriage, however, her parents insisted she continue her studies. Her husband’s family agreed, but when she was married they wouldn’t let her go to university. So Aliya’s mother signed her up for an English literature degree at a private college and brought her books to read. She taught herself and only had to go to college at the end of her course to sit her exams. She passed, but that was the end of her studies as far as her husband’s family were concerned.

She spent the next eight years more or less confined to the home, bringing up her two children. She was not free to keep in touch with her own family and could not go out without permission or a chaperone. “I was going crazy,” she says. “It  was like I had disappeared.”

Things were to get worse, though. Her sister was banished from her home in Islamabad and forbidden from seeing her four children. The family began to treat Aliya as if she was invisible. “It was as if I was transparent,” she says. Her husband threatened to take her children away too. In the end, she and her children were rescued by her parents and the police. There then followed extensive litigation over custody, which is still ongoing.

Aliya took a job as a blogger to earn some money, but her father told her she needed to return to her studies. Although she had lost all confidence after so many years out of academic studies, she passed the entrance exam to do a master’s in Public Administration at the Institute of Management Sciences in Peshawar. “I needed time to heal,” she says. “The romantic notion of education was a saviour to me.” During her eight years at home she had read Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time. “It kept me going,” she says. “I understood the physics and that showed me that my brain was not dead.” She has recently met Professor Hawking in Cambridge and told him how important his book had been to her.

Aliya says that more than just education, the master’s gave her the feeling that she could do anything she wanted to. Having been silenced for so long, she seized every opportunity to ask questions - and still does. “I always ask questions,” she says. “I am determined to speak”. At university she also became involved in a youth empowerment organisation and on one occasion helped women prisoners build a play area for their children, campaigned to raise funds for a student who was in danger of dropping out and was eager to help colleagues when she could.

Women's resilience

Aliya finished her master’s in 2012 and was awarded a gold medal. She then worked for a year and a half on a project on skills training for conflict victims where she was the only woman in the department. She says it was a male run setup. “I had to establish my name and I knew that diligence and hard work would do the trick. I knew my dedication would show and it did. I became an indispensable member of the team by the time I left. The only person you should compare yourself against is yourself in the past,” she says.

The conflict victims she worked with made a big impression on her, for instance, a woman who had lost both her sons in conflict. “I could see the misery in her eyes, but she was continuing. Many women like her had no education, but they were as smart, if not more as any other person who had received education. The skill you need in such circumstances is resilience more than your ABCs,” says Aliya. “It made me think a lot about resilience issues.”

She left the project when her mother became unwell and she and her sister took over the running of their schools. Aliya ran the boys’ school and her sister the girls’ school. It reinforced for her how valued and respected education was in her country.

Aliya was keen to continue her academic studies and wanted her children to have the experience of living abroad so she looked at possibilities in the UK, having visited her sister there when she was studying in Lancaster.  She applied only to the University of Cambridge and says she wouldn’t have been able to take up the course without both the Gates Cambridge scholarship and her family’s support, especially her mother’s.

Aliya applied for an MPhil in Public Policy initially, but couldn’t get visas for her children because the course was too short. She had been interested in doing a PhD and knew of the work being done in India and Pakistan in the Research for Equitable Access and Learning centre in Cambridge. With the support of Gates Cambridge, she was able to switch to a PhD in Education and is now a member of the research centre.

It will focus on what affects women’s sense of agency and how this impacts their decisions on whether to educate their daughters. She has adopted a two-pronged theoretical approach which encompasses not only the mother’s education, but the influence of other family members, the local community and broader society.  Using the capability approach she is focusing on women’s opportunities to be autonomous and the impact of this on their daughters. She has combined this with cooperative conflict theory which covers mindset and social setting, including a woman’s sense of her own value. She says the two theories have not been brought together before to explain maternal influence as a process. She is seeking to create an evaluative protocol which helps define what the dominant issues are for women in certain populations. She hopes it will help policymakers know where to direct resources to get the best outcomes.

Aliya, who is based at Newnham College, has already done a pilot for her field work with families in the UK and Pakistan. She believes that legislation is one issue that can make a difference by providing protection, but that different strategies are needed for different contexts. “You need to know what is wrong if you want to empower women,” she says. “Policies need to be tailored to women’s individual circumstances,” says Aliya.

As both a mother and a daughter, she is very aware of the strong influence of mothers on their daughters’ education choices and is clear that understanding what limits mothers is a vital part of the jigsaw. “Mothers are so important and you can also reach men when you talk about their mothers’ influence,” she says. “When I think back the strongest influence on me has been my mother. For me a mother is more than someone who gives birth. It is a feeling that there is someone who puts you before themselves. In that sense my elder sister and the rest of my family have mothered (nurtured) me to be where I am now. When I was struggling with my marriage, I would often close my eyes and my mother would be there.”

18/07/2017 - 23:08Checking the facts in an era of fake newsAndreas Vlachos on his research into Imitation learning and fact checking.

When he started doing work on an automated fact checking system Andreas Vlachos did not anticipate the kind of publicity he was going to generate.

But the advent of Brexit and Trump and the focus on fake news has brought him and the start-up he co-founded a lot of media attention, including a recent feature in the New York Times. “It has become very apparent that there is a need for more fact checking and that automation could be the answer,” he says.

He says that, although currently his algorithms are not able to achieve what human journalists can, there is a real need for them because there are not enough humans to check the multiple sources of news on the internet.

“It’s like translation. No-one thinks Google Translate is as good as a human translator, but it is useful,” he says. There is still a very long way to go to scale it up, but he sees it as ultimately an aid to journalists and to the public.

Andreas did his Bachelors degree in Computer Science at the University of Athens. There he started work on a project on web development and interfacing databases, but he didn’t find it very interesting so his supervisor suggested he work on a project which involved building systems using financial sentences and acronyms. It was his first encounter with artificial intelligence, a subject that was not taught in Greece at the time. Using the rules he had created, Andreas started writing software with a friend.

Alongside Computer Science Andreas was also doing a degree in classical guitar and took part in the selection for the Greek entry to the classical Eurovision contest when he was 19.

Biomedical text mining

In 2003 he began his master’s at Edinburgh University with a focus on artificial intelligence and wrote a paper based on his research on active learning, specifically how computers learn from people, which was published in 2008 and remains his most cited paper. He applied to do a PhD at Edinburgh, but couldn’t cover his maintenance costs so he applied for a research assistant position in Cambridge in 2004 and worked on biomedical information extraction, putting data from science papers onto searchable databases.

Andreas continued this biomedical text mining work when he was accepted to do a PhD in machine learning and natural language processing at Cambridge for which he received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. He began the PhD in 2006.

While he was at Cambridge, where he was based at Peterhouse College, he was involved in a campaign to get the Gates Foundation to divest from fossil fuels which made a big impression on him. His interest in ethics and his desire to make a difference is what has kept him in academia because he feels he can raise wider social issues around, for instance, diversity in machine learning than might be possible if he was working in industry and he can have an impact on students as a teacher. Andreas did his post-doc at the University of Madison-Wisconsin in the Department of Biostatistics and Medical Informatics which enabled him to advance his methods. He began working on a paradigm for Imitation learning which has a grounding in robotics and computer science. After that he returned to Cambridge for two and a half years, working on dialogue systems which are used, for instance, for helping tourists to find their way around via voice-activated software on their phones.

In 2014 Andreas moved to University College London and began working on a fact checking project with the BBC which he devised with his supervisor. “I was interested in politics and thought that the lack of grounding in facts was a major problem in public discourse,” he said.

He feels the biggest danger comes from misinformation emanating from people who are trusted figures.

Start-up company

Andreas recently moved to the University of Sheffield where he is working on imitation learning for structured prediction, natural language generation to automatically generate weather forecasts from data on weather sites and fact checking and where he, Dhruv Ghulati, Robert Stojnic and Sebastian Riedel set up Factmata, a fact-checking start-up company.

It faces several challenges, including the fact that a lot of information on the internet is outdated so claims based on it are inaccurate and that much important data is not easily accessible.

In October, Factmata applied for funding through the Google Digital News Initiative to develop their idea further. “I want to bring my research to the public so that anyone can use it to battle misinformation,” says Andreas, who has taken on an advisory role in the company. The company will not launch until a plug-in has been developed, meaning it can be more widely used, but it has already received a lot of publicity, including the article in the New York Times.

Andreas is also an adviser on a global fake news challenge organised by two US researchers, Dean Pomerleau and Dedip Rao. That has also brought news coverage. The challenge offers competitors a $2,000 prize to use artificial intelligence to combat fake news. Using a database of verified articles and their artificial intelligence expertise, groups of students, independent programmers and tech industry experts have to accurately predict the veracity of certain claims.

Andreas believes that in a world of overinformation fact checking could change the way we read the news. “Everyone should have access to fact checking,” he says. “It educates people about the way facts are used.”

13/07/2017 - 22:47Chemical innovationDerrick Roberts named finalist in 2017 Reaxys Prize for innovation in Chemistry.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been named a finalist in the prestigious 2017 Reaxys PhD Prize for Chemistry.

Derrick Roberts [2012] was among 45 scientists selected for the Prize which recognises young chemists conducting original and innovative research in organic, organometallic and inorganic chemistry.
Some 550 chemists from around the globe applied from the prize. 

Derrick’s entry was based on his PhD in Chemistry for which he received the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. His article focused on tiny molecule-sized cages (roughly 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair) are becoming increasingly useful for performing industrially-useful chemical reactions and for trapping dangerous and highly reactive substances. It described a new method for modifying the framework of a molecular cage using simple, fast and modular "post-assembly modification" reactions. 

Derrick says: “Post-assembly modification reactions are performed after the cage is formed, rather than before - analogous to renovating a house to suit a new homeowner rather than building a new house altogether. These modification reactions are useful because they can change how the cages behave and what kinds of molecules they can trap. Our work therefore contributes a new method for tailoring molecule-sized cages to new applications in medicinal, materials and synthetic chemistry."

Derrick, who is now a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, has been invited to present his research at the Prize Symposium that will be held in Shanghai in October. Three winners will be chosen based on the originality, innovation, relevance and methodological rigour of their presented work. 

The selection process involved more than 100 international chemists from academia and industry.

Derrick also recently received an honourable mention for the 2017 Solvay-IUPAC PhD Prize. 

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

10/07/2017 - 12:39Exploring a new frontier in planetary discoveryLuis Welbanks will do a PhD in Astronomy focusing on exo-planets.

An international team of astronomers, led by University of Cambridge researchers, discovered a system of seven potentially habitable planets orbiting a star 39 light years away earlier this year. It was the latest in a string of remarkable recent discoveries of planets outside our own universe which may lead to us finding out sooner rather than later whether we are alone in space.

One person who is seeking to play his part in mapping these discoveries is Luis Welbanks, a Mexican student who starts his PhD at Cambridge in the autumn.

“We are finding more exoplanets than we thought possible,” says Luis. “And we are finding them faster than we expected.”

For his PhD he will look to create an atlas of exoplanets, “a genetic tree classifying the different types” based on the planets’ chemical composition. He will also explore what the chemicals in the atmosphere surrounding the planets can tell us about their creation and evolution and he will research their biological and geological processes. “I will explore, for instance, if they have mountains or oceans, whether they can support life and, if they could, in what way might that life differ from life on Earth,” says Luis. “It is like being one of the first explorers. We are at the start of a huge wave of discovery. We are as close as we have ever been to finding out if there is life on other planets and whether we are alone or not.”

Who we are

As a child living in the outskirts of Mexico City, Luis dreamed of being an inventor and creating things. When he was 13, he was given Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos: a Personal Voyage as a present. He says: “From the first moment of opening the book I became fascinated by the philosophy of science. It was not just about creating something, but discovering something fundamental about who we are.”

His interests were, however, broader than pure science. At his high school, which was linked to the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, Luis - who did the International Baccalaureate programme - got involved in theatre production and was passionate about history, even attempting to publish some papers on Mexican history. His interest in history encompassed everything from our recent to our pre-human past. “History was about who we are from understanding our immediate past,” he says, “but physics was about who we are from a more fundamental basis originating in the beginnings of the universe. I wanted to understand where we came from,” he says.

At school he signed up for opportunities to explore his intellectual interests and took part in science summer camps and in an international camp at the Weizmann Institute in Israel.

Double major

When it came to university, he was keen to continue with his dual interests in History and Astrophysics. However, the Mexican system does not allow double majors. So Luis applied to the University of Calgary in Canada. Later, though, he realised that it was better to put all his energies into his passion for science and switched to a double major in Physics and Astrophysics.

Luis’ studies were funded by a scholarship, but this was not renewable after the first year and he spent his first summer vacation in limbo waiting to hear about funding for the next year. There were around 10 other Latin American students in the same situation. Only two, including Luis, got funding for the next year. “It felt a bit like the Hunger Games,” he says. “We were forced to fight against each other for funding.”

Luis and his fellow students felt there needed to be a voice for Latin American students at the University so, at the end of their first year, they started a student organisation to campaign to have Latin America as a main focus in the University’s international statement and to argue for more attention to be given to both recruitment and retention of Latin American students. “We had been a very close knit community and we didn’t want others to go through losing that sense of community,” says Luis.

The group contacted government representatives from Latin America and in the Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry which eventually resulted in a new scholarship being set up for Mexican engineering students.

The organisation also provided mentoring and tutoring to incoming students facing difficulties adapting to a different educational and cultural context and they set up a Day of the Dead competition which showcased Latin American history and culture in liaison with the Mexican consulate. There were also other events, such as a speaker series. Luis was President of the organisation for five years.

Over the course of his degrees, he developed vital research skills, for instance, he worked on molecular spectrostropy, the study of absorption of light by molecules. This helped him with research into the components of one of Saturn’s moons. He participated in student research aimed at launching a sounding rocket and went to Norway to study the Northern Lights. Luis also restarted a physics student society which brought undergraduates together with graduate students and faculty. One of his initiatives was a contest which involved writing a research paper in the space of 48 hours. Luis says the society helped him get a foot in the research door.

Neutron stars

He completed his joint degrees in 2015 and started a two-year master’s in Astrophysics. At the end of 2015 there was a luminous explosion in the sky which was initially thought to be a supernova except for the fact that it was 200 times brighter than a regular supernova. It was thought that it might be a double explosion. Luis was fascinated and his master’s thesis is an investigation of the physical processes that might have caused this and their chemical signatures. His hypothesis is that the double explosion may have been caused by the explosion of a neutron star, a Quark Nova, following the supernova explosion of a star. Neutron stars are created when giant stars die in supernovas and their cores collapse. A Quark Nova is the explosion of a neutron star into a quark star, a really dense object composed of the smallest particles known to humans, quarks.

Luis had also been developing an interest in exoplanets and how they have formed over the last few years.

Because of his interest, he started reading up on research on exoplanets and contacted Nikku Madhusudhan at the University of Cambridge to see if there were any research posts going at the Cambridge Exoplanet Research Centre. The University has been leading research on exoplanets for the last 20 years. “I wanted to learn from the best in the field, from those who have revolutionised the way we understand exoplanets,” says Luis, who will be based at Churchill College.

He will move to the UK in the summer with his partner and says he is very grateful for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, especially given his past issues over funding. He feels passionately about its mission to improve the lives of others. “I really want to make a difference,” he says. “I want to share what I have learned. There is not a lot of support for science in Latin America. I want to help empower Latin Americans.”

06/07/2017 - 17:02Dr BlogStine Ravnå founds education blog giving advice on issues relating to doctoral research.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has set up a blog for research students which provides a range of advice and insight on different issues relating to doctoral research and educational inquiry.

PhD student Stine Ravnå founded the blog on behalf of the Faculty of Education Research Students' Association (FERSA). As the academic officer of FERSA, she believed that a blog would be a useful forum for knowledge exchange and research dissemination.

Stine currently edits the blog with fellow PhD students, Tyler Shores, Danai Giampili and C.J.Rauch. The blog, which is about the PhD process as well as educational research, aims to offer helpful advice about the PhD journey and to be an informal channel for students in the Faculty of Education to disseminate and showcase aspects of their research to a broader audience.

Some of the topics covered so far include:

  • Time management during the PhD
  • How to prepare for the PhD viva

  • Making research accessible through animation

  • Tips on reading and note-taking in a digital age

  • Reflections on ethnographic research in education

  • The politics of loaded terms such as intelligence, genetics, race and socio-economic status in educational research

Together with Dr Bethan Morgan, Tyler and Stine have been co-lecturing on the educational research module "Research in a Digital Age" at the Faculty of Education. They emphasise how valuable a blog can be to get writing practice and sharpen arguments, explore ideas, and share advice and insight with both peers and others. Stine says: “Blogging can help democratise research by ensuring that you potentially reach out to a broader audience with research findings.”

Picture credit: Faculty of Education

03/07/2017 - 10:54International human rights law under the spotlightMarina Velickovic will become the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from Bosnia and Herzegovina this autumn.

Marina Velickovic will become the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from Bosnia and Herzegovina when she begins her PhD in Law in the autumn.

Marina’s research will build on her work on international criminal law and human rights in the context of the former Yugoslavia.

She will analyse the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as a site of knowledge production and look at how different narratives are produced there, incorporating Feminist critiques, Critical Legal Studies and Third World Approaches to Law to explore where the blind spots are with relation to gender and ethnicity. 

The ICTY claims to be among the first courts of its kind to bring explicit charges of wartime sexual violence and to define gender crimes such as rape and sexual enslavement under customary law. It was also the first international criminal tribunal to enter convictions for rape as a form of torture and for sexual enslavement as crime against humanity, as well as the first international tribunal based in Europe to pass convictions for rape as a crime against humanity, following a previous case adjudicated by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Marina, who in addition to her studies has founded several feminist platforms in Bosnia, including the only print feminist magazine in the country, has co-authored two books, 1995-2015: Women and Political Life in Post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina and Furam feminizam: Priručnik za djevojčice [a feminism handbook for girls].


She was born in Sarajevo and was just three when the conflict in Bosnia ended. Her father is a writer and lecturer and her mother an architect. “It’s a very artistic family. They were a bit shocked when I said I was going to do Law,” she says. She was drawn to Law because of the big discussions in Bosnia at the time around human rights and international law. Her interest has always been in the study of Law rather than in practising it. “It’s what makes me tick,” she says.

As a young girl, however, she trained as a ballet dancer. From the age of eight she practised for around two hours a day, increasing to up to four hours a day of ballet and piano when she started high school and then the routine became too overwhelming. It was a difficult decision to give up something she had done for six years and had loved, but she felt it was holding her back from doing other things.  “I could not do ballet to the degree that I wanted to and give 100% to my school work,” she says.

At 14 she became very interested in international criminal law after reading a book on the prevention of genocide. “When I read that book I knew what I wanted to do,” she says.

Her interest in human rights was influenced by what she was seeing around her. “People had faith in international law and human rights, but the system did not seem to be working. I was interested in how international law managed to keep its status as a beacon of hope when it appeared to be failing. I was interested in genocide as it is the biggest, most visible failure in international law,” says Marina.

She looked at universities in the UK which specialised in international law and got accepted on a Law course at the University of Bristol. Over the course of the degree she did several internships at the UN Development Programme, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. She also did a series of jobs to earn money to support herself, including tutoring, being an international ambassador at the university and working on telethons. In addition she did voluntary work for Student Action for Refugees, teaching refugee children English at a primary school in Bristol and then worked as the campaigns coordinator for the organisation. In her final year she was student director of the Bristol Human Rights Clinic, coordinating and doing research on issues such as police brutality.

She applied to do a masters, but didn’t get funding so she returned to Bosnia for a year and reapplied for 2014/2015.


Marina had always been a feminist and grew up in a liberal environment where her parents shared childcare. However, at school she came up against patriarchal structures and argued against them. At university she studied feminist theory and began to read around it. When she returned to Bosnia she worked for the OHCHR on conflict-related sexual violence and did some gender-based research for an NGO. So when it came to her master’s at London School of Economics she chose to focus on feminist critiques of International Law. Her dissertation was an analysis of the Kunarac judgement by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia through the lenses of feminist and postcolonial theory.

While at LSE Marina, with a group of other students, worked on LSE’s submission to the UN on resolution 1325, which urges all actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts.

She knew by this stage that she wanted to do a PhD, but she wanted to be sure and to experience the world outside academia. So she worked on several feminist platforms and publications and in 2016 she co-founded a magazine on feminist art and theory called BONA, which brings together emerging feminist writers, artists and journalists.

Since graduating from LSE, Marina has been working as a consultant for Goldsmiths and for LSE. She is currently employed as a research associate on the Gender of Justice Project at Goldsmiths, analysing legal material from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

She is excited to begin her research at the University of Cambridge, where she will be based at Pembroke College, saying it is one of the best places in the world to study international law. She is also looking forward to being a Gates Cambridge Scholar. “I have always believed that education is about more than academic studies. I am looking forward to being with a group of people who have similar attitudes about education to me."

30/06/2017 - 00:00Alumna to head immigration organisationWendi Adelson has been named executive director of the Immigration Partnership & Coalition (IMPAC) Fund.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been named executive director of an organisation focused on raising funds to finance existing legal services for undocumented individuals with no criminal background in the US.

Wendi Adelson has been appointed head of the Immigration Partnership & Coalition (IMPAC) Fund.

Prior to IMPAC, Adelson served as a law clerk to the Honorable Adalberto Jordan on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit from 2015 to 2016 and for seven years was a law professor specialising in immigration at Florida State University. 

“IMPAC is rounding out the civic ecosystem in Florida by bringing a rational business perspective to the immigration arena. I am enthusiastic about the opportunity to work with all of these community leaders in the effort to support and promote policies and practices that recognise the vital contribution that immigrants make to our economy and our communities,” said Adelson.

IMPAC Fund was formed in May 2017 by a group of civic and business leaders in Florida whose mission is to highlight injustices that are occurring with deportations and the immigrant population in the United States. The organisation’s efforts focus on fundraising for the defence of non-felon undocumented residents to protect them and their families from deportation.

Adelson is also the author of This is Our Story, a novel about human trafficking.  The book tells the fictional story of three women – a public interest immigration attorney in Florida and two victims of human trafficking. The attorney's life is based on Wendi's own experiences and the victims are a compilation of the hundreds of stories she heard in the course of her work highlights the victims' vulnerability and how they got involved in trafficking.. Wendi [2002] studied for an MPhil in International Relations at the University of Cambridge.

*Picture credit: A Day Without Immigration c/o Wikimedia commons.

26/06/2017 - 14:52Study reveals mysterious equality with which grains pack it inStudy led by Stefano Martiniani tests theory explaining the physics of how substances like sand and gravel pack together.

At the moment they come together, the individual grains in materials like sand and snow appear to have exactly the same probability of combining into any one of their many billions of possible arrangements, researchers have shown.

The finding, by an international team of academics at the University of Cambridge, UK, and Brandeis University in the US, appears to confirm a decades-old mathematical theory which has never been proven, but provides the basis for better understanding granular materials – one of the most industrially significant classes of material on the planet.

A granular material is anything that comprises solid particles that can be seen individually with the naked eye. Examples include sand, gravel, snow, coal, coffee, and rice.

If correct, the theory demonstrated in the new study points to a fact of remarkable – and rather mysterious – mathematical symmetry. It means, for example, that every single possible arrangement of the grains of sand within a sand dune is exactly as probable as any another.

The study was led by Stefano Martiniani [2013], who is based at New York University but undertook the research while completing his PhD at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, where he was a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

“Granular materials are so widely-used that understanding their physics is very important,” Martiniani said. “This theory gives us a very simple and elegant way to describe their behaviour. Clearly, something very special is happening in their physics at the moment when grains pack together in this way.”

The conjecture that Martiniani tested was first proposed in 1989 by the Cambridge physicist Sir Sam F. Edwards, in an effort to better understand the physical properties of granular materials.

Globally, these are the second-most processed type of material in industry (after water) and staples of sectors such as energy, food and pharmaceuticals. In the natural world, vast granular assemblies, such as sand dunes, interact directly with wind, water and vegetation. Yet the physical laws that determine how they behave in different conditions are still poorly understood. Sand, for example, behaves like a solid when jammed together, but flows like a liquid when loose.

Understanding more about the mechanics of granular materials is of huge practical importance. When they jam during industrial processing, for example, it can cause significant disruption and damage. Equally, the potential for granular materials to “unjam” can be disastrous, such as when soil or snow suddenly loosens, causing a landslide or avalanche.

At the heart of Edwards’ proposal was a simple hypothesis: If one does not explicitly add a bias when preparing a jammed packing of granular materials – for example, by pouring sand into a container – then any possible arrangement of the grains within a certain volume will occur with the same probability.

This is the analogue of the assumption that is at the heart of equilibrium statistical mechanics – that all states with the same energy occur with equal probability. As a result the Edwards hypothesis offered a way for researchers to develop a statistical mechanics framework for granular materials, which has been an area of intense activity in the last couple of decades.

But the hypothesis was impossible to test – not least because above a handful of grains, the number of possible arrangements becomes unfathomably huge. Edwards himself died in 2015, with his theory still the subject of heated scientific debate.

Testing the theory

Now, Martiniani and colleagues have been able to put his conjecture to a direct test, and to their surprise they found that it broadly holds true. Provided that the grains are at the point where they have just jammed together (or are just about to separate), all possible configurations are indeed equally likely.

Helpfully, this critical point – known as the jamming transition – is also the point of practical significance for many of the granular materials used in industry. Although Martiniani modelled a system comprising soft spheres, a bit like sponge tennis balls, many granular materials are hard grains that cannot be compressed further once in a packed state.

“Apart from being a very beautiful theory, this study gives us the confidence that Edwards’ framework was correct,” Martiniani said. “That means that we can use it as a lens through which to look at a whole range of related problems.”

Aside from informing existing processes that involve granular materials, there is a wider significance to better understanding their mechanics. In physics, a “system” is anything that involves discrete particles operating as part of a wider network. Although bigger in scale, the way in which icebergs function as part of an ice floe, or the way that individual vehicles move within a flow of traffic (and indeed sometimes jam), can be studied using a similar theoretical basis.

Martiniani’s study was undertaken during his PhD under the supervision of Professor Daan Frenkel. It built on earlier research in which he developed new methods for calculating the probability of granular systems packing into different configurations, despite the vast numbers involved. In work published last year, for example, he and colleagues used computer modelling to work out how many ways a system containing 128 tennis balls could potentially be arranged. The answer turned out to be 10 unquadragintilliard – a number so huge that it vastly exceeds the total number of particles in the universe.

In the new study, the researchers employed a sampling technique which attempts to compute the probability of different arrangements of grains without actually looking at the frequency with which these arrangements occur. Rather than taking an average from random samples, the method involves calculating the limits of the possibility of specific arrangements, and then calculates the overall probability from this.

The team applied this to a computer model of 64 soft spheres - an imaginary system which could therefore be “over-compressed” after reaching the jamming transition point. In an over-compressed state, the different arrangements were found to have different probabilities of occurrence. But as the system decompressed to the point of the jamming transition, at which the grains were effectively just touching, the researchers found that all probabilities became equal – exactly as Edwards predicted.

“In 1989, we didn’t really have the means of studying whether Edwards was right or not,” Martiniani added. “Now that we do, we can understand more about how granular materials work; how they flow, why they get stuck, and how we can use and manage them better in a whole range of different situations.”

The study, Numerical test of the Edwards conjecture, shows that all packings become equally probable at jamming is published in the journal Nature Physics

*Picture: Wikimedia Commons.





23/06/2017 - 10:56Success for farming start-upStart-up Farming Data wins GROW agri-tech business plan competition

A start-up company which helps sub-Saharan farmers to sell their goods has won a major prize.

Farming Data, which was set up by three PhD students, including two Gates Cambridge Scholars, won the GROW agri-tech business plan competition which includes a cash prize and access to expert support, advice and lab space.

It operates a mobile trading platform that aims to lift subsistence farmers out of poverty by allowing sub-Saharan Africa farmers communicate with potential buyers using SMS messaging on a basic mobile phone, creating a market for their produce.

The start-up was set up by Jacqui Poon (PhD Plant Sciences, 2012), Paul Bergen (PhD Pathology, 2013) and David Godding last year.  Smallholder farmers, a third of whom are women, grow 80 per cent of the food produced in East Africa and the three students felt their quality of life improved if a surplus could be sold at higher prices – without too many intermediaries.

David and Jacqui have on-the-ground knowledge of food security in sub-Saharan Africa because of their research in the region and say that finding potential buyers for small amounts of perishable goods is a challenge when few farmers have bank accounts to accept payment remotely and roads are poor.

Registering on the Farming Data platform gives the producer a location and also allows potential buyers to see what is being grown in a particular area. The buyers can then place orders using the platform and farmers have the opportunity to create virtual cooperatives to fulfil these orders, as well as to review market values for these crops to ensure a fair price. A number of farmers pooling their surplus will be a more attractive proposition and reduce complexity for buyers.

Most farmers in East Africa have SMS-enabled phones and mobile money systems are widely used. 

Farming Data argue that having a digital record of their income and reliability can help farmers to apply for microfinance to invest in their farms and that this is essential to lift them out of food poverty and to make access to education a possibility for their children. The platform also aims to enable financial inclusion, particularly of women.

The Farming Data team pitched successfully to the Judge Business School start-up incubator and includes computer scientists, plant pathologists and systems engineers. It also has a widely respected charity in East Africa willing to support a pilot scheme. The prize was announced this week.

It is now looking for agribusiness mentorship and guidance, as well as finance to further develop the platform and run the pilot.

The GROW agri-tech business plan competition was established by Agri-Tech East to stimulate entrepreneurship in the industry. GROW 2016/17 was supported by Innovate UK.

For further information about Farming Data click here. Twitter: @farming_data

*Picture credit of woman farmer in Kenya: Wikipedia

21/06/2017 - 18:47A critical eye on PakistanTwo scholars have set up a research cluster on Pakistan to broaden discussion on issues relating to the country.

Two scholars have set up a research cluster on Pakistan to explore innovative and critical scholarship on the country.

Gates Cambridge Scholar Arif Naveed [2014] and Cambridge International Trust Scholar Mahvish Ahmad have established the ‘Critical Pakistan at Cambridge ‘Research Cluster, based initially at the Centre for South Asia Studies with membership from across the departments of the University of Cambridge. It aims to approach existing research on Pakistan with a critical eye. To do so, it will function as a specialist forum on Pakistan, organising readings of new scholarship on Pakistan and inviting scholars of Pakistan from around the world to present their latest research. It will also provide opportunities for students and academics to present their work on Pakistan to peers who are well-versed on the political, intellectual and empirical debates pertinent to the country.

The research cluster came about due to a long-held and widely-shared concern among scholars of Pakistan that research has often been defined and shaped by international donors and state interests. Mahvish and Arif, who are doing their PhDs on Sociology and Education respectively, say: "The post-9/11 era has exacerbated this trend where international aid has siphoned off the intellectual energy from Pakistan's higher education institutions by diverting attention towards security-centric topics or important but select priorities defined from abroad. Meanwhile, state policy and the general political environment has reduced the space for critical scholarship in Pakistan, exemplified by a letter distributed to universities by the Higher Education Commission in 2014, illustrating the ways in which vague reference to ideology is deployed to curtail scholarly freedom and subject the already fragile community of scholars to new forms of censorship.

"These drivers of and limitations to research on Pakistan do not denigrate the excellent scholarship that is, nevertheless, produced, but they do call for both a more discerning approach and a more creative exploration of other, lesser-researched topics, on Pakistan. Creating a network of scholars on Pakistan is fundamental to these endeavours and we envisage this research cluster as a central forum for the exchange of ideas and knowledge."

The cluster's inaugural forum was held on May 24th and was led by Pakistani scholar Kamran Asdar Ali, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin, and the President of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies. The forum was also attended by many other scholars and students and generated a rich discussion on the future of social research in Pakistan.

*For more information email or Picture credit: Wikimedia commons. Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad.



19/06/2017 - 11:23Investigating the links between mental healthcare and povertyScholar-Elect Saloni Atal's research focuses on improving mental health outcomes for women in India's poorest areas.

Saloni Atal is determined to improve the availability of mental healthcare for women in the poorest communities of India.  “Mental healthcare doesn’t get the attention it needs,” she says. “We do not tend to think mental health problems can cause suffering in the same way that illnesses like AIDS can. Years of productivity can also be lost. The statistics are astounding, yet there is very little research in India into mental health interventions for groups such as slum-dwelling women, who are most vulnerable to mental health problems and least likely to get access to proper care. This is important given that women play a key role in the success of future generations.” 

She says the interventions that are available in India tend to be bio-medically focused rather than community based, although she adds that the landscape of mental health is shifting. There is now more of a national interest in addressing mental health problems, but this has not yet translated into adequate funding for research, she says. 

The focus of her PhD in Psychology, which she begins in the autumn, will be on community mental health workers. She will work with NGOs and lay women from local communities who will be trained to give mental health support. “We lack mental health specialists in India,” says Saloni, “and this is why non-specialists like community health workers can be a huge asset. Lay women also understand the needs of their community at a visceral level. Through my project, I want to empower these women and give them the tools to tackle the community’s mental health problems.”

Broader horizons

Saloni was born in Mumbai, India, and lived there for most of her childhood. That background has heavily influenced her research. “Half the population is homeless and lives in slums. I was a witness to that disparity growing up. It really got under my skin and I am trying through my research to alleviate the suffering,” she says.

Saloni’s family donated money to charity regularly and Saloni, who is an only child, grew up with the idea that it was important to give back to society. Both parents placed a big emphasis on education, with her mother being a teacher. “My mother always encouraged me to take up higher studies. She had dreamt of doing a PhD like my grandfather,” she says.

As her father was a bank auditor, the family moved around a lot and Saloni went to six different schools, the last one being an international school. The school was one of the best academic institutions in the city. Saloni says it really opened her horizons.  It was because of the school that she chose to do her undergraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong and because the university offered a generous scholarship. “I wanted a new cultural experience, a place with a different language and customs which would challenge me,” she says. “I wanted to push myself a little bit more. It turned out to be a good decision.” In the end, she says, it was also the reason she applied to the University of Cambridge. 

Saloni describes herself as “fiercely academic” and from the age of 15, she knew she wanted to do a PhD. She was interested in psychology and in illnesses that are hard to diagnose, but that interest ran alongside a commitment to poverty alleviation. Starting in school she also did a lot of community work, for instance, teaching maths and English through a charity that educated young children living in deprived areas. It was only later when she started to study psychology that Saloni realised that she could merge the two interests due to the links between poverty and mental ill health. 

Alleviating suffering

Her undergraduate dissertation focused on understanding and identifying some of the pathways that link low socioeconomic status with poor mental health and how these might be modified. “I found that psychology might have an important role to play in alleviating suffering caused by poverty,” she says. For the dissertation, she interviewed people from different socioeconomic groups in India and measured their ability to use different coping strategies in different situations. She found that people from lower socioeconomic groups who coped adaptively to their situation had as good health outcomes as those from upper socioeconomic groups. Saloni published her first paper on her findings and did her first conference presentation in 2015. 

She was keen to extend her research from a more grassroots level to understand people’s lived experience of poverty. Having already done research at undergraduate level she was ambitious in her aims. “I wanted to do something that would truly make a difference,” she said.  She applied to the University of Cambridge, but missed the deadline for scholarships so her parents paid her tuition costs. Her master’s research project focused on finding out what mental healthcare was available to the poorest, discovering where the gaps were and what might be needed to fill them. She did fieldwork across six  slum communities in Mumbai, working with local NGOs. Her PhD will continue this work. 

Since she finished her master’s last summer Saloni, who is at Christ's College, has been working on publishing her findings and has done several internships in Cambridge, most recently in the Department of Psychiatry. The aim is to get as much research experience as possible so she has all the skills she needs when she starts her PhD.

She found out about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship from her supervisors  and thinks it is a good fit with her research. “My research is aligned to the Gates Cambridge mission to improve the lives of others,” she says. “I am excited to be joining a vibrant community and I hope to contribute actively to it.”

13/06/2017 - 17:18Empowering women in scienceGates Cambridge Scholar-Elect Sandile Mtetwa on her research on clean energy and setting up a women's empowerment organisation.

Sandile Mtetwa faced more potential hurdles to her education than many, but she has risen to the challenge.

Sandile [2017], who is from Harare, Zimbabwe, fell pregnant before she started her university studies, but has not only set up a project aimed at empowering other young women, but gone on to be accepted onto a master’s course at the University of Cambridge to study Chemistry.

She begins the course in the autumn and her research will focus on improving the performance of solar-powered energy. Working at the nanoparticle level, she aims to create nanoparticle support-based composites with metal-organic frameworks to boost the lifetime of photo active materials and so increase power generation.

Her interest in clean energy was ignited during her undergraduate studies which took place at a time of frequent power cuts in Zimbabwe.

Sandile is the youngest of four siblings and always had a lot of support for her studies from her parents. Her mother is a teacher and Sandile attended the primary school where she taught. Her father is a publisher and editor and always encouraged her to read. “I grew up surrounded by books,” she says.

She went to a selective all girls secondary school in the city centre. She was a good all round student, but excelled in science, particularly maths. “Growing up I always thought I would be a doctor so I put more effort into sciences,” she says. “From the age of eight I wanted to find a cure for TB as there were a lot of TB outbreaks when I was growing up. It really struck me that a lot of people were dying due to poor treatment or a lack of treatment.”

Sandile had applied to the University of Zimbabwe to do veterinary science, but discovered she was pregnant. Although she started her course, she realised it was not what she wanted to study and that she preferred research into potential treatments to the world of hands-on medicine. She took a gap year and began working as a teacher in a local high school to support her daughter before returning to university to do a chemistry degree.

Young mother

Sandile lived at home during this time and received a lot of support from her parents for which she is very grateful. She faced a lot of abuse and violence from the father of her baby and as a result of that she met other young women in similar situations. “They were going through the same things, but unfortunately they didn’t have the support system I had,” she says. “They had no-one to turn to. I realised I wanted to provide that support system.”

Sandile decided to start an organisation which would do precisely that. In her third year of undergraduate studies when she was doing an internship at a research institute, she set up the Simuka-Arise Initiative as a university-based community project, meaning she would have access to student volunteers. It is now expanding, moving out of the university and into the community.

The organisation also works with young men who are encouraged to come along and discuss issues and join in campaigns and awareness-raising sessions. Last year it put together a campaign against domestic violence.

It has three main strands: economic, social and academic empowerment of young women and partners with other organisations to ensure it has a greater impact.

Women and children are either referred to the organisation or come through word of mouth. So far it has raised money to take four children to school, pay for their tuition and ensure they don’t have any gaps in their learning.

Sandile is also working on a workshop for girls who have just finished high school and are preparing to go to university. She is keen to encourage more women into science. Other projects include working with the government on women’s economic empowerment and providing girls with sanitary products.

At the same time, Sandile has been pursuing her own academic career and in the third year of her chemistry degree, in 2014/2015, she had a lightbulb moment. She was doing a one-year internship at a research institute, working with spectroscopic instruments on the characterisation of polymers and contributing to discussions about future products. Zimbabwe was experiencing a lot of power cuts at the time, so much so that it was being labelled “the dark country”. Sandile became interested in research into affordable clean energy. “Some of the energy in rural communities is very toxic to human health. I wanted to focus on providing alternative means of getting clean energy which were not hugely expensive,” she says.

She graduated in 2016 and has been working as a teaching assistant in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Zimbabwe as well as on the Simuka-Arise Initiative. She applied to the University of Cambridge and to Gates Cambridge last year, saying she was drawn to the course she is doing due to her supervisors’ focus on increasing the stability and performance of nano materials that harness solar-driven hydrogen.

When she comes to Cambridge she will have to leave her now five-year-old daughter behind. She has never been away from home before. She hopes that she will go on to do a PhD and sees the chance to do her MPhil as an important stepping stone. She feels the Gates Cambridge Scholarship is a good fit for her academic and wider social interests. “I am very excited about the scholarship and the opportunity to meet other scholars,” she says.

*Picture credit: One of Simuka-Arise Initiative's fundraiser activities: an Art Auction which raised funds to send four children from single mother households to school.

12/06/2017 - 19:20Scholar selected as NASA astronaut candidateKayla Barron is selected to join NASA's 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class.

Gates Cambridge Scholar Kayla Barron has been selected by NASA to join the 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class and will report for duty in August 2017.

Kayla [2010], who did an MPhil in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Cambridge after doing her undergraduate training at the US Naval Academy, worked as a Submarine Warfare Officer and was a member of the first class of women commissioned into the submarine community.

Born in Pocatello, Idaho, Kayla [nee Sax] is married to fellow Gates Cambridge Scholar Tom Barron [2010].

At the Naval Academy Kayla was part of the Trident Scholar Programme and worked on a research project which focused on the development of a more affordable, low-powered, extremely sensitive neutron detection system. At Cambridge she took this research further, with a focus on alternative energy sources, particularly nuclear power. After completing her master's, Kayla attended the US Navy's nuclear power and submarine officer training before being assigned to the USS Maine, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine homeported in Bangor, Washington. Barron qualified as a submarine warfare officer and completed three strategic deterrent patrols while serving as a division officer aboard the Maine.

When she was selected by NASA, Barron was serving as the Flag Aide to the Superintendent of the US Naval Academy. She will received two years of training as an Astronaut Candidate. Upon completion, she will be assigned technical duties in the Astronaut Office while she awaits a flight assignment.

Kayla said: "Professionally, my experience as a Gates Cambridge Scholar played an important role in my development as an engineer and a leader. Personally, the experience was foundational, and I continue to be enriched by the Gates Community.  I am excited and humbled to have been selected for this opportunity and am looking forward to being a member NASA's phenomenal team."

08/06/2017 - 13:58Campaign launched against 'exploitative academic publishing system'Corina Logan has launched a campaign for Open Access publishing.

Researchers need to stop exploiting themselves and discriminating against who can access their research, according to a new paper which launches a campaign to change academic culture.

The article, We can shift academic culture through publishing choices, which is published on F1000Research, is by Corina Logan, a Gates Cambridge Scholar and Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge.

She says many researchers see the traditional journal system as exploitative because researchers contribute material for free and because much of the peer review process is free while journals make profits by charging universities to access it.

However, if researchers publish in Open Access journals, Logan says they risk not getting a job or grant because it is usually the traditional journals that are viewed as more prestigious.

She states: "Researchers give papers for free (and often actually pay) to exploitative publishers who make millions off of our articles by locking them behind paywalls. This discriminates not only against the public (who are usually the ones that paid for the research in the first place), but also against the academics from institutions that cannot afford to pay for journal subscriptions and the 'scholarly poor'."

The paper outlines criteria for researchers to consider when making publishing choices. That includes publishing in open access journals that are at ethical publishers, which ensures that profits are reinvested in academia and/or used to modernise the publishing infrastructure for researchers. It also recommends publishing in Open Access journals with CC-BY licences to ensure authors retain the copyright to their research and enable others to reuse the work (with credit) and mine the content.

It says: "A CC-BY licence means that rather than simply gaining access to a PDF to read, individuals instead gain access to the information inside the PDF, such as the data, figures and content."

Logan [2008] argues that some of the journals researchers feel pressured into publishing in "don't have the best practices in terms of increasing scientific rigour". She says that some Open Access journals at ethical publishers improve quality by publishing the peer review history alongside the publication, which allows people to objectively judge whether editorial or reviewer biases played a role in the acceptance of the paper. These journals require publishing the data that the paper is based on, which can prevent data fabrication fraud, they usually do not have word limits and they encourage authors to explain all of the details involved in how they conducted the study, which addresses the current reproducibility crisis in science. Many of these journals choose which articles to publish based on whether they are scientifically valid or not, rather than traditional journals that often choose articles based on how many times the editor subjectively thinks the paper might be cited (thus increasing the impact factor of the journal).

Logan says: "We researchers make academic culture so if we change our individual publishing practices then we change the culture. One way forward is to connect researchers with the costs and consequences of our publishing choices and shift academic publishing away from exploitative models, which will also save academia millions. All of the options we need to publish ethically already exist, and at prices that fit a range of budgets."

To build on the momentum from the paper, Logan and fellow early career researchers have organised a campaign to highlight the problems they face. Called "Bullied into bad science", it seeks to encourage universities to adapt to the new playing field in publishing "to maintain reputations in research leadership and to better support the work of early career researchers". Logan says that means publicly endorsing researchers' freedom to disseminate through open principles, widening dissemination and increasing quality. The campaign is asking early career researchers from all fields, not just the sciences, who feel they have been pressured into acting against their ethics in the pursuit of an academic career to sign their letter.

*Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Pasitos by I Melenchon.

08/06/2017 - 10:28Connecting Caribbean students to mentorsJerelle Joseph has launched a mentoring scheme which aims to help Caribbean students up the career ladder.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has launched a mentorship programme for Caribbean students to give them the information and support they need to pursue their chosen careers.

Jerelle Joseph [2014] launched the non-profit organisation CariScholar last month. It aims to connect Caribbean students with appropriate academics and professionals who can give them guidance and advice.

Jerelle came up with the idea last February. “I could see that certain international students had benefited from very good guidance and had lined up where they wanted to go next. We do not have that support back home,” she says. “You may get lucky and come in contact with a great teacher who will take an interest in you, but there are certainly a lot of things I think I could have done differently if I had known better and I hope to be able to share this knowledge, especially with younger students.”

Jerelle, who is pursuing a PhD in Chemistry, only applied to Cambridge after being encouraged by Professor Sean McDowell, her supervisor at the University of the West Indies who had studied at the university. “He was advocating for Cambridge from day one and talked me through the application process,” she says.

Jerelle used her network to build a database of professionals and academics from the Caribbean who are interested in mentoring others. “If you have grown up in the Caribbean you are aware of the unique challenges students might face and the sort of funding that might be available. We were keen to target people who had had some experience of the Caribbean education system, as well as a deep-rooted connection to the region,” says Jerelle.

The database also contains a list of students who are looking for mentors. Jerelle finds them via targeted marketing on social media. Most are secondary school/college students in the Caribbean. They are required to submit a personal statement about what they are looking for in a mentor.

The matching process is meticulous. Jerelle, who works alongside her husband, Vishi Singh, is keen to ensure that each match works. So far she has matched 20 students via email.

Current mentors include Verieux Mourillon from Dominica, who is an expert in leadership development and who encouraged Jerelle to apply to university when she was at college, Alberta William-Henry from St. Lucia who is a chemistry lecturer and photographer, Stephie Pascal from the Dominica who is a Cambridge graduate currently employed as a Process Engineer and Safraz Hussain from Barbados, who is Regional Legal Counsel and Corporate Secretary of CIBC First Caribbean International Bank Limited.

Jerelle says: “Mentorship is a commitment to guiding someone by using the tools you have acquired from your own experience, successes and failures. The Caribbean has a number of accomplished persons – whether they have excelled in academics, business, sporting, entertainment. CariScholar presents a great opportunity for these people to mentor the next generation.”

01/06/2017 - 15:13Exploring the role of religion in developmentHosna Jahan's research focuses on the impact of women's purdah practice and development in Bangladesh.

Hosna Jahan [2013] grew up travelling between Bangladesh and Australia. It made her question why policies that worked in some countries didn’t work in others and focus on addressing issues of social justice. She says: “I grew up seeing poverty at first hand. You can either see these things as natural or tragic. I travelled between developed and developing countries and it made me think why, for instance, some groups of people do not thrive in the education system in Bangladesh when they thrive elsewhere. It made me think this is not a tragedy; this is due to systematic injustice and I wanted to do something about that.”

It was this that brought her to Cambridge where she learnt the research tools she will need when she starts her PhD in the autumn which will focus on understanding Muslim women’s purdah practices and their impact on development initiatives in Bangladesh.  She says: “The manifestations of purdah can range from sartorial practices of women wearing various forms of veil to imposing severe restrictions on a woman’s movement outside her immediate homestead. In its most conservative forms, purdah can extend to imposing prohibition on women’s voice and with whom they are permitted to converse and the practice of eye avoidance.”

Hosna, who has co-authored a book on women and development in Bangladesh, Estimating Women's Contribution to the Economy: the Case of Bangladesh, is interested in the complexities of the meaning and practice of purdah in Bangladesh and how it affects women’s everyday lives. She says: “The practice of purdah and the negotiation of its limits have important implications for women’s economic contribution and development in two major ways. First, it determines the economic opportunities available to women. By imposing restrictions on women’s mobility, it limits their access to the public space, such as the market and many other economic opportunities, which hinders their economic autonomy. In this way, it determines their access to the labour market, the nature of work available to them, and the location and hours of their work.  “Second, the practice of purdah determines women’s capability of spending.  For a traditional Muslim Bangladeshi woman, strict observance of purdah and a failure to negotiate the limits of purdah is likely to constrain her access to markets and autonomy, thus restricting her efficient conversion of income into well-being.”

From science to micro finance

Hosna was born in Chittagong in Bangladesh. When she was 10 her mother had a serious car accident causing her to lose her memory. “It was a formative part of my childhood,” she says. She was sent to boarding school in Australia and says she loved it there and made friends for life. “In Bangladesh I was always protected by my family. Being at boarding school in Australia helped me to be independent and more disciplined,” she says. The boarding school was Catholic and very different from the curriculum in Bangladesh. Hosna became interested in philosophy and comparing different religious traditions. However, she mainly focused on science.

From an early age she had wanted to be a space engineer. “I loved the stars and wanted to build a spaceship and go to the stars,” she says. When she left school she enrolled on a Science programme at the University of Sydney. At the same time, she started trying out Arts courses, including French art and culture, international relations and political economy. “For me science was all about answers, but all of a sudden I was in a whole world of maybes and different ways of thinking about things,” she says, “debating political priorities and ethics.”

In her final year Hosna did her dissertation on micro finance in Bangladesh and women’s empowerment. She conducted field work close to her parents’ village, talking to women  about how they used microfinance. “Huge claims were being made for microfinance, that it was helping women become empowered, but there are many different models of microfinance and many ways of being empowered,” she says. Hosna graduated in 2012 with two degrees, one in Science, majoring in Chemistry, and one in the Arts, majoring in International Relations and Political Economy, and with a desire to work in development in Bangladesh.  She applied for an MPhil in Development Studies at Cambridge and began her course in 2013. She says she learned a lot from the course about different types of economics. “It gave me the tools I needed to do further research,” she says. Gates Cambridge was “the best thing that happened to me as it brought me into a small but close-knit society”.

Since she returned to Bangladesh she has been working with several charities and has been linking up with two village schools where she gives regular talks. She says:  "I never realised how much seeing a young woman give a speech at a school event could inspire other young people and their parents.”

Hosna hopes her PhD which she begins at the London School of Economics this autumn will contribute to fulfilling the Gates Cambridge mission of improving the lives of others by investigating the role of religion in women’s socio-economic development. It will examine questions such as the impact of donning “modest attire” (such as the hijab or burqa) in public spaces has on women’s participation in the labour market, higher education and political participation and what the relationship is between women’s choices around purdah practices and their ability to sustain vital informal socio-economic networks. Hosna is interested to find out what “renegotiating purdah” norms might mean for Muslim women and how they might do that. Hosna says: “My research aims to broaden the space for discussion around women’s choices and development practices, while also indicating ways to formulate effective policies that will acknowledge the difference in Muslim women’s lived realities and improve accessibility for them to fully participate in the process of development.”


26/05/2017 - 13:43The Hemlock TranscriptsAlanna Just on end of life issues and the importance of listening to those who are dying.

There is a lot to learn about the end of life from those who are dying. Unfortunately, the knowledge of these experiences is often lost because most people don’t like talking about death. Yet, we don’t have to talk; we just have to listen.

Voluntary death has played a dynamic role in the Western world. Depending on the time and place, it has been seen as an expression of heroism, faith, treason, madness, political protest, sin or honour. It has inspired literary tragedies, ancient philosophers and art. Despite its historic influence, the idea of voluntary death is heavily stigmatised in Western society. In this last century we have witnessed substantial increases in control over human life – both its beginning and its end.

As a result, medical assistance in dying (MAiD) has become one of the most contentious issues in Canada’s healthcare system. On February 6, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that criminal laws prohibiting MAiD violated the rights of Canadians by preventing them from making decisions about their own medical care and bodily integrity. A year later, the Supreme Court of Canada amended the Criminal Code, permitting MAiD for those with a “grievous and irremediable medical condition that causes them enduring and intolerable suffering” and for whom “natural death is reasonably foreseeable.”

In response to this ruling, Hemlock Aid in Dying (AID) was established as the first MAiD clinic in Canada. Since its inception, Hemlock AID has conducted, transcribed and analysed interviews with patients pursuing MAiD. The Hemlock transcripts reveal important perspectives often overlooked in the MAiD debate. When asked “why do you want to die?” interviewed patients in Canada responded by highlighting their need for autonomy and control over their own lives. Patients wanted to decide for themselves whether their quality of life and level of suffering are acceptable, and if they find that they are not, they want to have end-of-life options.

Patients requested MAiD if they lost the ability to participate in meaningful activities. For some this meant work, while for others it meant social relationships or leisure activities. Once physically active patients were most affected when their mobility declined, while conversationalists were devastated to lose their ability to communicate. One individual compared being forced to live with a grievous condition to being condemned to an endless prison sentence. Another equated their experience with being tired after a long day and simply wanting to sleep. Another striking observation from the Hemlock transcripts was that although people differed in how they imagined their death – be it alone or with family, in a hospital or at home – no one expressed a fear of death. The only fear patients expressed was that they would be denied MAiD, that they would be forced to live, and to suffer.

Many patients shared the notion that it was cruel to insist that people continue to suffer when there could be an alternative. Most patients were concerned about making the process as easy as possible for those left behind. Many agreed that it is easier to grieve and recover following the peaceful, rather than painful, death of a loved one. People find peace in the knowledge that they can control their death.

Sharing stories

It was my privilege to transcribe the first of these important interviews and to bear witness to the intimate end-of-life experiences of strangers. Although the topic of death could be upsetting, I found that people wanted and needed to share their stories. Those who had kept their end-of-life wishes quiet were finally given validation that seeking death was not wrong or shameful.

The Hemlock transcripts tell us that while suffering is rooted in symptoms of illness and aging, the ability to bear suffering is found in hope; it is with hopelessness that suffering becomes unbearable. There are real and valid concerns with the legalisation of MAiD. It forces us to confront ethical dilemmas including consent, medical paternalism, discrimination, elder abuse and psychiatric illness. Canadian legislation and practice surrounding MAiD is in its infancy and it will continue to change as we learn from our experiences.

During this learning process, we will likely hear the opinions of outspoken physicians, policy makers, healthcare workers and administrators. It is critical that we also continue to listen to those whose voices often go unheard: the people who want to die.

*Alanna Just [2016, Canada, MPhil Medical Science Biography] is conducting research in substance dependence. Her interest in end-of-life issues and work at Hemlock AID is ongoing. This article is in the current edition of The Scholar magazine. Picture credit: Tsuga canadensis [eastern hemlock] cones c/o Wikimedia Commons.

19/05/2017 - 15:59Africa Together 2017The fourth annual conference takes place on 10th June and speakers include a host of leading African thinkers.

The fourth annual ‘Africa Together’ conference will be held on 10th June in commemoration of the 2017 Africa Day with the participation of several Gates Cambridge Scholars.

The conference is hosted by African Society of Cambridge University, whose president is Gates Cambridge Scholar Harum Mukhayer. Previous presidents of the Society have included two Gates Cambridge Scholars - Njoki Wamai and Johanna Riha.  The Gates Cambridge Trust is one of th econference partners.

The theme for this year’s conference is ‘Africa and a World in Transition’ and it will be held at the Cambridge Union Building, University of Cambridge. ‘Africa Together’ is the largest student-led conference on Africa at the University of Cambridge. Over the last three years, the conference has grown into a leading platform that convenes some of Africa’s best minds, policymakers, businessmen and women, scholars, students and young professionals to discuss issues of critical importance to the continent’s future.

Speakers come from 15+ countries. The conference will include Keynote addresses as well as panel discussions, exhibitions and performances by African artists. Panel discussions will explore diverse issues affecting Africa ranging from good governance and the rule of law; women and leadership; trade, banking and finance; IT and infrastructure [organised by Gates Cambridge Scholar Christine Mbai]; development and private sector cooperation in Lusophone Africa; African higher education systems; and health.

Keynote speakers include Zeinab Badawi who is currently chair of the Royal African Society; Yonov Frederick Agah, Deputy Director-General, World Trade Organisation; and Nadir Mohamed, Country Director of the GCC Countries, Middle East and North Africa, The World Bank Group. Also featured are Armando Cabral – Managing Partner, McKinsey; Antonio Coutinho – CEO, Standard Bank, Angola; Gossy Ukanwoke – Founder, Beni American University, Nigeria and Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Professor, the Graduate Institute, Geneva, named in 2016 by the New African Magazine among the top 50 most influential African intellectuals; and Peter Burdin, consultant for many African countries and former chief of BBC Africa Bureau.

Over 350 delegates are expected to attend the conference, with leaders and students representing all regions of the continent. The conference organisers say it will provide opportunities for networking and one-on-one engagement with guest speakers, participating organisations, academics and diplomats from across Africa and the UK, as well as authors showcasing. 

The ‘Africa Together’ conference is a collaborative effort between the African societies of Cambridge University and Anglia Ruskin University.

*For tickets, click here and for daily updates on the conference, go to #CamAfricaDay @CamAfricaDay.

19/05/2017 - 08:24Celebrating research innovation A round-up of some of the highlights of the second Day of Research.

Gates Cambridge Scholars took part in the second Day of Research last week - a day of panel discussions and presentations on subjects ranging from neuroimaging markers in dementia to the history of the Panama Canal.

The day consisted of 12 oral presentations and discussions about topics such as big data in politics and gender identity. The keynote address on what research looks like beyond the ivory towers was given by Gates Cambridge alumnus Dr Daniel Greenfield [2005]. There were panel discussions on Government and Media Influence in Policy, a Historical Perspective on Gender Identity and the Human Machine - Advances in Medical Research and Where We're Headed and interactive discussions on Pharmaceuticals: Access, Ethics and Financing and Big Data in Politics as well as poster presentations.

Those giving oral presentations included Aliya Khalid [2015] who spoke about her PhD research into how mothers influence their daughters’ education in Pakistan. She said more than 60% of adult women are not literate in Pakistan. Studies suggest links between maternal education and maternal decision-making influence whether girls go to school and how they progress through the education system. Aliya’s research is focused on how that happens and what interventions work to ensure girls are educated.

She has adopted a two-pronged theoretical approach which encompasses not only the mother’s education, but the influence of other family members, the local community and broader society. “The onus should not fall solely on mothers,” she said. “We need to be sensitive to the constraints individuals face and the context in which they operate.”

That means not only the constraints placed on them by a patriarchal society and a lack of protection from the state but also the constraint they might place on themselves. It embraces how their contribution is valued - for instance, how doing an unpaid caring role affects how mothers think of themselves.

Aliya will be studying 20 mothers in Punjab whose daughters are aged between 12 and 16. “We need to know where intervention goes wrong and where it works,” she says. “I don’t see mothers as helpless women, but as influential decision makers who have the ability to change their children’s lives in the most difficult circumstances. We need to know what we can do to support mothers who have been educated to pass that on to their daughters.”

From hospital-acquired infection to the history of the Panama Canal

Dr Alex Wood [2015], a clinical PhD student in the Department of Medicine talked about his research into hospital-acquired infections in critically ill patients. He is investigating C5a, a protein released by the body which in health is thought to play a role in mobilising neutrophils (the most abundant white blood cells) to sites of infection. However, when a person is critically ill, (following severe infections or trauma for instance) C5a is activated all over the body and may cause neutrophils to become dysfunctional. This neutrophil dysfunction is thought to be part of the reason patients in intensive care are so vulnerable to infection. Intensive care admissions and hospital-acquired infections can have long-lasting effects on patients - including an increased risk of death, mental illness, respiratory impairment and reduced mobility - sometimes for years after they have been discharged from hospital. Alex’s research investigates how C5a affects neutrophils and causes them to stop working properly. He hopes his work will further our understanding of the innate immune system and help to identify novel targets for immune-modifying drugs in critical illness.

Camilo Ruiz [2016], who is doing an MPhil in Biological Science, spoke about how artificial intelligence techniques might be used to pick the best treatment for patients with cancer. He spoke about how his grandfather had died from leukaemia. The failure of the treatments he was offered made Camilo question whether an approach which took into account the unique aspects of his disease would have been more effective.

Camilo’s research is on Diffuse Large B Cell Lymphoma, one of the most common forms of cancer in adults. He wants to find out why treatments like chemotherapy work for some people and not for others. He spoke about the different kinds of mutations that cause cancer. Current prognostics are based on factors like age, extranodal sites and the stage of cancer a person has reached, but these fail to account for the unique differences in any cancer. “If we can understand the specific genetic mutations we can better predict what treatments will work,” said Camilo. Cancer databases based on big data on what works for specific mutations can help to personalise treatment and predict best outcomes, he said.

Elijah Mak [2013], who is doing a PhD in Psychiatry, spoke about how neuroimaging is assisting the early identification of dementia. He said once neurodegeneration has set in it can be difficult to stall the process so recent attention has focused on earlier treatment, even before the onset of cognitive problems. Using MRI and other markers he seeks to detect patterns of brain changes to spot the early signs of dementia and to distinguish the various types of the disease.

Callie Vanderwiele [2014] is doing a PhD in Latin American Studies. She described how men in the Alta Verapaz no longer wear indigenous clothing since Guatemala’s most recent genocide and how for women wearing traditional clothing represents a significant political act of resistance because of the discrimination and violence faced by Maya groups. Her research looks at how indigenous weavers and Pan Mayan activists are working to build a Pan Mayan collective heritage and the role that textiles held in museums across the world play in heritage development. She said the research focused both on how museums can re-imagine themselves as revolutionary spaces as well as showing how museum objects collected during colonisation can help to restore the link between past and present.

Other speakers included:
- Annalise Higgins [2016, PhD in History] who talked about how attempts to manage the Panama Canal in World War One and to renegotiate its international status were problematised by intersections between its strategic and commercial significance;
- Leor Zmigrod [2016, PhD in Psychology] who spoke about the cognitive and personality underpinnings of ideologies and individual differences in psychological characteristics that contribute to people's adherence to various ideologies. She suggested that an understanding of the psychology of ideological commitment has the potential to increase tolerance and reduce some of the hostility and polarisation that exist today between members of different ideological groups;
- Naomi Woo [2014, PhD in Music] who spoke about 'the practicality of the impossible' in 20th century piano music;
- Morgan Seag [2016, PhD in Polar Studies] who discussed the integration of women into Antarctic science institutions in the second half of the twentieth century;
- Josh Feinzig  [2016, MPhil in Criminology] who talked about his research into prisoner-led councils and deliberative democratic programmes within prisons that attempt to foster a sense of ‘prisoner citizenship’;
- Stephen Kissler [2014, PhD in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics] who described how mathematics has helped us identify where the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 influenza was introduced, how it spread, who was most responsible for driving its explosive transmission and the implications for future pandemics;
- Gregory Reeves [2014, PhD in Plant Sciences] whose research focuses on how to spread the benefits that some plants derive from a more efficient version of photosynthesis to cereal crops.

*Picture credit: Alex Kong. To watch a short film about the Day of Research with interviews with some speakers click here.

18/05/2017 - 17:29On the road to a career in paediatric neurosurgeryAngela Madira started her university career aged 12, but her interest in a career in paediatrics began at age five.

Angela Madira knew from the age of five that she wanted to be a doctor. At the age of seven she had begun to ask questions about how the brain works. By the age of 12 she was studying Biochemistry at California State University, Los Angeles. And now, at the age of 17, she is doing research in clinical neuroscience and is about to embark on an MPhil in Health, Medicine and Society at the University of Cambridge.

She puts her interest in neuroscience down to childhood curiosity. That led her to study behavioural science at university and to spend a summer at Harvard, doing research in molecular neurobiology. "It's a broad and exciting field," says Angela. She is now focusing on children's neuroscience and aims to be a paediatric neurosurgeon, but Cambridge will bring a broader, interdisciplinary perspective. "As a doctor," she says,"it is important to know why you are doing what you are doing, to question what medicine is and how it fits into the fabric of society."

Early success

Angela was born in Dallas, Texas, and lived there until she was 12 when she started university in California. Her father is a software engineer and her mother is a doctor. She has a younger sister who is now at college, aged 13.

Angela was identified as gifted and talented early, in first grade. When she was six and in first grade she went through a rigorous IQ-based assessment to join the LEAP programme for advanced students and stayed on it until she was 12 and at the end of her first year in middle school. The programme was based in her school district where Angela studied with around 20 others students of her age.

Angela says her family placed a big emphasis on education and she grew up surrounded by books. Although always focused on maths and science, she was a good all round student. She read Hamlet at the age of 10. For her the LEAP programme was a good fit, enabling her to stretch herself.

She says: “I naturally felt I was a little different from other children my age with regard to what I was interested in. At the age of seven I was more likely to be found on a bench reading The Three Musketeers than on the playground. Education was the passion that drove me.”

She enjoyed the advanced classes, but by middle school she felt the need to have more freedom and choice in what she did academically. Angela was interviewed to check she had both the academic ability and the emotional maturity to go to college, after which she was admitted to university.

Her whole family moved with her to Los Angeles, including her sister who is four years younger than her and has followed in Angela's footsteps, attending college at the age of 11.

College life

Angela was set on a career in medicine when she started college. However, she soon became interested in philosophy and historical analysis. She feels it is important that there is a crossover between science and the humanities. “Science is very specialised. You can go deep into it without communicating much about what you are doing with others. There is more than science in this world, though, and you have to be able to interconnect ideas in order to be an effective scientist,” says Angela.

Her undergraduate course, which she is just finishing, is five years long. Angela spent her first year acclimatising to college life and found the transition to independent study a challenge. "It was not the subject material that was the problem; it just took a while to adjust to the freedom and independence of the university environment. Socially there were no problems. I feel more comfortable with older people and they usually assume I am college age," she says.

Angela became more and more interested in neuroscience. She started doing research in behavioural neurobiology in her second year under Dr Amelia Russo-Neustadt at CSULA as the only undergraduate on the team. She spent the summer of her third year doing a very competitive internship at Macklis Lab at Harvard as an Amgen Scholar based on the molecular biology of neurodevelopment. Angela's research has raised both medical and ethical issues. “I was inspired to further explore the ethical concerns regarding my research through the encouragement of Dr Lucian Gomoll,” she says.


Her current research is based at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles under pediatric neurosurgeon Dr Erin Kiehna. She has wanted to work in paediatrics since she was around five years old. "I enjoy interacting with children. You have the opportunity to shape someone's life," she states.

She is writing up a clinical case study for an academic journal on a girl who lost her bowel and bladder function. When she was admitted to hospital it was found that the girl had a dermoid cyst on the back of her head which was putting pressure on her medulla. "It was not malignant, but it had to be removed," says Angela. Closer examination suggested there had been some disruption in the dermoid layer during her development in the womb. "She effectively had a hairball on her brain," says Angela.

It is the first case of its kind and Angela was able to shadow the neurosurgeon operating on the girl. "I could see how much she interacted with the patient. It was not just about cutting her open. I learned you have to explain what you are doing. It is scary for children and their parents. You have to make sure they understand what the brain scans mean and make clear the risks. And you have to follow up for years afterwards. You definitely build an attachment to every single patient. It is essential to have effective communication skills and a level of empathy to make sure the patient and their family fully understand what is happening and can give informed consent."

That is why Angela believes the MPhil is vital to her development as a doctor as it is not solely science-based and includes wider social issues.

She is delighted to have been selected to be a Gates Cambridge Scholar and says this fits well with her desire to contribute to society. "There is no point in doing education if you are not planning to give back twice as much as you receive," she says.

*Picture: paediatric neurosurgery, c/o Wikimedia commons.
17/05/2017 - 23:50Humans in harmonyErica Cao on a new non-profit that connects & empowers communities & heals divides through collaborative, original songwriting.

Music is a unique form of participatory, relational communication. So what happens when a teen in juvenile detention connects with a child with cancer through song? How about a high schooler and a veteran?

Humans in Harmony empowers people to connect with and understand each other in the communicative, relational way that music allows: not simply as a form of self-expression, but by collaboratively creating original songs to honour the story of another person. 

The newly-founded nonprofit is reflective of much of what I learned in my MPhil year as a Gates Cambridge scholar: academically, how music functions as relational communication; socially, how deep bonds and community make an impact on our lives.

We know music education can empower children and that music therapy can help treat developmental, neurological and psychiatric disorders. The first pilot of Humans in Harmony was about conjoining those two verticals: at-risk teens writing for children with cancer. The teens developed enhanced self-esteem, empathy, and pro-social behaviour.

The children with cancer found the inspiration and hope that music provides. But music is about more than empowering or healing as disjointed entities – at its core is connection and communication. Scholars have argued that music predates language as a relational, communicative medium.

The ambiguity of musical content allows people to hold their own views and interpretations while at the same time being together in time and movement. Furthermore music acts similarly to non-verbal gestures in communication. Studies revealed that the more two conversants imitate each other’s non-verbal gestures, such as nodding, the greater the rapport. Therefore mimicry and togetherness as experienced in collaborative musicmaking breeds affinity.

When I returned to the US, I took all these lessons with me. The second pilot of Humans in Harmony connected health professional students with children in foster care. Our third connected high school students with elderly veterans. At the core of these sessions was communication as a reciprocal exchange. The storyteller shares a personal story; the songwriter interprets the narrative.

The final product is a song composed as an expression of both storyteller and songwriter, which connects the imagination and understanding of both people. Humans in Harmony changes the way music is made to bridge the distances between individuals and communities. In many ways, it also seems intuitive that music originated from people joining together. Humans in Harmony teaches us that we can work together in the face of challenges, regardless of our origins or our destinations, and that we have a community which empowers us as individuals while reminding us of our shared humanity.

*Erica Cao 2013 and 2017, USA, MPhil & PhD Music Studies Biography: Erica Cao is Co-founder of Humans in Harmony. She believes that the arts, humanities, and sciences intersect to make the world a better place. To get involved with Humans in Harmony, please visit Picture credit: Wikipedia. This article is in the current edition of The Scholar magazine.

11/05/2017 - 09:49Out from the marginsScholar-Elect Sara Kazmi's research looks at the marginalisation of Punjabi as a formal language and how this perpetuates poverty.

Like many children in Pakistan, Sara Kazmi was educated in English. In 10th grade, she took part in the production of a play in classical 18th century Punjabi. It got her interested in the issue of language politics and it is an interest which has only grown over time.

Her PhD at the University of Cambridge, which she will start in the autumn, will focus on contemporary Punjabi writing’s search for a radical political subjectivity rooted in the lives and landscape of the people of Punjab.

At the root of her work is a desire to restore the status of Punjabi and to overturn the educational barriers that prevent the poorest from progressing in society. She says: “The marginalisation of Punjabi in Pakistan has led to the marginalisation of a whole section of the population."

Sara was born in the city of Sahiwal in Punjab and did her entire education in English. Urdu and English are the main languages of education in Pakistan, although most of the population, particularly the poorest, speak Punjabi at home. Despite her introduction to the country's linguistic politics at school, it was not until Sara went to university that she became more of an activist.

She studied European and South Asian History and Literature at Lahore University of Management Sciences, but was drawn towards performing. In her second year she joined the independent theatre troupe and literary group Sangat and started performing in Punjabi plays all over Pakistan, including in Lahore’s poorest areas as well as more rural areas. She also organised public discussions that explored the relationship between language, culture, politics and social change. “As a member of the upper middle class I was very cocooned. Through the performances we did, I suddenly saw how language differences and hierarchies were perpetuating poverty,” she says. She began to realise how language acted as a barrier to education for the poorest, putting them at a disadvantage in the education system. “It opened my eyes,” she says. 

“There is little awareness of the importance of our own culture,” says Sara. The problem has been compounded by the fact that Punjabi is now associated with the poorest and least educated and by claims that the language has not evolved sufficiently to suit contemporary needs. "A lot more campaigning is needed,” says Sara.

In her second year Sara also started to receive training in Indian classical music to enrich her performance of folk music. “I wanted to do more folk performances to give back to the tradition that enriched my own experiences as a performer,” she says.  She has continued that training over the past seven years.  During her course she took a year out to focus on theatre and Punjabi reading, given that Punjabi was not part of the curriculum. She kept studying Punjabi, becoming the first undergraduate student to do so at her college.

Regional language issues

After graduating in 2013, Sara applied to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Her master’s dissertation was a historical analysis of the Punjabi literary movement in 1970s Pakistan and she says she would like to eventually translate it into Punjabi and publish it in Pakistan.

Soas allowed her to focus on regional language issues. When she returned to Pakistan in 2014, she started teaching at an arts college.  Sara says those teaching Punjabi have to be very innovative, given that most people in Pakistan have not been brought up reading Punjabi. One of the key issues is to build confidence. Sara does this by getting students to read out loud, but she says ultimately it will be impossible to really promote Punjabi literacy until more work is published in the language. “People speak it a lot on an informal basis, but it needs to be formalised,” she says.

Since returning to Pakistan, Sara has also published some academic research on Punjabi poetry and the anti-colonial movement in the early 20th century and she has been volunteering with theatre groups.
She has very much enjoyed teaching and realised that if she wanted to continue along that path she needed a PhD.  After two years teaching she was also keen to be a student again so she applied to the University of Cambridge to study Criticism and Culture at Cambridge under Dr Priyamvada Gopal.

She hopes to continue performing Punjabi folk and classical music while at Cambridge.  She feels combining teaching and performance is where she can make the most significant contribution to society.  Over the summer before she arrives in Cambridge she will be recording footage of dying performance traditions in Pakistan in collaboration with another academic. The material will be archived online so that it is accessible to all in a user friendly way.  She hopes it will be open source so people can upload their own audio clips and recordings of rare art forms.  “We want it to be a digital platform for folk music and ballads, for poets and minstrels,” she says. “There will also be interviews with poets. A lot of these traditions are being lost as more and more young people leave the rural areas for the cities, but this is our history and it is important to retain it.”

09/05/2017 - 18:46Beyond the earthquakeAs a survivor of the April 2015 Nepal Earthquake, Wilatluk Sinswat has been involved in the relief & recovery efforts.

My husband and I were in a furniture workshop in Kathmandu when the first earthquake struck at midday on Saturday, April 25th, 2015. This quake was relatively small, a warning sign.

My husband quickly led me to an open field, before going to fetch our son who was sleeping in our relative’s home. This was when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. After our family finally reunited, we camped out in the open space as the aftershocks continued.

As night fell, the temperature quickly dropped. Warm drinks were distributed by fellow survivors. By dawn, temporary shelters, made out of bamboos and tarpaulin sheets, were already being built by a group of people.

My son and I flew to Bangkok three days later while my husband stayed in Nepal to help. Upon my arrival, I started sending some tents and tarpaulin sheets to Nepal. These were collected at Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu by volunteers from the Himalayan Area Development Centre, an NGO where I am an advisor, and distributed to those affected by the earthquake.

Within the first 15 days, I raised enough funds to send over three tonnes of relief materials to Gorkha, the epicentre of the earthquake. Five weeks later, I returned to Nepal, and was humbled by the strength and serenity of all the survivors I met. Most of them, particularly the women, expressed their wishes to rebuild their homes with their “own two hands” and did not expect any handouts.

With these sentiments in mind, I came to believe that providing income-generating opportunities, particularly for women, would be an effective way to support individuals’ and communities’ recovery and future development in a more sustainable manner. I felt at first that the natural next step would be to write a grant application. However, with the uncertainty that we may not have received the funding, I decided to use my savings to get the project started.

With our own two hands

The initiative would provide skills training and offer incomegenerating opportunities for women. I took the phrase “with our own two hands” quite literally and began exploring crafts that would connect well with Nepalese women and be relevant to domestic and global markets. Wool crafts came first on the list, as for centuries women in the Himalayas had been making rugs and coats from the wool of their sheep.

While a majority of women are familiar with wool crafts, wool needle felting is still a novel technique, so I decided to introduce needle felting as a value-added craft. I organised a weeklong training session on needle felting in Kathmandu in September 2016, with a designer/ tutor invited from the UK. The training was open to interested women free of charge. We had expected about 15 participants, but 40 women turned up. We welcomed everyone and had to promptly restructure and extend the training period.

After the training, we continued working with a smaller group of women to further train them to be instructors and lead artisans. We began the trial production in October and sent our pilot order to Christmas fairs in the UK. The products were well received, selling out and generating encouraging feedback. In honour of my late Nepalese motherin-law, who was an orphan from the age of five and who became a widow and single mother of three boys at the age of 25, I named this project Nauseni Women Initiative, which trades needle-felted gifts and decorations under the name NAUSENI (pronounced now-sinee).

We have conducted two outreach training sessions and are connecting with wool farmers in Gorkha to share with them methods of preparing raw wool for felting. NAUSENI’s team comprises nine full-time members, with a network of over 15 women, in their twenties through sixties, from Gorkha and the Kathmandu Valley. Hardworking, resilient, and creative, after three months of training and without any instructions, the team collectively invented a new method that would speed up a part of the creation process.

The result of their self-initiated collaborative efforts was increased efficiency and improved quality of craftsmanship. I am excited to discover what lies ahead in my journey with the enterprising women of Nepal.

*Wilatluk Ging Sinswat [2001, Thailand] did a PhD in Development Economics. Wilatluk is a development practitioner with experience working in public sector and non-government organisations. Founder of Lanyt Theatre for Change, she is committed to participatory approach to development. Wilatluk is currently spearheading a women’s initiative in Nepal. Please visit for more information. Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons. This article is in the current edition of The Scholar magazine.

04/05/2017 - 23:46Two scholars share Bill Gates Sr. AwardFabrice Langronet and Victoria Herrmann are sharing the prize after being nominated by their peers.

Two Gates Cambridge Scholars have won the fifth annual Bill Gates Sr. Award for in recognition of their outstanding research and social leadership.

The two Scholars - Fabrice Langronet and Victoria Herrmann - have been awarded the Bill Gates Sr. Award for 2017.

The Award was established by the Gates Cambridge Trustees in June 2012 in recognition of Bill Gates Sr.’s role in establishing the Gates Cambridge Scholarships, over a decade of service as a Trustee, and his engagement with, and inspiration to, many generations of Gates Cambridge Scholars.

The Award allows Scholars to recognise the impact and contribution to the Scholar community of one of their peers (who may be pursuing any subject and be from any part of the world), with particular reference to the Scholarship’s selection criteria.

Scholars were asked to nominate a fellow Scholar for the Award by completing a 500-word statement about why that Scholar would be a suitable recipient. Selection was on the basis of how well the nominated candidates met the selection criteria while in residence in Cambridge. It is the second year running that the award has been shared.

Fabrice [2014], who is doing a PhD in History,  was recognised for his innovative research on migration history, which he explores from the vantage point of a tenement unit in the northern suburbs of Paris at the turn of the 20th century. The value of his research is being recognised by his peers in major historical journals and conferences in Europe and America, combining a refined post-structuralist theory, a microhistorical approach and a far-reaching transnational scope. His investigation led him to visit, over the past two years, over fifty archival sites in four countries, and interview more than 60 people in France, Spain, Italy, Scotland and the United States. The value of his research is being recognised by his peers in major historical journals and conferences in Europe and America.

He was also praised for his work on migration issues, with which he first became familiar as a judge specialising in immigration law and as a speechwriter for the President of the French Republic. Fabrice co-founded the Cambridge Migration Society, of which he is President and which allows high-ranking professionals to exchange views with the Cambridge academic community and deepen their understanding of each other's positions and practices. The society has organised several events featuring experts from around the world, including a high-level panel on the Mediterranean refugee crisis and another on Syrian refugees. Fabrice also spoke at the Gates Cambridge Scholar Forum on Migration in Budapest and has written a forthcoming article about the deportation of migrant children in the Human Rights Law Review.

One nominator called him "inspiring, innovative and always upbeat" and added "Fabrice has displayed outstanding human qualities that have quickly made him popular among his fellow Gates scholars".

Victoria [2014], who is doing a PhD in Polar Studies, was nominated for her outstanding work in the field of climate change where she is described as “a fierce advocate creating waves across the field”.

Beyond her PhD work focusing on human development, climate change and adaptation in the Arctic, she is Managing Director at The Arctic Institute where she leads the Institute’s research on climate change and community adaptation in Arctic communities. She is the author of Arctic Melt: Turning Resource Extraction into Human Development (2015) and has been published across many peer-review journals. She was also praised for her public engagement work, including media appearances on the CNN, BBC, NPR, Radio Canada in addition to articles in the Washington Post, Guardian and New York Times, amongst many others.

As a National Geographic Explorer, Victoria spearheaded and led America’s Eroding Edges, a research and storytelling project on the impacts of climate change on coastal communities and livelihoods that will be shared through articles, a book and a documentary.

She has also co-convened the Pocantico Climate & Cultural Heritage Working Group, a working group of high-level cultural heritage leaders engaged in climate change adaptation and migration efforts. In addition, she is Principle Investigator for Micro-grids, Macro-projects & Arctic Renewable Energy, leading on creating a bilateral expert network to research and publish on renewable energy and innovation in the North American Arctic. She has also been an active member of the Gates Cambridge community and was Alumni Officer on the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council.

One of her nominators wrote simply: “Victoria Herrmann is the sort of person on whom - without exaggeration - the world pins its hope.”

Another wrote: “Victoria recognises that climate change is not just, and not even primarily, about rising temperatures and glacial melt. It is about villages destroyed, families forced to move, children going hungry.”

The graduation dinner followed the second annual Gates Cambridge Day of Research [] which saw 12 Scholars give presentations about their research and many others take part in panel discussions and workshops. Subjects covered ranged from how cognitive science can illuminate Brexit to the links between democracy, contemporary forms of imprisonment and the history of the Panama Canal in World War One to how to spread the benefits that some plants derive from a more efficient version of photosynthesis to cereal crops.


02/05/2017 - 18:04From Tasmanian Devils to bone regrowthFour Gates Cambridge Scholars will present their research at this year's annual symposium on 5th May.

Four scholars will talk about their research, ranging from the conservation of Tasmanian Devils to bone regrowth, at the annual symposium before the Gates Cambridge Trustees on 5th May.

Zenobia Ismail [2013], who is doing a PhD in Politics and International Studies, will talk about recent Zambian politics and the failure of multi-party democracy to address endemic problems.
The talk, The Alternation Fallacy: Continuity and Co-option in Zambia’s 25 years of Multi-Party Politics, draws on Zenobia’s research on the dominant party states in southern Africa which are hybrid regimes. Zambia is one of very few countries where a dominant party has been ousted in 1991 and 2011. Zenobia says that, despite this, democratisation has not progressed.  She says: “New ruling parties soon resemble their predecessors and exploit the weak institutions which they inherit to consolidate power.  I argue that self-reinforcing mechanisms such as the constitution, patronage and the political culture undermine reform after alternation.   Moreover the parliament and judiciary are used to co-opt or intimidate members of the opposition, thus enabling incumbents to strive for dominance.”

Isabella Gariboldi [2014], who is doing a PhD in Materials Science and Metallurgy, will talk about her research into one of the key challenges for growing artificial bone: the ability to implant porous biomaterial structures or scaffolds so they integrate and interact with the body by modulating the behaviour of cells. The talk, Vascularising Bone Substitute Materials: Uncovering the Role of Micro-Architecture, will describe her research into the role of structural architecture (at the 100 um scale) in controlling and directing the growth of blood vessels into scaffolds. She says: “The aim of developing micro-architecture design principles for more efficient vascularisation is to inform future refinement of fabrication technologies, such as 3D printing, so that the idea of ‘growing’ artificial bones comes closer to reality.”

Maximilian Stammnitz’s talk The Devil’s DNA is about his research into a form of cancer which affects the conservation of Tasmanian Devils. Tasmanian Devils are the world's largest carnivorous marsupials, providing valuable ecosystem functions within their habitat. However, since the mid-1990s, their numbers have fallen significantly due to outbreaks of contagious clonal facial cancers. His research compares the genetics between transmissible tumour cells and healthy animals through a next-generation DNA sequencing approach.  Maximilian [2016] is doing a PhD in Veterinary Science.

Safwan A. Khan [2016] will speak about his four-week placement at the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC), State Government of Victoria, Australia, and its work into establishing an evidence-based policy base for ensuring that programmes have value for money and are effective in achieving their intended outcomes. His research for his MPhil in Public Policy compares the approach taken in Victoria with evidence-based policy work in the UK.

*The symposium takes place at 2:30pm on 5th May in the Gates Cambridge Scholars Common Room.  Scholars and their guests are welcome. Picture credit: Wiki Commons.

27/04/2017 - 15:12Day of research 2017Scholars will present research findings at a flagship event in May.

The latest research in areas ranging from how cognitive science can illuminate Brexit to the links between democracy and contemporary forms of imprisonment will be on display at this year’s Gates Cambridge Day of Research next month.

The flagship internal event of the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council will take place on 12th May.

The Day is broadly organised under three main themes: identity, globalisation and exclusion, but other topics will also be discussed in interactive discussions and panels, including on how government and media influence on policy and how engagement with natural systems can inform human biological advancement.

Twelve researchers will talk for 15 minutes about their research, followed by four minutes devoted to Q & A. Alumnus Daniel Greenfield [2005] will give the keynote and will speak about what research looks like beyond the ivory towers.

The talks are:

Naomi Woo [2014], who is doing a PhD in Music, on 'the practicality of the impossible' in 20th century piano music.

Leor Zmigrod [2016], who is doing a PhD in Psychology, on Brexit and neuropolitics. She will examine the relationship between the strength of individuals’ nationalistic identities and their cognitive performance, asking whether individual differences in cognitive and psychological characteristics predict the strength of a person’s nationalistic identity.

Elijah Foo Keat Mak [2013], who is doing a PhD in Psychiatry, on the role of neuroimaging in assisting the early identification of dementia, serving as surrogate markers for disease progression and detecting patterns of brain changes to distinguish various types of dementia.

Callie Vandewiele [2014], who is doing a PhD in Latin American Studies, on the relationship between contemporary Mayan weavers in Guatemala and the role that museums could play in their heritage development.

Stephen Kissler [2014], who is doing a PhD in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, on how mathematics has helped us identify where the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 influenza was introduced, how it spread and who was most responsible for driving its explosive transmission.

Annalise Higgins [2016], who is doing a PhD in History, on how attempts to manage the Panama Canal in World War One and to renegotiate its international status were problematised by intersections between its strategic and commercial significance.

Greg Reeves [2014], who is doing a PhD in Plant Science, on how to spread the benefits that some plants derive from a more efficient version of photosynthesis to cereal crops.

Camilo Ruiz [2016], who is doing an MPhil in Biological Science, on how artificial intelligence techniques might be used to pick the optimal treatment for patients with cancer by mining a database of 1,000s of prior patients.

Aliya Khalid [2015], who is doing a PhD in Education, on how mothers conceptualise and shape their influence on schooling and learning outcomes for their daughters in Punjab, Pakistan.

Morgan Seag [2016], who is doing a PhD in Polar Studies, on the integration of women into Antarctic science institutions in the second half of the twentieth century.

Josh Feinzig [2016], who is doing an MPhil in Criminology, on ethnographic research into prisoner-led councils and deliberative democratic programmes within prisons that attempt to foster a sense of ‘prisoner citizenship’. He will claim that democracy is principally incompatible with imprisonment.

Alex Wood [2015], who is doing a PhD in Medicine, on how the anaphylatoxin C5a, traditionally thought to be a pro-inflammatory molecule, appears to impair a vital cell in the immune system.

*The Day of Research takes place at the Fisher Building in St Johns College from 1-6.30pm with a networking reception to follow. Preliminary schedule/more details of the day can be found at the sign-up link here.

26/04/2017 - 19:54Vaccinating against antibiotic resistanceChaining up microbes prevents ‘bacterial sex’ and provides new way to control spread of antibiotic resistance, says new study.

A new study has shown for the first time exactly how a vaccination instructing the body to produce the intestinal antibody – known as secretory IgA – can protect against disease.

IgA ‘enchains’ dividing bacteria to form clumps, making them unable to invade the wall of the intestine and infect the body.

Because each enchained clump is made up of progeny of a single bacterium, the enchainment also prevents genetic exchange or ‘bacterial sex’ between bacteria in different clumps. Researchers say these vaccinations could be harnessed to decelerate the spread of antibiotic resistance genes.

The work was conducted by an international team of researchers, jointly led by Dr Emma Slack and Professor Wolf-Dietrich Hardt from ETH Zurich, Switzerland and Gates Cambrige Alumnus Dr Douglas Brumley [2009] from the University of Melbourne. It is published in print today in the journal Nature*.

The team studied Salmonella – a bacterium causing food poisoning – and used in vivo experiments and mathematical modeling to show that secretory IgA works very differently than scientists previously believed.

“By using an interdisciplinary approach involving lab-based science and mathematical modeling, we discovered the mechanism behind the clumping,” said Dr Brumley, who did his PhD in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge where he also combined biophysics, fluid dynamics and microbial ecology.

Other researchers have shown that antibodies and bacteria can clump, a process known as classical agglutination. However, this only occurs when they are present in high numbers and often come into contact with each other (like in the test tube).

“During typical infections, pathogenic bacteria are in such low concentrations that they rarely encounter one another. It would be like accidentally bumping into people you know at a music festival,” said Dr Brumley who is currently a Lecturer in Applied Mathematics at the University of Melbourne.

“It turned out that the driving force behind the formation of the clumps was the Salmonella pathogens’ own growth.

“When the bacteria reproduce to form daughter cells, the IgA antibodies attach themselves so strongly to bacteria that the cells cannot separate. Although the enchained bacteria can continue to multiply, all their offspring remain trapped in these clumps, rendering them largely harmless to the host.”

Dr Slack from ETH said that fighting intestinal infections using vaccination has several advantages. The antibody-bacteria clumps cannot approach the intestinal wall, therefore preventing the intestinal mucosa from becoming inflamed.

“The intestine also gets rid of the clumps quickly, and after a few days they are cleared in the faeces,” Dr Slack said.

“The clever thing about clump formation is that the antibodies don’t kill the bacteria, which in the worst case could lead to a violent immune response. They simply prevent the microbes from interacting with the host, among themselves or with close relatives,” added Professor Wolf-Dietrich Hardt from ETH Zurich, a co-author on the study.

By preventing interaction of the bacteria, intestinal vaccination could also help to overcome the antibiotic resistance crisis.

Bacteria often exchange genes in the form of plasmids (ring-shaped DNA molecules), which frequently carry the feared antibiotic resistance genes. To exchange plasmids, however, the bacterial cells have to touch, which they can’t do if they are stuck in separate clumps.

“Vaccination also decreases the incidence of diseases potentially requiring antibiotic usage, which would automatically reduce the development and spread of resistance to antibiotics”, added Dr Slack.

The team suggest that this strategy could also be used against the pathogens causing other intestinal diseases such as Shigella that causes dysentery or Enterotoxigenic E. coli.

*Moor K et al. High-avidity IgA protects the intestine by enchaining growing bacteria, published in Nature. Picture credit: Two clumped clones (red and green) of salmonella are held together by IgA antibodies. (Image: Emma Slack / ScopeM, ETH Zurich)


26/04/2017 - 11:53Collaborating for gender equality in STEMLearning for Purpose is holding its first outward-facing conference at Murray Edwards College on 9th May.

The Gates Cambridge Scholars’ Council is hosting the first Learning for Purpose Conference, Collaborating for Gender Equality in STEM, on 9th May.

The event will be held at Murray Edwards College and aims to expand the Learning for Purpose Group's reach and engage with the wider Cambridge community. Learning for Purpose is the original Gates Cambridge professional development programme.

Established in 2014, the programme is designed to provide students with cross-cutting skills and tools often absent in scholars’ typical degree-centred training. Further, it aims to promote collaboration across disciplines and offer scholars diverse experiences.

Collaborating for Gender Equality in STEM will bring together diverse perspectives from industry, government, NGOs and academia to share ideas, inspire learning and foster conversation about gender equality in science and technology leadership. The conference will address barriers and solutions to women's participation in STEM through a series of skill-building workshops, interactive talks with experts and networking opportunities.

Karly Drabot [2016] and Shraddha Kaur [2015], Co-Directors of Learning for Purpose, said: "STEM fields experience some of the largest gender gaps both in academia and the workplace. By bringing together gender champions from across disciplines and professions, we hope to facilitate meaningful connections. As part of this, each attendee will receive a contact list of all conference attendees to encourage future collaboration and support beyond the conference."

Workshop leaders and speakers include Dame Barbara Stocking, President of Murray Edwards College and Gates Cambridge Trustee; Professor Michelle Ryan, Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter; Dr Jill Armstrong, Research Associate at Murray Edwards College; and the Good Lad Initiative.

*The full details of the conference and registration is available here People of all genders, disciplines, and professions are invited to attend. Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons.

20/04/2017 - 18:11Promoting enterprise in Belo HorizontePaulo Savaget and his supervisor win a prestigious award for a project helping low-income entrepreneurs in Brazil.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar and his supervisor have teamed up with a Brazilian NGO to win a prestigious grant to help low-income entrepreneurs living in the slums of Belo Horizonte.

Paulo Savaget [2015] and his supervisor Professor Steve Evans,  Director of Research in Industrial Sustainability, have won a highly competitive Newton Fund grant from the British government for their partnership with the NGO FA.VELA.

It is the second year that they have won the award which goes to help low-income entrepreneurs in Belo Horizonte scale up their businesses in a sustainable way.

Paulo said: “FA.VELA empowers vulnerable Brazilian slum-dwellers, by promoting inclusive and resilient development. Based on lessons learned from our previous project funded by the Newton Fund, our goal is to include young people trapped in poverty into the start-up ecosystem by targeting up to 100 youth residing in low-income communities in Belo Horizonte."

Belo Horizonte is one of Brazil's biggest cities. Some 13% of the city's population lives in 211 slums spread throughout the city territory.

Last year's project also involved accelerating the businesses of low-income entrepreneurs. However, it was focused on promoting businesses in favelas in the Pampulha Lake Basin. This year’s project is broader: it is open for all favelas in the city and has a focus on young entrepreneurs.

The current grant will go towards a range of capacity-building activities, including mentoring sessions, workshops, field visits, labs, benchmarking and networking. "We want to empower young people to create social and tech-based solutions to pressing challenges affecting urban resilience," adds Paulo.

Examples of solutions include those which encourage businesses to waste less water and to use discarded materials. In social terms, Paulo says those whose businesses were accelerated have improved their entrepreneurial skills and their ability to set up and scale up their businesses. 

He adds that the project will directly benefit approximately 511 people (slum-dwellers, entrepreneurs, university students and professionals working as mentors and facilitators) who will together create sustainable businesses as well as their families and the wider community. Paulo believes the project could indirectly impact thousands of slum-dwellers through the provision of more sustainable products and services.

*Picture credit: Wikimedia.

20/04/2017 - 13:03Towards a smarter definition of intelligenceA new multidisciplinary study identifies a more accurate way of predicting intelligence.

How can we tell whether an individual or species is using ‘intelligence’ or complex cognition to solve a problem? Combining evidence from flexible behaviours, neuroanatomy and unpredictable environments may give a more accurate idea, according to a new model developed by a multidisciplinary team.

The study, Is behavioural flexiblity evidence of cognitive complexity? How evolution can inform comparative cognition, is published today in Royal Society Interface Focus.

In it Gates Cambridge Scholar Dr Corina Logan and her colleagues examine the fundamental issue of how we measure intelligence. Behavioural flexibility - the ability to adapt behaviour to changes in the environment - is often treated as the gold standard of evidence for more sophisticated or complex forms of cognition, such as planning, metacognition and mindreading. However, the paper argues that this is based on assumptions that have not been properly investigated.

It says that this is particularly important because observed flexible behaviours are frequently explained by simpler cognitive mechanisms. However, the researchers argue that it is important to consider how the species lives to determine intelligence. This means evaluating how a species perceives cues in its environment and whether these cues are predictable or variable in time and space. It also means understanding something about the composition of its brain to determine whether it uses more cognitive processing power to solve problems that arise in its daily life.

To interrogate assumptions about behavioural flexibility and intelligence, Corina collaborated with two philosophers of science, Dr Irina Mikhalevich at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Dr Russell Powell at Boston University, who specialise in solving problems in biology. Together they developed a model that can show whether flexibility is an indicator of complex cognition.

They searched the literature for data to test their model and found that the three traits in their model (flexibility, environmental unpredictability and neuroanatomy) are linked as predicted. Species that are more flexible live in more unpredictable environments and have more neurons or a larger volume for a particular brain region. Because each of these three traits is predicted to lead to complex cognition, when all three traits are found together, it provides more solid evidence that complex cognition can be inferred.

For instance, recent research on molluscs by Robyn Crook, Jennifer Basil and Frank Grasso showed that octopuses have excellent short- and long-term memories. The researchers point out that an octopus' brain has a region called a vertical lobe where learning and memory are processed and it has to pursue mobile prey that are patchily distributed in space and time. However, another mollusc species, the nautilus, has poor long-term memory, doesn’t have a vertical lobe and scavenges on whatever crosses its path.

Corina, a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge specialising in animal cognition, says: "Our research provides a way for people to test whether flexibility indicates complex cognition by distinguishing these as separate traits and looking at how flexibility varies with other traits that are also supposed to indicate complex cognition (neuroanatomy and the need to track a changing environment). If [the model] proves to be robust, then it may serve as a theoretical buttress for the common assumption that flexible behaviour is evidence of complex cognition, while helping to inform hypotheses in the absence of sufficient data and overcome a priori simplicity preferences in comparative cognition in a way that helps move our understanding of cognition forward."

*Picture credit: Wikimedia

12/04/2017 - 13:22From the lab bench to the patient's bedsideScholar-Elect Minaam Abbas on his research on epitranscriptomics and his entrepreneurial activities.

Minaam Abbas has not yet started his PhD, but he is already co-founder of two businesses which have the potential to transform how we fund business and how we treat cancer.

Minaam [2017], who will begin his PhD this autumn as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, is chief operating officer of angioClast, a company which aims to develop drugs that can target blood vessels of the most aggressive form of brain cancer.

He is also co-founder of Hazina, a social enterprise that aims to turn microfinance on its head by cutting out the middle man and providing an alternative credit rating for the smallest businesses while also teaching financial literacy.

Minaam's PhD will focus on the new field of epitranscriptomics, looking at how RNA can be modified and how these modifications can be used to fight cancer.

His driving passion is to make a positive impact on people's lives and through both his research and enterprise he is already doing so, but he might not have made it to where he is now without the support of local businesspeople in Pakistan, of individuals and institutions at Cambridge and now the Gates Cambridge Trust.


Minaam was born and brought up in Karachi, Pakistan. Both his parents are doctors – his father is a gastroenterologist and his mother is a GP. Nevertheless, even though he was drawn more towards physics and chemistry at school because of their emphasis on discovery, he found himself increasingly interested in biology.

He was inspired by some of his teachers who showed him that there were new discoveries to be made in biology and by having seen the impact his parents had in the community where they lived. “My teachers showed me that there are so many unknowns in biology particularly in the areas of neuroscience and oncology, that there are lots of presumptions being made,” he says. “I also saw how much respect my parents were held in. They would be identified by patients anywhere we went. They made a tangible difference and really impacted people's lives.”

Minaam also got involved with some of his father's research projects and from his mother's work he developed an interest in bioethics and wider policy issues. Another inspiration has been his younger brother Sarim who is studying computer science at Yale and whose insight into technological developments have played a big role in Minaam's entrepreneurial work.

The University of Cambridge had always been in his sights since he developed an interest in science. The headmistress at his school had attended the university and told her students about it, almost every major scientific discovery Minaam learnt about seemed to have happened in Cambridge, it looked like Hogwarts and his school was built on the British system. “It seemed the perfect combination of what a university should be,” he says. It was also one of just a few universities to offer the MB/PhD programme he was interested in. “I wanted to be a doctor and do academic research,” he says.

His interview didn't go to plan, though. He couldn't get a visa in time, but his college agreed to do the interview via Skype. When he was offered a place he also had problems securing funding. Pakistan had a scholarship fund for Cambridge at the time to mark the university's 800th anniversary, but it was not for medical students. Through a couple of local business people agreed to pay towards his fees. His college, St John's, has also been very supportive. “I have been very lucky to find supportive people,” he says.

Entrepreneurship and neuroscience

Minaam's course is six years long. The first two years were pre-clinical and in his third year he specialised in neuroscience. This was in large part due to an exchange programme he took part in with Caltech in his second year. There he worked in the Richard Anderson laboratory which is doing pioneering work on brain machine interfaces, for instance, getting people to move prosthetic limbs using brain signals. Minaam's research involved analysing how individual neurons compute movement from sensors hooked up to the brain. On his return to Cambridge Minaam did his third-year thesis on the data collected at the laboratory.

At the same time Minaam was getting involved in medical entrepreneurship. He had taken part in the National Institutes of Health's Neuro START-UP Challenge in his second year. Minaam's team chose to focus on the discovery of biomarkers on the inside of cancer blood vessels in Glioblastoma multiforme, one of the most aggressive forms of brain tumour. Patients diagnosed with the tumour tend to die within one to two years of being diagnosed and the two chemotherapy treatments currently available are fairly blunt instruments to deal with it.

The team decided they might be able to starve the cancer of nutrients by developing a treatment that could target the cancer blood vessels. Their research has recently shown the technique could significantly reduce tumour size. “It's a huge breakthrough,” says Minaam.

With help from the Judge Business School's accelerator programme the company, named angioClast, has been a finalist in several biotech competitions, including Pitch@Palace. Those competitions have brought international exposure and mentors, including from AstraZeneca, which has helped it to make significant progress. They are seeking to raise money over the next months to help them to do the experiments to get the investment they need to turn the research into a therapeutic treatment.

“There is huge excitement and momentum due to the breakthrough we have made,” says Minaam.

Up until now, as chief operating officer of angioClast, he has been the person coordinating the team, but he hopes, during his PhD research, to get more involved in the research itself.

Minaam's involvement marks one of the biggest changes in his thinking about medicine and has opened up new avenues to explore. He is now much more interested in bioentrepreneurship and biotechnology policy, for instance.

It's not the only entrepreneurial activity he is involved in either. He is a co-founder of an organisation called Hazina, which spun out of several social entrepreneurship societies. Hazina, which competed for the prestigious Hult Prize, aims to turn microfinance on its head by creating a mobile peer to peer platform which reduces the need for middle men and connects small businesses around the world with finance, provides an alternative credit scoring system, based on criteria such as a businessperson's active social networks, and also seeks to boost financial literacy.

Hazina has presented its ideas internationally, most recently in Dubai, and plans to launch in various countries in the next two years.


With his interest in research impact and entrepreneurship, Minaam applied to work at Professor Tony Kouzarides' laboratory in Cambridge for his PhD. He was drawn by the opportunity to do pioneering research in epitranscriptomics - he will look at how RNA molecules can be modified based on their cell environment and how this applies to stem cells and oncology – and by the laboratory's emphasis on biotech entrepreneurship. “It's an amazing opportunity. It's not just about learning core science and discovering something new, but how we can bring these discoveries from the lab bench to the patient's bedside. That is the whole philosophy of the laboratory and it is a perfect match for my interests,” says Minaam.

He is delighted to have won the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, mainly because of its emphasis on a global, multidisciplinary community. “It is the Gates Cambridge community that inspires me. Amazing ideas can come from people working together in a common space across different subjects, countries and perspectives. Gates Cambridge actively promotes this and encourages people to get together to brainstorm."

*Photo credit: David Powell

07/04/2017 - 13:53Gates Cambridge Class of 2017 announced 55 new scholars have been announced and will join 35 others to form the Gates Cambridge Class of 2017.

Fifty-five of the most academically exceptional and socially committed people from across the globe have been selected as Gates Cambridge Scholars after interviews in Cambridge in late March.

The Scholars will join the 35 US Scholars selected in late January to form the class of 2017, all of whom will take up the most prestigious international postgraduate scholarship at the University of Cambridge this October.

The 90 new Scholars represent 34 nationalities and include the first Scholars from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Luxembourg – and the first Native American Scholar.

Scholarships were awarded to 50 women and 40 men from a wide range of backgrounds. Forty-one will study for a master's degree and 49 will pursue a PhD.

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship aims to identify and select applicants who are academically outstanding and are likely to be transformative leaders across all fields of endeavour.

Competition for the Scholarships is fierce. The 90 new Scholars were selected from a total pool of around 6,000 applicants on the basis of their intellectual ability, commitment to improving the lives of others, leadership potential and academic fit with Cambridge. Departments in Cambridge nominated 424 candidates for the Scholarships and, of these, 202 were interviewed in the US and Cambridge by four panels of interviewers drawn from across the University.

“Gates Cambridge Scholars come from all over the world, but they have some important things in common: great leadership potential, a commitment to improving the lives of others and an unparalleled passion for learning,” said Bill Gates, co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Melinda and I are pleased to welcome the class of 2017. We have no doubt they will have an incredible impact on topics of global importance.”

The new Scholars include:

- Minaam Abbas from Pakistan who will do a PhD in Pathology focusing on brain tumours, specifically the cryptic world of RNA and DNA modifications which he says could hold ground-breaking implications for future therapeutics. Minaam is co-founder of a cancer therapeutics and drug delivery bio-start-up, angioClast, which is developing a sophisticated treatment strategy for vascularised tumours.

- Marina Velickovic, the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from Bosnia and Herzegovina, who will do a PhD in Law. She has co-authored two books and co-founded the only feminist magazine in Bosnia and is currently a Visiting Fellow at Goldsmiths College, where she is working on a feminist critique of the legal discourse surrounding Conflict-Related Sexual Violence. Her research at Cambridge on International Criminal Law will look at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia through the lens of gender and ethnicity.

- Sandile Mtetwa from Zimbabwe who will do an MPhil in Chemistry focused on improving the properties of photo active materials used in the process of harnessing clean energy. She is Founder of the Trust Simuka-Arise Initiative in Zimbabwe, which aims to empower young women academically, socially and economically.

- Norman Wray from Ecuador who will do an MPhil in Conservation. The Constituent Assembly Member once stood for President of Ecuador. He is a strong advocate of the “Buen Vivir” (Good Living) regime, the rights of nature and for the inclusion of access to water as a human right in the Constitution of Ecuador. His MPhil will develop a nature-based, evidence-led approach to the resolution of social, economic, ecological and political problems.

- Thierry Mousset, the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from Luxembourg, who will do a PhD in German. Thierry has worked as an assistant director and dramaturge at numerous world-leading theatres and his PhD will explore the use of non-dramatic texts by W.G. Sebald, Mathias Enard and Orhan Pamuk in contemporary stage performances. He says: “I believe that in the current political climate, informed by a sharp rise in anti-Muslim and nationalist rhetoric, it is more important than ever to remind ourselves of the shared history of the two sides of the Mediterranean.”

Cambridge Vice-Chancellor and Chair of the Gates Cambridge Board of Trustees, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, recognised the transformative nature of the Gates Cambridge programme and its excellent fit with the University. He said: “Cambridge is a global university and the Gates Cambridge programme epitomises both its international, outward-looking nature and its mission to tackle global challenges and to improve the lives of others. I am delighted that the programme is thriving and having the impact that both the University and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hoped it would. The selection of another intake of outstanding young Scholars shows philanthropy and education at their most transformative. ”

Professor Barry Everitt, Provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust, added: “As Provost overseeing admissions to the Gates Cambridge Scholarships, and as Chair of the Biological Sciences interview panel for the last four years, I am continually delighted by the embarrassment of riches we have to choose from and the incredible quality – and diversity - of the Scholars we select. This is certainly true for the 90 Scholars who make up the class of 2017. They are remarkable and inspiring individuals who have shown academic excellence and a clear commitment to improving the lives of others - key Gates Cambridge section criteria. We look forward to welcoming them in October and to seeing their impact at Cambridge and beyond.”

Biographies of all 90 Scholars are available from the New Scholars page.

The new Class of 2017 includes:

- Saloni Atal from India who will do a PhD in Psychology which will look at innovative and culturally appropriate solutions to tackle the problem of gaps in access to mental healthcare in India. In partnership with local non-profit organisations, her PhD will assess the impact and feasibility of training non-specialists, particularly community health workers, to support the mental health needs of slum-dwelling women.

- Stefan Hosein from Trinidad and Tobago who will do a PhD in Computer Science which will bring together his interests in Artificial Intelligence and education. He is the co-founder of a non-profit organisation in Trinidad called Escape Velocity, which seeks to inspire local underprivileged children to learn about science. His PhD will use Natural Language Processing to help students doing online courses.

- Leena Dahal from Nepal who will do an MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies which will explore identity and intersectionality in the context of South Asia, specifically how social media helped or hindered nuanced discussion of nationalism and identity in response to the 2015 unofficial border blockade between Nepal and India. Leena was born in Nepal but raised between Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

- Erica Gaston from the USA who will do a PhD in Politics and International Studies. She has testified before the US Senate and NATO on international and national security issues and the implications of security strategies for human rights. Her research will explore whether the control mechanisms that external actors establish when working with local or hybrid security forces can successfully mitigate the risks and costs of doing so. She says: “Whether or not such mechanisms work has significant implications for local civilians in an increasing number of areas, and for international security strategy as a whole.”

- Alicia Stevens from the USA who will do a PhD in Archaeological Heritage and Museums which will look at differing discourses of cultural heritage in Myanmar after sanctions and what they tell us about community uses of heritage in recovery, identity and remembrance. Her research will also examine international interventions in Myanmar’s post-sanctions period. Stevens has worked at the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History and travelled to Myanmar (Burma) when it was under military rule and international sanctions to promote the protection of the country’s natural and cultural resources in collaboration with the United Nations Office of the Secretary-General.

30/03/2017 - 10:38Dr Lauren ZeitelsCo-Chair of Alumni Association has died in avalanche

It is with deepest regret that Gates Cambridge announces that Dr Lauren Zeitels, Co-Chair of the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association (GCAA), tragically died in an avalanche while snowshoeing near Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Canada on 12 March 2017.

Lauren was 32 years old and came to Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge Scholar in 2006 to read an M.Phil. in Medical Genetics. She then pursued an MD/PhD at Johns Hopkins Medical School.  She was a Resident Physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital at the time of her death.

Lauren was an exceptional person, an outstanding Gates Cambridge Scholar and someone who devoted enormous energy for the benefit of Gates Cambridge alumni through her membership, and then as Co-chair, of the GCAA Board.  She gave freely of her time for the benefit of those in her medical care and in her community. She was highly motivated to improve the lives of others through her actions and her leadership.  You can read about her life in her own words here.

The Gates Cambridge community extends its deepest sympathies to her family and to her many friends.

Thread, an education charity which Lauren was passionate about, has set up the The Lauren Zeitels New Experiences Together Fund for those who wish to contribute.

30/03/2017 - 09:19Simprints wins more honoursToby Norman is named a Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been named a Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

Toby Norman is one of 17 social entrepreneurs from around the world to have been chosen for the award.

Toby has been recognised for his role in Simprints, an organisation that uses fingerprinting to help the 1.5 billion people worldwide that currently lack an official ID.

“Many of our 2017 awardees partner with government in a variety of ways”, said Hilde Schwab, Co-Founder and Chairwoman of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, “as service providers, to embed innovative approaches into government-run systems, or in some cases even craft new laws, policies or regulations that have a direct nationwide impact”.

Toby will become part of the broader Schwab Foundation community of Social Entrepreneurs and will be fully integrated into the World Economic Forum’s events and initiatives aimed at generating solutions for a wide spectrum of global challenges.

The new Schwab social entrepreneurs will join a community of over 300. They were selected by the Foundation's board, which includes David Gergen, Director, Centre for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Johanna Mair, Professor of Organisation, Strategy and Leadership, Hertie School of Governance; Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO, Save the Children; and H.M. Queen Mathilde of Belgium, Honorary Board Member, in recognition of their innovative approaches and potential for global impact.

Simprints was co-founded by Gates Cambridge Scholars Daniel Storisteanu [2012], Toby Norman [2011] and Alexandra Grigore [2012] alongside Tristram Norman. A nonprofit tech company, it is building low-cost, fingerprint scanners for frontline workers in fields such as healthcare, finance and education.

Alexandra has recently been named by Women Who Tech as one of 10 finalists for the Women Startup Challenge Europe! The Pitch Competition will be held on May 3rd at London’s City Hall, hosted by the office of Mayor Sadiq Khan. Alexandra will pitch Simprints to a panel of investors including Baroness Martha Lane Fox, Founder of Doteveryone, and Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia.

Simprints was also recently invited to participate in the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU)“Be He@lthy, Be Mobile" initiative to drive appropriate digital solutions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The workshop brought together the public sector, private industry, and development organisations to discuss harnessing ICT to benefit all.  Toby provided insights on the importance of creating incredibly low-cost tight feedback loops through the use of real-time data and training local ‘user champions’.  

27/03/2017 - 12:43Standing up for Native AmericansMontana Duke Wilson on his work for his tribe and how his research will aid their economic development.

Montana Duke Wilson was raised on politics. Growing up on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, which is home to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, his grandfather Ray K. Eder served on the Tribal Executive Board for 24 years. He also served as both Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Fort Peck Tribes, the head of the tribal government.

Montana [2017], a Gates Cambridge Scholar-Elect, accompanied his grandfather to multiple tribal events. He recalls being around five years old when his grandfather played an important role in establishing a tribal police force and being present at the groundbreaking ceremony in the late 2000s for a water treatment plant. He also remembers witnessing his grandfather preside over the removal of a Chairman for misdemeanours against tribal policy and procedure. “My grandfather did a lot for our tribe and that had a big impact on me,” he says.

At high school in Wolf Point, Montana excelled in science and was a finalist three times in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. So when he enrolled at Dartmouth College as a Gates Millennium Scholar in 2009, he initially intended to study Engineering, but he changed his mind in his second year. 

Suicide epidemic

Over the summer of 2010 he worked as an Assistant Secretary for the Fort Peck Tribes. One project he worked on involved tackling a suicide epidemic among young people on the reservation. Out of a population of 12,000, there were 25 suicides of young people in one month alone.

The epidemic corresponded to high general levels of suicide among Native American populations. US government figures show Native American teenagers and young adults commit suicide at triple the rate of their peers with suicide being linked to social issues such as substance abuse, isolation, joblessness and incarceration which disproportionately affect Native Americans.

Montana says the situation on his reservation in the summer of 2010 demanded drastic action. “We declared a state of emergency. The US government sent in a public health response team. We criminalised suicide. That meant anyone talking about committing suicide could be arrested and transferred to a mental health programme. We also had to limit traditional tributes paid to people who had died because it encouraged young people to commit suicide,” he says.

Traditionally the deaths of young people are honoured with a huge family funeral and tributes. “We were concerned young people were using suicide to get attention from their parents,” says Montana.  The measures were effective. The number of suicides dropped to 10 a month by the following month and a couple of months later when Montana left to return to college there had been no suicides in the preceding month.  The experience brought home to Montana what an impact he could have in the policy area.

He switched his degree to Government and entered the Central Intelligence Agency’s Pathways programme, a government programme established to give students an opportunity to explore federal careers.
During his time at Dartmouth, Montana also took part in the global study abroad programme Semester at Sea through the University of Virginia. The course is a multi-country study abroad programme on a ship which lays a big emphasis on global comparative study.

At one point in his travels, Montana witnessed a Tibetan monk and nun set fire to themselves in a town square in Tibet to protest Chinese occupation. That experience too made a lasting impression on him, given the history of Native Americans. 

Public defender

Before completing his degree, however, Montana had to take leave from the College for personal reasons. While he was on leave, he was exposed to another aspect of community life which was to have a big influence on his career trajectory.

Montana became more active in his tribe and was offered a job as an intern at the public defender’s office. He had taken some law classes at Dartmouth so was able to write briefs. He took his tribal bar exam and was admitted as a full member of the tribal bar which meant he could practice on his own. Eventually, he was contacted by the Chairman of the Fort Peck tribes and was offered the post of supervising prosecutor, overseeing criminal prosecutions and juvenile cases. The cases he handled covered everything from traffic violations to murder.

His caseload was immense, involving dealing with 16 bench trials and two jury trials a week. The prosecution team was severely understaffed with just four prosecutors handling around 6,000 cases a year. Montana worked with the FBI and state law enforcement on a multi-disciplinary team to get crime levels down and succeeded in reducing the annual caseload by about 2,000. During his time as a prosecutor, Montana realised he did not want to return to Dartmouth College and instead transferred his credits to Montana State University.

There Montana found that he needed to take an Economics class to qualify for his degree in Political Science. He discovered he enjoyed Economics so he decided to pursue a second degree that runs alongside his degree in Political Science and minor in Native American Studies. This has meant that he can apply what he learns about indigenous methods and understanding to his other studies.

At MSU he has also been a peer instructor on three courses for Study in Federal Indian Law & Policy, which covered issues such as water rights and natural resource development, The Study in the Economic Way of Thinking and The Study in the Principles of Macroeconomics.

Economic development

For his final year - 2016/17 - Montana won the Udall Scholarship in the field of tribal public policy based on his work in tribal economic development. Montana is now working on a cost benefits analysis of treatment courts for drug offenders, relative to incarcerating these offenders.

He decided to apply to the University of Cambridge as he had missed out on study abroad at university and he became enthusiastic about the Development Studies MPhil course taught at the University and how he could use that to evaluate tribal policies. He is the first Native American Gates Cambridge Scholar.

After his masters course, Montana intends to return to his tribe to work on economic development issues. Of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, he says: “I really respect the Gates Foundation’s values and I wanted to be associated with someone who is doing something good in the world.”

24/03/2017 - 14:28Medical ethics through the lens of historyGates Cambridge Scholar Yuntong Ma is selected as a FASPE Medical Fellow.

A Gates Cambridge scholar has been selected for a prestigious fellowship which addresses contemporary medical ethics through a unique historical context.

Yuntong Ma [2015], who did an MPhil in Sociology at Cambridge and is currently a fourth-year medical student at Washington University School of Medicine, was selected as one of the FASPE Medical Fellows for 2017.

FASPE (Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics) are a set of innovative programmes for graduate students to study contemporary ethical issues using the conduct of doctors and other medical professionals during the Holocaust as a launching point. 

Ten to 15 fellows are selected each year for this programme. Fellows travel to Berlin, Germany, as well as Auschwitz and other sites in Poland. The 2017 trip will take place in June. 

Yuntong’s MPhil dissertation research focused on the development of the CRISPR-Cas9 system, a genome-editing technology, its translational applications and potential for human germline modification which has been the subject of many ethical questions.

Two Gates Cambridge scholars have previously been selected for this fellowship - Victor Roy [2012], who is doing a PhD in Sociology, and Alessa Colaianni [2013], who did an MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science.

Victor Roy said: "FASPE taught me about how ethical lapses can form and sustain among professionals like doctors. I learned the need to remain both vigilant and pro-active in my clinical practice and with other doctors - we can never take for granted the moral codes which our work should abide by." 

"Linking that historical moment to the real present-day struggles over ethical practice now challenging many of our professional fields will only make FASPE more valuable to future participants and our alumni." 

22/03/2017 - 13:54Democratising educationCaroline James plans to research how to bring marginalised voices to the heart of the education system.

Education has traditionally been seen as a route of poverty, but without structural and curriculum change, says Caroline James, it will only perpetuate existing social inequities.

The Gates Cambridge Scholar-Elect wants to democratise the education system by bringing in the voices of marginalised young people and she plans to start by doing research on foster children.

She has strong personal reasons for doing so since she herself went through the foster system and got her first taste of teaching at a very early age when she stepped into the educator role for her own siblings.

For her MPhil in Education at Cambridge, which she starts in the autumn, Caroline wants to look at how the education system negatively impacts at risk youth, using foster children as a proxy because of her own experience and because research shows consistently that they rank lowest in terms of educational achievement and access to higher education.

“There is such a dearth of research on what foster youth have experienced in education,” says Caroline, who won a national teaching award in the US for her work on curriculum change. “I want to look at this globally and listen to their voices.  It’s about getting their voices heard in an effort to democratise education. Education can never lead to greater equality if it just perpetuates social and political inequity and only reflects the dominant community.”

She adds: “I believe that schools that function more democratically are better able to meet the needs and desires of marginalised youth. Such democracy could further translate into improved student behaviour, socio-emotional development and academic outcomes."

Foster care

Caroline [2017] was born in Chicago and her early years were characterised by abuse and neglect. She lived with her father who was addicted to crack and would be gone for weeks at a time. Her mother, who was also a drug user, left when she was two and Caroline only met her again when she was 16. She and her three younger brothers endured periods of homelessness and often missed large chunks of school.

Caroline was like a mother to her brothers, looking after them, giving them food and getting them to school. She got her first taste of teaching as a child when she stepped into the role of educator, making up for the time her brothers missed at school and teaching herself to read so she could teach them. One of her brothers is deaf, but had not been diagnosed which made her job harder and more frustrating.

“As far back as I can remember I thought of myself as a mother to my little brothers. I never experienced being a child,” she says. “It is only three years ago that I spoke to my brothers about learning to be a sister.”

At the age of 10 Caroline decided she needed to work with her teachers to advocate for the family to be taken into foster care. The family moved to Alabama, but it was impossible to find a family who would take all four children. Caroline wanted the boys to stay together so they could support each other. She felt she was more able to fend for herself, but found it hard adapting to being without them. “The role of caretaker and being the responsible one had crafted my character,” she says.

Initially she felt a sense of guilty relief that a weight had been lifted from her and she was able to be her own person. But it was not long before she started to feel lost. There was not much support from the foster system who she felt put too much responsibility on her for making decisions. 

In response, Caroline threw herself into the education system. “I felt I had to become someone and not be like my parents. That was all that mattered to me,” she says. “I believed that education would allow me to escape the snares of poverty.”

Neither of her parents had finished high school. Some of her peers in her foster home had a homeschooling arrangement to help them catch up, but Caroline was too far ahead in some areas such as humanities, although she struggled with maths due to being self taught.  She was sent to a magnet school, a  public school with specialised courses or curricula, and describes it as one of the best schools in Alabama with some of the best teachers. “It allowed me to see myself as an intellectual,” she says. “I wanted to prove that I was smart. Later I was able to question the fallacy that education equalises.

 I no longer believe that education is the great equaliser. Our current education systems cannot close the achievement gap, end poverty or enfranchise the disenfranchised. In marginalised communities, education is often simply a reflection of larger systemic inequities; a system that reflects inequities will not create equity. If education is to be the great equaliser, it must be tailored, led and informed by the needs, voices, interests and values of the populace it serves."

Teachers as activists

When she started at the University of Alabama, however, Caroline was set on being a lawyer, not a teacher. “I knew I was an activist and I did a lot of things that gave me a high profile as a leader,” she says, “but I didn’t want to be an educator.  I felt insulted. I thought I didn’t do all of this just to end up as a teacher.” However, Teach for America thought differently and they did all they could to recruit her prior to her senior year.

They flew her to New Orleans where she started teaching and began to see education in a new way. “I could see the connection between inequity and education. I began to see teachers as activists. Classrooms were where activism was built because teachers could change lives,” says Caroline. “I could see that the very fabric of our democracy is built in the classroom.”

She began to see the links between her natural desire to be a leader and education. “The unifying thread was social justice,” she says. “I am a product of social injustice.” 

She was also able to reflect on the fact that having access to the kind of education provided by the magnet school meant she was privileged in comparison to her peers in the foster home who were going to underfunded public schools where the quality of teaching, resources and expectations were low. At the magnet school she and her fellow students had had some influence over the curriculum, were able to ensure it reflected their lives and talent, meaning they could bring their whole identities to school.

Becoming an educator changed her ideas about what success meant and made her rethink her own approach to education as a way out of poverty. “I changed my orientation - I no longer needed to be better than my parents. I realised that, in some ways, my scorn was misplaced and that, though certainly not blameless, my parents were products of wider systemic issues that needed to be reformed. And I felt a responsibility - because of my experiences - to be part of that reform.” 

She felt people who had undergone the kind of life experiences she had had a truth of narrative and identity which could make a difference. “[I felt that our perspective was one which could not be replaced; it’s the perspective of being personally impacted by unjust systems. These perspectives are needed to resolve the issues of inequity]I felt that people like me were who are communities had been waiting for,” she says.

After doing a teacher training programme for Teach for America over the summer, Caroline was thrown in at the deep end and started to teach. “Teaching came naturally to me as I have been teaching for as long as I have been speaking,” says Caroline.

She moved over from teaching to management and managed 60 educators, working on issues such as curriculum change. She won the Sue Lehmann national teaching award from her work to create a curriculum which reflected student culture, interests and identity and tied student leadership with student activism. It was her second award as she was given an undergraduate award for her research into how group perceptions of social issues, such as welfare, affect voting. She says her educational ideology  “is about redefining education and changing the power dynamic. I believe we should use the classroom as a space to support marginalised communities in using education, their identities and their inherent leadership as a means to evaluate and dismantle structural and social barriers".


Caroline, who was interviewed about her work for CNN, was keen to extend her research on curriculum change. She spent six months researching programmes around the world, putting them on a spreadsheet. Cambridge was one of three she selected, but she didn’t think she would get in. She states: “I was interested in how the Faculty of Education was looking at leadership in the classroom and tying it to a shift in power dynamics for at risk youth."

She says she is honoured to have been selected as a Gates Cambridge Scholar and hopes that being in a diverse network of scholars working on global issues will lead to interesting collaborations.

20/03/2017 - 17:19Crossing borders in transnational educationAnna Kendrick organised an event in Shanghai on transnational education.

Nearly 100 people attended a recent event on transnational education in Shanghai designed to connect Gates Cambridge alumni with other alumni and NGO communities.

The Crossing Borders in Transnational Education was organised by Anna Kathryn Kendrick at the Harvard Center Shanghai on 3rd March.

The event explored how founders and directors of innovative start-ups and NGOs have managed an array of cross-cultural, political and other challenges. All the speakers, including Gates Cambridge scholar Greg Nance [2011], are involved in providing some form of international education in China and all have a concerted focus on access and outreach in their work.

Anna, the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association’s Director of Membership for Asia and Australasia, says: “The mission statement of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship is to create a global network of young leaders committed to improving the lives of others. How are we living this in our own lives and communities? I wanted to put our alumni community into dialogue with likeminded leaders interested in ‘improving the lives of others’ through education because I believe we all gain from such collaborations.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Harvard Center Shanghai, Harvard Club of Shanghai, and the Oxbridge Society of Shanghai. 

The keynote was given by Professor Joanna Waley-Cohen, Provost of NYU Shanghai, who spoke about the challenges of setting up the first Sino-US joint-venture university. This was followed by a paneldiscussion chaired by Corinne Hua, founder and executive director of Stepping Stones, a Shanghai-based NGO which coordinates volunteers to provide free oral English classes to children of migrant workers in Shanghai and across rural China. Participants included Greg Nance, founder and CEO of, which provides mentorship and support for Chinese students seeking higher education opportunities abroad, Hong Liu, co-founder and executive director of Peer Experience Exchange Rostrum (PEER), a Beijing-based NGO dedicated to promoting liberal arts education to secondary school students from low-income and rural areas in China, and Meijie Tang, Programme Director of the Rhodes Scholarship for China and Founder of the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China, a conference that serves as an intense forum for cultural and intellectual exchange between American undergraduates and top Chinese high school students.

Anna,  who is currently Director of Global Awards and Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature at NYU Shanghai,  spoke about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship at the beginning.

Anna [2011] completed her PhD in Spanish intellectual history, with a focus on early 20th century childhood and education reform, at the University of Cambridge.

17/03/2017 - 11:07Keeping the peaceA new book co-edited by Annalise Higgins looks at the legacies of the Hague Peace Conferences.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has co-edited a new book on the legacies of the two Hague Peace Conferences that were held before the outbreak of the First World War.

Annalise Higgins has co-edited War, Peace and International Order? The Legacies of the Hague Conferences of 1899 and 1907, which brings together some of the latest international scholarship on the legacies of the Hague Peace Conferences in 1899 and 1907.

The conferences, the first international conferences to be called in a time of peace rather than in response to an existing war, discussed ways of formalising methods for limiting recourse to war and the destructiveness of any war that did occur. They tend to be seen by diplomatic and military historians as insignificant footnotes on the path to the First World War and by experts in international law in terms of the manner in which the conferences progressed the law of war and the concept and application of international justice.

The book came out of an international conference on the Hague Conferences’ legacies held in April 2016 co-hosted by The Centre for Human Rights Law, Policy and Practice and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland.

Annalise [2016] did her MA at the University of Auckland prior to beginning her PhD in History at Cambridge. She studied under the supervision of Associate Professor Maartje Abbenhuis, who is currently working on a Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Grant funded project on the global history of the Hague Peace Conferences.

Peace movement

In addition to co-editing the book, Annalise contributed a chapter based on her research into a large-scale public petitioning movement in support of peace that took place in Britain between when the first Hague Peace Conference was proposed in August 1898 and its opening in May 1899. The chapter focused on the movement's historical legacy.

She says: “We hoped that the book would draw together contributors from a range of backgrounds to give a sense of the multifaceted historical legacies of these two hugely important international conferences. The Hague conventions have had enduring legacies throughout the 20th century, but the importance of these late 19th and early 20th century steps towards codifying international law on perceptions of conduct in warfare are often obscured in a historiography that foregrounds the First World War and thus paints the conferences as well-meaning if ineffectual steps on the road to war.”

The contributors come from a range of international institutions, and many are leading figures in their fields. Topics include the dynamics of international diplomacy and law, disarmament, chemical warfare prohibitions, sexual assault in international law, public engagement with international affairs, the establishment of the Permanent Court of International Justice and the reinvention of the law of neutrality in the later twentieth century.

Annalise adds: “The book seeks to argue that the Hague conferences have underpinned discussions on significant issues relating to the conduct of war and the maintenance of peace and international order. Developing an understanding of the Hague Peace Conferences and their legacies can contribute to our understanding of the historical context of both international law that seeks to prevent war and international law that regulates conduct in time of war.“

For her PhD she is researching intersections between the environment and diplomacy, with a particular focus on interoceanic canals.

*Picture credit: Hague Peace Palace c/o Wikipedia.

13/03/2017 - 14:05Rethinking ClassicsYung In Chae's research links the ancient and modern worlds through themes such as feminism.

The vibrancy of Classics lies in part in how it can be used to rethink modern political issues.

Yung In Chae’s research seeks to link the ancient and modern world to explore themes such as feminism and today’s political currents. To that end she is co-organising a panel debate in May on Classics and political extremism, which will examine recent appeals to the foundational value of classical culture as a source of white, Western ideals, notably in such media as Breitbart, the extremist website Stormfront, and the publications of the far-right party Golden Dawn.

The conference aims to discuss the effects of these changes, which include the appropriation of Classics to justify extremist views on immigration and women; to consider what might be done to address them; and to explore the question of whether professional classicists have been unwittingly facilitating this process by failing to challenge simplistic narratives of cultural heritage.

Yung In’s MPhil focuses on the work of French writer Simone de Beauvoir and her references to the Classics in The Second Sex, one of the key feminist texts. “I want to look at how Classics lived in the feminist imagination and how it was used to shape patriarchal structures,” says Yung In. She is interested in how antiquity is interpreted through the lens of history. “We have to keep redefining what Classics is,” she says.

This is her second master’s. Her first, begun in France and which she will finish after her time at Cambridge, is more historical and investigates how Classics was taught in De Beauvoir’s time and the author’s annotations on The Second Sex. Her Cambridge MPhil is more theoretical, investigating the text itself.

Yung In [2016] combines her research with work as associate editor for an online Classics journal which aims to make the discipline more accessible.

Learning languages

She says she “fell into Classics” after a transnational childhood where learning new languages and confronting new experiences was something she had to embrace.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Yung In moved to the US when she was three for her parents’ studies and then returned to South Korea aged 10. Although she initially struggled to adjust to language differences in the US, she soon caught up and was admitted to a foreign language high school in Seoul, majoring in English. The programme she was on was for students who wished to go to university abroad - Yung In was determined to return to the US.

When she left school in February 2011, she thought she would study law, having been in debating and mock trial teams at school. However, in the gap between February and starting her degree at Princeton she became more interested in English. One of the first courses she took was Princeton’s Humanities Sequence, an intensive year-long introduction to the Western intellectual tradition. She read authors such as Homer, Dante and Boccaccio and became very interested in Classics. She began learning Latin and was told by her Latin professor that she needed to learn Greek if she wanted to study Classics. So after her first year she did a 10-week intensive course in Greek at City University of New York.

She was then told that to go to graduate school she needed French, German and Italian. Undaunted by the task at hand, she set about acquiring the skills she needed. She spent the next two summers doing a living Latin programme in Rome followed by a similar programme in Greece; and then doing intensive Italian and German courses in Italy and Germany, living with local families.

Making Classics accessible

Having opted to major in Classics after her second year, Yung In graduated in 2015. She applied to L'École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris to do a master’s in History and Civilisations investigating the classical references in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Paris was the ideal setting as De Beauvoir had lived there and her notebooks for The Second Sex were archived in the city. She could also research how the Classics were taught in Catholic schools in France which would help her understand how much De Beauvoir would know about them.

There were no scholarships available for the programme so Yung In had to find a job. She found two at the Paideia Institute, a nonprofit organisation for classical study - as a Research Fellow and as associate editor of Eidolon, its online journal for writing about the ancient world in modern ways.

One of the projects she worked on involved tracking PhD Classics students in the US who did not go into academia. Other research included looking at the cognitive benefits of Latin.

Eidolon’s aim is to think about the modern world in the context of the ancient world and to make the Classics more accessible. Topics covered include feminism, race, class and also more fun, personal subjects. Articles are both commissioned and contributed. They do not have to be written by an academic, but are all subject to rigorous fact checking. The most read article is a manifesto for Classics in the age of the alt-right, covering how it is being used to justify Western supremacy.

Yung In, who is at St Catharine's College, is continuing her editing work at Cambridge and is enjoying her time as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. “I am interested in Classics in relation to different disciplines so the Gates Cambridge community is very valuable to me,” she says.

*Picture credit: Eidolon's official image

10/03/2017 - 08:14How climate change affects archaeological researchA conference on archaeology and climate change will feature papers by two Gates Cambridge Scholars.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar is co-organising a student-led conference to look at the impact of current climate change on archaeological research.

Margaret Comer and fellow Archaeology PhD students Rebecca Haboucha and Eva Meharry are organising 'Modern Climate Change and the Practice of Archaeology', which takes place at Jesus College, Cambridge, from 7-8 April.  The conference is the first conference of the Archaeological Review from Cambridge, a student-run and-edited journal.

The aim of the conference, whose proceedings will be published in the journal and will be recorded, is to generate wider public awareness of the mounting threats posed by current climate change on archaeological and heritage sites.

Margaret [2015], who is doing a PhD in Archaeology (Heritage Studies), says: "Modern climate change's various intersections with archaeology aren't just interesting and interdisciplinary - they also present practical and existential crises that demand responses in real time, from the policy level to direct action in the field and beyond. Students, young professionals and early career academics can lead these conversations and sweeping changes, and we wanted to provide a forum where they could meet, present their ideas, and productively converse and plan. We hope that ideas, initiatives, and networks formed over the weekend will be sustained and lead to ever more impactful leadership and action on this topic over time. The journal issue, which started this whole thing, also ensures that the conference's impact won't be limited to attendees who could physically travel to Cambridge, but that it can have a global and permanent presence in print."

Two Gates Cambridge Scholars will be giving papers at the conference. Rachel Reckin's paper,  'Climate Change, the Cryosphere, and Cultural Resources in the American West', will discuss the current and future impacts of climate change on indigenous cultural resources, with a specific emphasis on the loss of the alpine cryosphere. It will draw on her archaeological research in the US. Rachel's work focuses on the discovery of artifacts melting from alpine ice all around the world thanks to anthropogenic climate change. These artifacts include basketry, arrows and darts, textiles and leathers, materials that range in age from 10,000 to just 100 years old. From 2010-2014, she was part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers, including representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Blackfeet Nation, several universities and the National Park Service, who undertook a survey of high altitude ice in America’s Glacier National Park. It was the only project funded that was studying cultural resources at the time and there has been very little further research funded in this area. Rachel [2014], who is doing a PhD in Archaeology, says finding funding for this vital research is an ongoing struggle.

Victoria Herrmann's paper,  'Culture on the Move: Towards an Inclusive Framework for Cultural Heritage Considerations in Climate-Related Migration, Displacement, and Relocation Policies', focuses on what happens to culture and traditional knowledge when entire populations lose their lands due to climate change and how cultural heritage can be used to facilitate the emplacement of these communities to new sites. Victoria [2014], who is doing a PhD in Polar Studies, says such cultural and archaeological considerations have been largely neglected in discussions on climate relocation to date. Her paper will offer an approach to better integrate archeology and cultural heritage into the policy dialogue for climate-related migration, both to the United States and internationally, drawing on best practice. She says: "Cultural heritage is not only a local history to be conserved for dislocated persons through its substantial consideration in climate policy frameworks. It is also a tool that can aid in the development of strong, resilient communities once relocated - communities capable of successfully scoping with future climate stressors."

Gates Cambridge Scholar Ian Ostericher [2015], who is doing a PhD in Archaeology, is also helping to facilitate a breakout session at the conference. The event is supported by the Gates Scholars Event Support Fund.

More information is available on the ARC website.

Picture credit of Glacier National Park in the US: Wikipedia

08/03/2017 - 15:04Antimicrobial resistance: a cause for collaborationProfessor Dame Sally Davies gave this year's Gates Cambridge Annual Lecture on antimicrobial resistance.

The world is at a crossroads with regard to the threat represented by antimicrobial resistance [AMR], which in the long term could kill more people than climate change, the Chief Medical Officer for England warned in this year’s Gates Cambridge Annual Lecture.

Speaking on Tuesday at St John's College, Professor Dame Sally Davies said a report by economist Jim O’Neill showed that AMR could account for 10 million deaths by 2050, more than cancer. Currently around 25,000 deaths a year in Europe are the result of AMR.

Dame Sally's lecture, Antimicrobial resistance: a cause for collaboration, outlined the challenges presented by what she called a “complex, wicked issue”. AMR occurs when bacteria, fungi, viruses and other parasites do not respond to the drugs available. The most acute problem at present is with bacteria, but resistance in fungi will be the next problem, she said.

She described how AMR spreads and how easily it reproduces, spreading even between species, for instance, from resistant E.coli to Salmonella.

The problem is caused by overuse of antibiotics in medicine and farming and a lack of investment in research, meaning there have been no new antibiotic classes since the late 1980s. She said the spread of AMR is facilitated by international travel and poor hygiene. “We have been using antibiotics like Smarties in agriculture and medicine,” said Dame Sally.

She described how antibiotics - and resistant genes - are present in every part of our environment - their use in fish farming and the fact that humans excrete 90% of antibiotics meant they got into rivers, seas and soil. They are sprayed on the crops we eat; they are ingested by wildlife and pets. Sewage in rivers and seas are an important route of transmission. A 2014 study by Exeter University showed a drug-resistant strain of E.coli was swallowed in 6.3m water sports sessions.

The West are the biggest consumers of antibiotics. One in four prescriptions for antibiotics in England are unnecessary, said Dame Sally. Other problems included the fact that many antibiotics in low income countries are counterfeit, creating an environment where resistance could multiply. If we reached a post-antibiotic age, people would die routinely in surgery and from infections.

However, she added that the misuse of antibiotics in medicine is dwarfed by their use in livestock, where they are used mainly for growth promotion. Research showed that banning antibiotics as growth promoters led to a big drop in AMR and Dame Sally mentioned attempts to get consumers to champion antibiotic-free meat.

She emphasised that AMR is a global problem which required a global solution. Part of that was how to encourage universities to do the basic microbiology research necessary and incentivise drugs companies to invest in bringing new classes of antibiotics onto the market, given that there is little profit to make from them as they are fairly cheap to buy.

Having outlined the complexity of the issue, Dame Sally described what policy makers were doing about it and said the politicians she had spoken to grasped the importance of addressing it. An independent review for the UK government outlined a five-year strategy starting in 2011 which included the need for greater promotion of hygiene, more research to gather better data on AMR, the setting up of a global innovation fund for the development of new antibiotics and the creation of a global coalition for action. A £265m Fleming Fund had been created to increase surveillance in developing countries.

Dame Sally outlined international actions, including the launch next week of the UN Interagency Coordination Group which will look at how to ensure policy is moving in the right direction across the world.

Next steps include work on a new national strategy for the UK from 2019 and a UN Declaration on AMR.

“I am optimistic that we can do something here. We can make a difference,” said Dame Sally, adding that it is important that high income countries paid most of the innovation fund’s bill and assured those in lower income countries that new drugs would be affordable.

She finished her lecture saying: “We owe it to our grandchildren to do this. If not, their lives will not be as long as ours.”

*Picture credit: Kip Loades.

08/03/2017 - 11:09Stigma of crime affects later generationsNew study shows links between stigma attached to crime and intergenerational crime.

Children of people with criminal records are significantly more likely to offend themselves and more likely to reoffend due to the stigma they face, according to a new study.

The study, Labeling and Intergenerational Transmission of Crime: the Interaction between Criminal Justice Intervention and a Convicted Parent, is the first in 25 years to investigate how the stigma surrounding offenders affects their offspring.

Based on research conducted at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, it is published today in the journal PLOS ONE. It looks at whether the criminal justice system may make it more likely that offenders’ children turn to crime.

The researchers, led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Sytske Besemer, investigated both ‘labelling’ and intergenerational transmission of crime, that is, whether those with a criminal record are more likely to report later offending behaviour. They found links between later offending behaviour and the label attached to offenders - which might make them conform to the criminal stereotype, identify more with deviant social groups or push them into a criminal lifestyle due to barriers to getting or keeping a job.

They also found a strong relationship between parental crime and later offending behaviour, with children of offenders almost twice as likely as the average person to offend. The researchers say that there are complex factors that drive criminal behaviour, but that there is a cumulative effect of such factors. The study was based on a sample of mainly white men born in London in the 1950s.

The researchers say their findings show the need for interventions targeted at children of convicted parents, such as parent education and parent management training. They say research shows the benefits of such programmes and that they are cost effective. The benefits include reducing crime, keeping children in school for longer and boosting health and employment outcomes.

They state: “If special consideration has to be given to children of convicted parents, it is preferable that this is positive and focused on preventing the offending behaviour.”

Sytske Besemer [2008] did her PhD in Criminology at the University of Cambridge and is currently a Visiting Research Scholar at UC Berkeley and is a criminal justice researcher in Uber's Trust & Safety Research Team in San Francisco.

*Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

06/03/2017 - 12:26Exploring the stories of migrant medical workersMegha Amrith publishes first ethnography book on migrant medical workers in today's Southeast Asia.

A Gates Cambridge Alumna has just published the first book-length ethnography of migrant medical workers in contemporary Southeast Asia.

Megha Amrith's book, Caring for strangers: Filipino medical workers in Asia, tells the personal stories of Filipino medical workers living and working in Singapore.  It tracks them from Manila’s nursing schools, where they dream of glamorous, cosmopolitan lives abroad, to a different reality in Singapore’s multicultural hospitals and nursing homes. It also describes nurses’ off-duty activities in shopping malls and churches and their online lives, where they connect with friends and family around the world and search for future opportunities. It then follows them back home on a visit to a Filipino village.

The Philippines has become one of the largest exporters of medical workers in the world, with nursing in particular offering many the hope of a lucrative and stable career abroad.

Megha's book explores the globalisation of medical care and its ethical, political and cultural implications, offering anthropological insights into the everyday experiences, anxieties and expectations of Filipino medical workers who care for strangers in a global Asian city.

The book's publisher Nias Press says that "it locates their stories within wider debates on migration, labour, care, gender and citizenship, while contributing a new and distinctive perspective to the scholarship on labour migration in Asia".

It is based on Megha's PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge where she was a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

Megha [2007] says: "The stories of migrants have always been inspiring to me, and I wanted to focus my doctoral work on better understanding their everyday lives and aspirations. I was particularly curious to learn more about the experiences of migrants working in medical and care institutions. In many places around the world, these institutions hold within them a great degree of cultural diversity and I was eager to explore, from an anthropological perspective, how intercultural encounters take shape in these intimate spaces of care – the misunderstandings that arise but also the positive transformations in terms of how people transcend divisions between self and other. I also wanted to understand what this labour of care means to the migrants who perform it, given the persistent cultural and gender-based stereotypes in this sector and specifically among migrants from the Philippines who have an important presence in this sector globally."

She says her PhD research motivated her to widen her exploration of migration and diversity to include other regions beyond Asia. For her postdoctoral research, she conducted new fieldwork on these themes in South America and Europe. Since then she has been working with both academic and policy communities as a Research Fellow at the United Nations University in Barcelona on globalisation, culture and mobility. "I am keen to find ways to bring the rich findings and debates in academic scholarship to broader audiences, from policy-makers to civil society groups and the general public," she says.

*Caring for strangers: Filipino medical workers in Asia is published by NIAS Press, price £18.99 [paperback].

01/03/2017 - 14:40The politics of justiceGeorgiana Epure took part in a recent podcast on the future of the International Criminal Court.

 A Gates Cambridge Scholar has taken part in a podcast discussion on the future of the International Criminal Court.

Georgiana Epure took part in the Declarations: The Human Rights Podcast last week. The podcast is a new project of the Centre for Governance and Human Rights Student Group at the University of Cambridge. 

Georgiana [2016] is doing an MPhil in International Relations and Politics and is the founder of The Responsibility to Protect Student Journal.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 2002 to prosecute individuals for committing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, only Africans have been prosecuted by the court so far, leading some African states to criticise the court for a perceived bias against Africans.

Georgiana was one of three speakers to address questions such as why the ICC is being accused of bias, whether the accusation is accurate and what the future is for international justice in Africa.

Her MPhil research looks at the 'making of' the responsibility to prosecute and its political implications.

During the podcast Georgiana spoke of how the ICC is perceived by some as racist and a reflection of neoliberal power politics. Many African countries had experience of conflicts and may have different ideas about justice, she stated. Moreover, the threat of prosecution at the ICC might mean war criminals had little incentive to relinquish power.

She outlined instead the case for transformative justice and distinguished between different types of rights. The ICC focused on the violation of civil and political rights, but guilt was “not necessarily individualised”. Structural inequalities might instead be to blame.

Georgiana added that one way of addressing the perceived bias of  the ICC was to openly acknowledge that it is situated in a political world and its decisions have political consequences. "One way to solve the legitimacy crisis [of the ICC] is to acknowledge that it is political," she said.

Another issue she discussed was that cases are only referred to the ICC as a last resort when national governments were unable or unwilling to prosecute. The ICC is trying to work with national governments to create capacity at the national level so that cases would not have to be referred for its consideration.

The full podcast can be listened to here.

Picture credit: Wikipedia.

27/02/2017 - 15:08Religion vs rightsSagnik Dutta's research focuses on the relationship between Muslim rights and the Indian constitution.

The issue of minority rights in India has come more to the fore following the victory of Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP.

Sagnik Dutta [2016] has long been interested in the interaction between minority rights and the law, having spent several years working as a journalist in India covering the Supreme Court and the Muslim women’s reform movement.

His PhD, which he began last autumn, looks at the relationship between religion and constitutionalism in the context of Muslim personal law reform in India. Based on an analysis of the judgments of the Supreme Court and an ethnographic study of sharia courts run by women in Mumbai, he will be examining the complex interplay between religion and a liberal ‘rights’ regime.

He has already begun exploring archived reports on legislative debates in the 1930s, before Indian independence, around Muslim women’s rights and the codification of Muslim law. “Women became symbols of an imagined community,” he says. Muslim women's right to divorce was codified and recognised by laws laid down by the colonial state after Muslim members in the legislative assembly argued that they were being denied rights already granted to them by Islamic law.  Hindu women, on the other hand, only had their rights codified in the Hindu Marriage Act in the 1950s. “Muslim women were not seen as threatening those who were making the law,” says Sagnik, who is at Corpus Christi College.

Early career

Sagnik’s first degree was in the Humanities from the University of Calcutta. He studied English Literature with Philosophy and History, combining his studies with working for development-related NGOs and freelance writing for a local newspaper. On graduating he got a full-time job in Delhi working for the advertising arm of Google before doing some editing, reporting and opinion writing work for the Indian Express newspaper. Sagnik, who had written several articles on LGBT rights, was very interested in how the government regulates the law in a country which has multiple legal systems, particularly with regard to human rights.

After working as a journalist for two years, he was keen to return to academia and won a fellowship to study at SOAS in 2010. It was the first time anyone in his family had been abroad. There he did his dissertation on politics – on Sri Lankan women’s participation in the secessionist movement, examining whether women in the movement saw themselves as empowered or serving a patriarchal project and whether it is possible to negotiate a third way between empowerment and subjugation. His research was based on oral history and personal narrative. “It was clear that there were multiple narratives and that women could not be slotted into binaries,” says Sagnik. “There were some spheres where they had their own agency. I was very interested in the whole issue of gender and war. Academic studies had not asked questions about the possibilities of a third space. I wanted to explore new ways of thinking about women’s participation in war.”

While at SOAS, Sagnik worked as a research assistant for Professor Matthew Nelson in the politics department. He was writing a book on madrassas in Pakistan. Sagnik became interested in the role of Islam in education and in learning about the reality of madrassas rather than the misconceptions about them that are common in the West. “People in Pakistan can attend both madrassas and secular schools and they don’t see these as being in opposition,” he says. “It is more complex universe than is portrayed in the West.”

At SOAS Sagnik also became involved with the human rights collective Femine Ijtihad which is made up of Muslim women from several different countries who are interested in turning academic work on human rights into policy guidelines. The group met once a month to debate issues such as how to counter the idea of women being oppressed within Islam through stories of agency. “They were a deeply religious group of women who felt empowered and did not see their religion as an oppressive force,” says Sagnik. His involvement in the group informed some of the thinking behind his PhD.

Journalism at a time of huge change

After SOAS, Sagnik moved back to India and spent six months working on the Sunday Guardian before moving to Frontline magazine, which is published by The Hindu. It was a time when popular resentment against the government was rising, concerns about corruption were rife and the right was mobilising.

Sagnik spent five years working at Frontline. In his first months he focused on the political economy and covered a lot of corruption cases at the Supreme Court, cuts in public services and the encroachment on the public sector of private vested interests as well as reform movements led by Muslim women.

“During my journalistic career I was looking for a topic I would want to work on for my PhD,” he says. Once he knew the area he wanted to research, he applied for his PhD. He was drawn to Cambridge due to the work of Dr Iza Hussin in the Department of Politics and International Studies which brings together history and social anthropology.

Before leaving India, he began working as an Assistant Professor at OP Jindal Global University, a private law university in India where he taught a course in English with modules on law and literature, philosophy, and legal writing. There he wrote a paper which has since been published in a peer review journal on the relationship between legislation on community identity and the Indian constitution based on case law from the 1980s to the present.  “I am interested in how the law speaks to ideas of morality and justice," he says.

*Picture credit: Paulrudd (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

23/02/2017 - 17:56Scholar plans hike for conservation charityDakota Spear is heading off on a 2,600-mile walk to raise money for the National Resources Defense Council.

A Gates Cambridge alumna is planning a marathon six-month, 2,600 mile walk from the Mexican to the Canadian border to raise money for a conservation charity.

Dakota Spear, who did an MPhil in Zoology, will be doing a "thru-hike" of the Pacific Crest Trail with a friend starting this April. Their aim is to raise $5,000 for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a US-based non-profit that works to protect natural resources and combat climate change through research, litigation and activism.

Dakota [2015] says: "The Pacific Crest Trail has been something I've been interested in since earning my undergraduate degree in California. I did quite a bit of backpacking and hiking both in the California desert and in the high Sierra, and love the excitement and isolation of being 50 miles from any road with more stars than you've ever seen and mountains or Joshua Trees as far as the eye can see. I've always liked challenging myself and I love being outside more than anything."

Only around 40% of people who start manage to complete the entire trail which is solely through national forests and national parks.

Dakota adds that she was also motivated by a desire to give back and to aid conservation work. She says: "I chose the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) because I wanted to do my part to ensure these sorts of wilderness areas are available for many more generations to come. The current political climate in the United States also was no small influence. The new director of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the President, are blatant climate change deniers. Climate change is one of the most frightening, most potentially destructive, and most difficult problems facing my generation. It is not only a conservation issue but an environmental justice issue, and the NRDC is dedicated to combating global climate change in a number of intersectional ways."

Dakota's research interests has been closely tied to conservation work. At Cambridge she studied the effects of various agricultural management practices in oil palm plantations on spider communities and their contributions to beneficial ecological functions. She says: "Oil palm is currently one of the most destructive crops, the cause of widespread rainforest clear-cutting, and spiders are critical to pest control and balanced arthropod populations in agricultural systems. My research has always been conservation-focused; I study the ways that humans influence, work with, benefit from, and potentially harm natural ecosystems. The NRDC seemed a natural outgrowth of my interest in conservation."

When she finishes the hike, Dakota hopes to start a career working directly for a non-profit or NGO similar to the NRDC.

*Dakota's fundraiser page can be found here. She adds that she would also be thrilled to have any alumni or scholars who are interested to join her and her friend on the trail for any length of time.

20/02/2017 - 09:45Putting genetic variation in contextSrilakshmi Raj talks about her research into genetic variation in different population groups.

Srilakshmi Raj was recently name one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in Healthcare in recognition of the potential impact of her research into genetic variation in different population groups.

The award means she becomes part of a new network of young leaders making a difference in healthcare. “Like Gates Cambridge it means I get to meet people from different backgrounds and with new perspectives,” says Srilakshmi.

Srilakshmi’s work adopts a community-based approach to genomics, identifying genetic variants according to factors such as the environmental context. She says this will result in more targeted treatments that take into account individual phenotypes.  It will also help us to understand how different populations reacted to climate change in the past and how they might do so in the future.

At Cambridge, where she was a student at Gonville & Caius College and did her PhD in Biological Anthropology, Srilakshmi [2007] researched variation of diabetes and obesity genes in different population groups in Karnataka state in southern India. Diabetes is a huge problem in India and the country is projected to have the highest number of diabetes cases in the world. Certain regions of India, and certain ethnic groups, have more prevalence of it than others. Srilakshmi wanted to find out if that was due to genetic causes. For example, prevalence of diabetes and obesity is higher in urban compared with rural areas. Research from European populations identified multiple genes associated with many complex diseases, including diabetes. Srilakshmi studied the distribution of the frequency of “variants” of these genes in the peoples of the sub-continent.

She says previous studies trying to associate particular genes with diabetes and obesity risk in India have sometimes been misleading because they have sought to be representative of the country’s population diversity by taking a limited number of people from the North or South of India and often ignoring their ethnic background. In fact, she says, Indian population/ethnic diversity is highly complex (and only second to the human diversity in Africa). This is due to the country’s caste structure and widespread consanguinity within ethnic groups, meaning many are descended from the same ancestors. “A one-size fits all approach to medicine could easily mislead,” she says. For instance, one group she studied consumes high levels of dairy products and has high incidence of gum disease, but low levels of diabetes. Environmental factors such as mass migration, diet, medicine and climate may all play a role in a population’s susceptibility to disease.


After finishing her PhD at Cambridge in 2011, Srilakshmi, who is from Massachusetts, wanted to gain a better understanding of how genes act in different biological and environmental contexts. She is doing her post-doctoral training at Cornell University under the mentorship of Professor Andrew Clark. In the last few years she has been working on African and European genomics and on a variety of diseases, including hypertension and coronary heart disease, using new techniques to explore the links between genes and the environment.

Over the last couple of years, for instance, she has been collaborating with the University of Pennsylvania on a project exploring the genetics of different African populations. Srilakshmi says she has been heavily influenced by the approach of her collaborator, Dr Sarah Tishkoff, which combines fieldwork, computational research and laboratory studies in Africa.

This collaborative project includes hunter gatherer populations, some of which have never been sampled before.  “It has been a real privilege. My research will show how these populations have adapted to their environments,” says Srilakshmi.  The data enables researchers to explore, for instance, how living in malaria-endemic areas for hundreds of generations may have influenced a population’s genetic architecture. “If we can understand why certain people are more susceptible to certain diseases it will be a huge step forward,” she adds. “We all emerged from Africa and genetic diversity there is so great. When there is so much variation, context becomes important.” She has journal papers coming out on this research in the summer.

Gates Cambridge

She says she is very grateful to Gates Cambridge, particularly for exposing her to a global community of scholars from so many different backgrounds. Her research has benefited from the interdisciplinary approach inspired by Gates Cambridge. While she was at Cambridge, for instance, conversations with a Gates Cambridge Scholar Dr Sara Ahmadi-Abhari, a public health specialist, led to her collaborating with nutritionist Professor Susan Jebb to investigated the role of long-term dietary habits on phenotypes.  Srilakshmi also collaborated with geographers Dr Hans Graf and Gabriel Amable, as a result of conversations with Gates Cambridge Scholars Kavita Ramakrishnan and Yama Dixit. “I have become more specialised since those days and am now more focused on computational biology, but those interactions have informed how I do my research and how I communicate with other researchers,” says Srilakshmi. “Gates Cambridge is a wonderful community.”

She adds that the Forbes community, though mostly made up of entrepreneurs and other specialties rather than academics, mirrors the breadth of interactions she was exposed to at Cambridge. “Like Gates Cambridge, they are open, motivated people who are trying to make a difference in the world,” she says. “This approach is in the very fabric of Gates Cambridge.“

08/02/2017 - 18:38New US Gates Cambridge Scholars announced36 selected for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Thirty-five of the most academically outstanding and socially committed US citizens have been selected to be part of the 2017 class of Gates Cambridge Scholars at the University of Cambridge.

The US Scholars-elect, who will take up their awards this October, are from 34 universities, including three which have never before had a Gates Cambridge Scholar - Mississippi State University, California State University (Los Angeles) and Loyola University (New Orleans).

They include the first Native American Gates Cambridge Scholar; the founder of the Alabama REACH programme for college students who are homeless, in foster care or wards of the state; and the first millennial scholar [born in 2000].

Montana Wilson, who did his undergraduate degree at Montana State University, will become Gates Cambridge’s first Native American Scholar when he takes up his MPhil [master’s] in Development Studies. His research will focus on governing institutions, most notably tribal governments, and how an individual’s decision affects economic development policies. Montana is a member of the Gros Ventre tribe of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Prior to receiving his bachelor degrees, Montana held commissions as Assistant Public Defender and Deputy Chief Prosecutor for the Fort Peck Tribes.

Caroline James will pursue an MPhil in Education in order to explore research-based methods to help democratise education, with a particular focus on the US. Caroline grew up in foster care and at the University of Alabama created Alabama REACH which aims to provide support for college students who are homeless, in foster care or wards of the state. She has also been featured on CNN for her academic achievements and diversity work. She subsequently worked as a teacher, winning a national teaching award for her work on student leadership development. Caroline has most recently worked in teacher leadership development and at Teach For America she partnered with and managed almost 60 educators.

Angela Madira will be just 17 when she starts her MPhil in Health, Medicine and Society, becoming the first genuine millennial Gates Cambridge Scholar. She began her BSc in Biochemistry at California State University in Los Angeles at the age of 12 and is about to publish a paper on the removal of dermoid cysts based on clinical research at the LA Children's Hospital. Her MPhil dissertation will focus on the efficacy and ethics of existing mammalian research models. She hopes to target the philosophy of cognitive psychology through the multispecies interactions between humans and animals, particularly scientists and their test subjects. She plans to become a paediatric neurosurgeon.

The US Scholars-elect will study and research subjects ranging from collaborative songwriting to improve health outcomes, spider behaviour, voter analytics to cancer therapeutics targeting the side effects associated with chemotherapy. Scholarships were awarded to 20 women and 15 men from a wide range of backgrounds. Twenty four will study for one-year master's degree courses and 11 will pursue three-year PhD degrees.

The prestigious postgraduate scholarship programme – which fully funds postgraduate study and research in any subject at the University of Cambridge - was established through a US$210 million donation to the University of Cambridge from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000; this remains the largest single donation to a UK university. Since the first class in 2001 there have been more than 1,600 Gates Cambridge Scholars from 104 countries who represent more than 600 universities globally (more than 200 in the USA) and 80 academic departments and all 31 Colleges at Cambridge. The gender balance is approximately 50% men and women.

In addition to outstanding academic achievement the programme places emphasis on social leadership in its selection process as its mission is to create a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.

In the US round 2017 approximately 800 candidates applied for the scholarship; 200 of these were nominated by their prospective departments in Cambridge and 97 were put forward for interview by shortlisting committees and were interviewed by panels of academics from the UK and USA in Washington D.C. at the end of January.

The 35 US Scholars-elect will join 55 Scholars from other parts of the world, who will be announced in early April after interviews in late March and will complete the class of 2017. The class of 2017 will join current Gates Cambridge Scholars in October to form a community of approximately 220 Scholars in residence at the world-leading University of Cambridge.

Professor Barry Everitt FRS, Provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust, said: “We have interviewed nearly 100 outstanding candidates in the US selection round 2017. The 36 US Scholars-elect have been selected to reflect the mission of the Gates Foundation’s generous and historic gift to the University of Cambridge. They are an extraordinarily impressive and diverse group who have already achieved much in terms of their academic studies and leadership abilities and have shown their commitment to improving the lives of others in a multitude of ways. We are sure they will flourish in the vibrant, international community at Cambridge as Gates Cambridge Scholars and that they will make a substantial impact in their fields and to the wider global community.”

Other new US Gates Cambridge Scholars 2017 include:

- Michael Pashkevick, the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from Loyola University New Orleans, will pursue a PhD in Zoology to investigate the role of spiders in Southeast Asian oil palm plantations and how riparian margin restoration within plantations affects spider biodiversity and behaviour. He says: “My aim is to advance understandings of spider ecology, the management of biodiversity in tropical agricultural systems and the public’s relationship with historically disfavoured animals.” Michael, who is interested in science outreach, plans to use citizen science for his research, engaging UK and Indonesian communities.

- Erica Cao is returning to Cambridge for her second Gates Cambridge Scholarship. A graduate in Psychology and Music Performance from Princeton, she did her MPhil at Cambridge in Music Studies in 2014 and will now do a PhD in collaborative songwriting. Erica is interested in the crossover between the arts and sciences. While she pursues her PhD she will be continuing with her medical training at Columbia University and working to build a non-profit organisation called Humans in Harmony which aims to build connections between people through collaborative music-making. Erica believes music can assist those with neuropsychiatric disorders, can encourage reconciliation and understanding between communities and can promote civil society.

- Grant Simpson will pursue an MPhil in Chemistry with the aim of developing new, more selective cancer therapeutics. His research project involves using quadruple helical DNA structures as platforms to hold both cancer-targeting antibodies and cancer-cell-killing drugs. He intends to develop synthetic methods to chemically link these different classes of biomolecules in order to circumvent the poor efficacy and side effects of current, standard-of-care chemotherapy and increase the therapeutic utility of first generation antibody-drug conjugates. Grant, who dropped out of high school, is a graduate of the University of Florida where he majored in Chemistry and Cognitive and Behavioural Neuroscience and minored in Philosophy.

- Rachel Wible, who completed her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering at the United States Naval Academy, will do an MPhil in Nuclear Energy focused on recycling radioactive waste and cleaning the nuclear industry. She says: “Conventional reactors produce large amounts of radioactive waste that can be harnessed for future power production. I intend to research the next generation of nuclear reactors and their ability to utilise this spent fuel discarded from our current reactors. I recognise that our world must soon find a resource for clean energy, and I believe it can be found in nuclear power.” Rachel’s research focus derives from her interest in the way the US Submarine force uses nuclear energy to power its vessels.

- Elyse Fischer will do a PhD in Biological Science and will study the structure determination of protein complexes in order to further understanding of biological processes. Using electron microscopy she will aim to create a framework for designing small molecule inhibitors which induce tumour cell death. Elyse did her undergraduate degree in Molecular Biology at the University of St Andrews and was then awarded a one-year fellowship at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where her research involved engineering the inherent cellular targeting mechanism of anthrax toxin to specifically target tumours.

Biographies of the 36 US Scholars-elect are available from the New Scholars page.

03/02/2017 - 12:11From text to textilesPaula Rosine Long on creating social impact in the world of fashion.

Fashion is not traditionally seen as the kind of industry associated with social impact and making a difference, but Paula Rosine [Zine] Long believes that this is changing.

Her experience in fashion and her interest in social impact, in part a result of her time as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, has led her to work with social enterprises and non profits, looking at ways to turn what might be seen by some as superficial into something deeper and more socially progressive.

She says: “Fashion can have a bad reputation, but people will buy beautiful things no matter what. The challenge is to channel that to do some good - to create things that look beautiful but also are also socially good.”

Zine [2010] recently spoke about her career so far and the role Gates Cambridge played in it at a Gates Cambridge Speaker event  in New York, organised by Cambridge in America and Gates Cambridge.

Zine’s interest in combining fashion and social impact started at an early age. As a teenager she and her brother set up a business recycling and painting furniture they found by the roadside. The two sold the furniture to raise money for health supplies for a community in Central America.

The Painting a New Picture venture was in part inspired by Zine’s family background.

Undergraduate years

Growing up in Carrboro in North Carolina, she was influenced by her father’s environmentalism and her mother’s social activism. Her mother had started an organisation in a school in North Carolina which partnered with a village in Nicaragua, raising money to pay for health supplies there. At Duke University, where she did her undergraduate degree, she initially chose to focus on science. However, she soon gravitated towards English, inspired by her English professor Tom Ferraro, and to philosophy.  During her course she did two research projects, one on gender in literature and film and aesthetic philosophy, with a US and UK focus, and a second on gender in Middle Eastern literature.

During her time at Duke Zine spent a semester in Italy studying sculpture and painting, which burnished a growing interest in the visual arts. She also spent a semester in Jordan working in non-profit organisations specialising in women’s rights and special needs education.  That experience and her parents’ Lebanese heritage, drew her towards Middle East Studies. She joined Duke’s Arab Society and took part in dance troupes performing traditional Palestinian and Lebanese dance forms.

At Duke she also co-founded an organisation called Peace or Pieces which fostered dialogue between Jews, Muslims, Arabs and Israelis and raised money for projects in the Middle East. “It was hugely influential on my work at Cambridge, hearing completely different narratives and histories, seeing how deep these went and looking at how these could be reconciled,” says Zine.

In her final year she became ill and was diagnosed with a tumour in her right lung. She had her lung removed and spent a year at home undergoing treatment and recovering. During that time she did her own research on Middle East Studies, particularly Palestinian culture and literature and taught herself to sew and make patterns.

She says her illness was in a way “liberating”. “It really clarified for me that life can be shorter than you expect and so you need to use your time to do what you feel passionately about,” she says.


Zine decided that Middle East Studies was where some of her passion lay and got in touch with Professor Yasir Suleiman at the University of Cambridge after reading his research. Her dialogue with him led to her applying to do an MPhil in Cambridge and for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She arrived at Cambridge in autumn 2010, having spent the summer doing a poetry and visual arts project in Lebanon, funded by a Duke arts award. During that time she wrote a book of poems and illustrated them with drawings inspired by illuminated manuscripts.

Within weeks of starting her MPhil Zine had altered the focus from Arab American writing to collective memory in relation to the writing and depiction of the Palestinian writer Edward Said. Zine also became interested in how collective memory manifested itself in a visual way in textiles. She says: “We store our culture and stories in different ways in the arts. I was interested in how I could bring these different things together. I moved from text to textiles.”

Having previously considered her interest in fashion and the visual arts as a hobby on the side of her other work, Zine began to consider a career in fashion with a focus on making a positive social impact.

She returned to the US to New York where she did an associate degree in fashion at Parsons School of Design. During that time she also tried to get a start-up off the ground which aimed to connect Syrian and Lebanese refugee women with textile skills with a global marketplace and provide additional skills training. She says the experience taught her a lot about start-ups, but she realised it was not the right time for the organisation because of the more pressing needs in Syria.

Zine then dedicated herself to building her knowledge of the fashion industry. She says her academic background helped her to look for patterns in cultural trends and to analyse ideas. “For me good design is about emotional impact and cultural and historical associations. They all play into the creative process,” she says.

While she was at Parsons she was working the whole time, including as a fashion journalist and she started freelancing for designers such as Tommy Hilfiger.

Fashion industry

After graduating, Zine worked for Geoffrey Mac, a small edgy company which did a lot of costume design for celebrities such as Nicki Minaj. “Geoffrey pushed my technical skills and supported me to think outside the box,” she says. Zine attended a 3D printing exhibition and taught herself 3D modelling. That led her to create 3D jewelry designs that included a collection of silicone jewellery in just two weeks for Geoffrey Mac to show at Fashion Week. It was the first time she had designed jewellery professionally.

Zine then moved from Geoffrey Mac to Kate Spade. While she was there she started designing her own jewellery on the side for a number of clients, including the Clarity Project, an ethical diamond project in Sierra Leone. During her time with Kate Spade the firm also launched the On Purpose programme, a social enterprise which trains Rwandan women as artisans and helps them to sell their products, and both projects showed Zine that she could do something socially impactful in fashion.

After leaving Kate Spade she specialised in jewellery design and made her own line in 3D printed full-colour sandstone, which she believes is the first line of jewellery in this material. She also worked for FEED who raise money to feed vulnerable children around the world and she worked for a while in fast fashion before deciding it was not for her. She is now working for Talbots, focusing on more longer term trends and creating quality products that last. “There is a movement in fashion towards less waste and greater sustainability,” says Zine.

She is now looking to combine her fashion knowledge with social justice issues, is also editing novels and creating a lot of 3D sculpted artworks.

Zine says being a Gates Cambridge Scholar had a huge impact on how her career has progressed and exposed her to a wide array of perspectives and ideas. Many of her closest friends are Gates Cambridge Scholars, even now. “As both a personal and professional network is has been wonderful,” she says. “I have a group of Gates friends who are doing really inspiring things all the time which have a major social impact. You are influenced by the people around you. Being surrounded by a group which is passionately engaged and socially conscious is very motivating.”

03/02/2017 - 09:38Four scholars to speak at internal symposiumScholars will discuss research on areas such as protecting populations in Central African Republic.

Four Gates Cambridge Scholars will speak at an internal symposium next week on subjects ranging from Disney utopias and cell biology to curbing mass atrocities in the Central African Republic.

The symposium takes place from 7.30-9.30pm on 8th February in the Gates Scholars Common Room.

The speakers are:

Eddie Cano Gámez [2016], who is doing an MPhil in Biological Science. He will give a talk entitled We are what we read: studying the immune system through its favourite books. He says the genome - the entire genetic material of an organism which is the same in all the cells that form it - can be imagined as a library, an old collection of books from which cells, which are very diverse, pick their favourite titles. He says that under this analogy, cells are what they read so analysing their gene expression, or the books they prefer under the library analogy, can provide important information on how they function and when they are dysfunctional. This can in turn help to cure disease.

Kevin Chew [2016], who is doing a PhD in Film and Screen Studies, will give an analysis of the vision of utopia portrayed in Disney's film Zootopia. The film is described by critic Peter Debruge as being about 'a place where mammals of all shapes, sizes and dietary preferences not only live in harmony, but also are encouraged to be whatever they want’.  In his talk, On War and Cuteness: The Utopian Politics of Disney’s Zootopia, Kevin will touch on the conflict between film industry depictions of utopia and arguments that the industry is a tool of social control. He will also talk about the ethical value of utopian impulses in Disney films against the current political backdrop.

Georgiana Epure [2016], who is doing an MPhil in International Relations and Politics, will address how successful the international Responsibility to Protect populations from mass atrocities has been in the Central African Republic. R2P is a global political commitment which was endorsed by all member states of the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Georgiana's talk, The Responsibility to Protect in the Central African Republic. How Successful? will cover what different levels of success might look like for R2P and how R2P operations were implemented on the ground in CAR. She will say that R2P in CAR has been a mixed story of failure and success. "Lacking the political will to prioritise the situation in CAR and respond to early warnings, the international community failed to prevent the escalation of the crisis. When it acted, the response of the international community was not proportional with its goal of halting the crisis and creating good governance to advance the prevention of mass atrocities," she says. However, she adds: "Despite operational, institutional and capacity challenges, R2P in CAR has significantly reduced the levels of violence." Nevertheless, she will argue, R2P should be about more than halting mass atrocities and should include effective strengthening of sovereignty, something that has not happened in CAR.

Arazi Pinhas [2015], who is doing a PhD in Astronomy, will also speak about his research into clouds in exoplanet atmospheres.


*Picture credit: Bangui, Central African Republic c/o Wikimedia commons

01/02/2017 - 21:08Chief Medical Officer to give Annual LectureProfessor Dame Sally Davies will give the Gates Cambridge Annual Lecture about antimicrobial resistance.

England's Chief Medical Officer will give this year's Gates Cambridge Annual Lecture on the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance.

Professor Dame Sally Davies's lecture, Antimicrobial resistance: a cause for collaboration, will be delivered on March 7th.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the ability of a microorganism to stop an antimicrobial, such as an antibiotic, from working against it, rendering standard treatments ineffective. Resistance is increasing due to a fall in new antimicrobials coming onto the market and scientists have warned that this threatens our ability to treat common infectious diseases, resulting in prolonged illness, disability and death. The World Heath Organization (WHO), for instance, warns that without effective antimicrobials the success of major surgery and cancer chemotherapy will be compromised, says 480,000 people around the world develop multi-drug resistant tuberculosis each year and that drug resistance is also starting to complicate the fight against HIV and malaria.

Dame Sally is a world expert on AMR. Her annual report as Chief Medical Officer, published in 2013, focused on the issue and called for national and international action to address the key areas of stewardship, monitoring and surveillance and antibiotic development.  Since publication, Dame Sally has continued to advocate globally on AMR and has spoken on AMR at numerous events, including the G8 Science Ministers’ meeting in June 2013 and the Global Health Security Initiative in Rome and she was an invited technical expert at meetings organised by WHO.  She was chair of the 2013 AMR forum at the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) in Qatar and is chair of the Strategic and Technical Advisory Group on AMR to the WHO.  She has also raised public awareness of the issue through publication of her popular book, The Drugs Don't Work: a Global Threat, and a TED talk.

Dame Sally became the first woman Chief Medical Officer for England in March 2011, having previously been Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) to the Department of Health. In her role as CMO she publishes independent annual reports and provides independent advice to the UK Government on medical matters, with particular responsibility for public health.

Dame Sally also sits on the WHO Executive Board and advises many governments on health and policy, holding positions on a number of Boards and Groups, including the Singapore A Star International Advisory Group and University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation Board.

*The Gates Cambridge Annual Lecture takes place at St John's College from 6-7pm on 7th March. It is open to all and seats are allocated on a first come basis. 

01/02/2017 - 15:14The Stone Age connectionNew study on ancient DNA reveals genetic ‘continuity’ between Stone Age and modern populations in East Asia.

Researchers working on ancient DNA extracted from human remains interred almost 8,000 years ago in a cave in the Russian Far East have found that the genetic make-up of certain modern East Asian populations closely resemble that of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.

The study, whose lead author is Gates Cambridge Scholar Veronika Siska, is published in the journal Science Advances and is the first to obtain nuclear genome data from ancient East Asia and compare the results to modern populations.

The findings indicate that there was no major migratory interruption, or "population turnover", for well over seven millennia. Consequently, some contemporary ethnic groups share a remarkable genetic similarity to Stone Age hunters that once roamed the same region.

The high “genetic continuity” in East Asia is in stark contrast to most of Western Europe, where sustained migrations of early farmers from the Levant overwhelmed hunter-gatherer populations. This was followed by a wave of horse riders from Central Asia during the Bronze Age. Both events were likely driven by the success of emerging technologies such as agriculture and metallurgy.

The new research shows that, at least for part of East Asia, the story differs with little genetic disruption in populations since the early Neolithic period.

Despite being separated by a vast expanse of history, this has allowed an exceptional genetic proximity between the Ulchi people of the Amur Basin, near where Russia borders China and North Korea, and the ancient hunter-gatherers laid to rest in a cave close to the Ulchi’s native land.

The researchers suggest that the sheer scale of East Asia and dramatic variations in its climate may have prevented the sweeping influence of Neolithic agriculture and the accompanying migrations that replaced hunter-gatherers across much of Europe. They note that the Ulchi retained their hunter-fisher-gatherer lifestyle until recent times.

"Genetically speaking, the populations across northern East Asia have changed very little for around eight thousand years,” said senior author Andrea Manica from the University of Cambridge, who conducted the work with an international team, including colleagues from Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in Korea, and Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin in Ireland.

"Once we accounted for some local intermingling, the Ulchi and the ancient hunter-gatherers appear to be almost the same population from a genetic point of view, even though there are thousands of years between them."

The new study also provides further support for the dual origin theory of modern Japanese populations: that they descend from a combination of hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists that eventually brought wet rice farming from southern China. A similar pattern is also found in neighbouring Koreans, who are genetically very similar to Japanese.

However, Manica says that much more DNA data from Neolithic China is required to pinpoint the origin of the agriculturalists involved in this mixture.

The team from Trinity College Dublin were responsible for extracting DNA from the remains, which were found in a cave known as Devil’s Gate [pictured]. Situated in a mountainous area close to the far eastern coast of Russia that faces northern Japan, the cave was first excavated by a Soviet team in 1973.

Along with hundreds of stone and bone tools, the carbonised wood of a former dwelling, and woven wild grass that is one of the earliest examples of a textile, were the incomplete bodies of five humans.

If ancient DNA can be found on sufficiently preserved remains, sequencing it involves sifting through the contamination of millennia. The best samples for analysis from Devil’s Gate were obtained from the skulls of two females: one in her early 20s, the other close to 50. The site itself dates back over 9,000 years, but the two women are estimated to have died around 7,700 years ago.

Researchers were able to glean the most from the middle-aged woman. Her DNA revealed she likely had brown eyes and thick, straight hair. She almost certainly lacked the ability to tolerate lactose, but was unlikely to have suffered from alcohol flush: the skin reaction to alcohol now common across East Asia.

While the Devil’s Gate samples show high genetic affinity to the Ulchi, fishermen from the same area who speak the Tungusic language, they are also close to other Tungusic-speaking populations in present-day China, such as the Oroqen and Hezhen.

"These are ethnic groups with traditional societies and deep roots across eastern Russia and China, whose culture, language and populations are rapidly dwindling,” said Siska [2014], who is doing a PhD in Zoology.

“Our work suggests that these groups form a strong genetic lineage descending directly from the early Neolithic hunter-gatherers who inhabited the same region thousands of years previously.”

31/01/2017 - 10:38Alumni to hold migration forum in BudapestFirst Eastern European alumni forum to be held in Hungary on the topic of migration.

Gates Cambridge Alumni are holding their first Eastern European forum on the topic of migration in Europe in March.

The Forum on Migration, to be held at the Central European University in Budapest on 18th March, will discuss how Alumni and current scholars can assist refugee integration.

Those taking part include human rights activists Andrea Costa, from the Baobab centre, civil rights association that is the focal point on the assistance to the migrants in Rome;  Barbara Capone, CEO at Sunshine4Palestine which provided off-grid electricity for the Jenin Charitable Hospital in Gaza, and is now starting a collaboration to provide fresh water to refugees in rural areas in south Syria, West Bank and Gaza; journalist Boroka Paraszka who has written a series of articles on life in the refugee camps at the Turkish border; and representatives from the NGOs MigHelp, which provides training courses for migrants in Hungary, and Menedék, the Hungarian Association for Migrants, which promotes the social integration of migrants to Hungary and supports Hungarians and other citizens emigrating from Hungary.

Gates Cambridge Alumni taking part include Dirk-Hinrich Haar [2006], who now works at the German federal police and will talk about the German situation with an emphasis on the work of the various government agencies involved.

Szilard Fejer [2005], organiser of the event, says: "We hope this event will offer a stimulating discussion about this issue among Gates scholars/alumni and people dealing with migrants on the ground and will showcase the different ways people are helping to ease the situation for refugees, sparking new ideas and possible collaborations."

The event will also be available as a webcast for those who cannot attend. Those interested in attending should click here.

Picture credit: Budapest courtesy of Wiki Commons.

30/01/2017 - 14:03Composing for a causeGates Cambridge alumna writes and co-produces song for refugees.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has co-written and co-produced a song to raise awareness and funds for refugees, which features Grammy Award-winners singer Gregory Porter, rapper Common, and trumpeter Keyon Harrold.

Andrea Pizziconi [2003] co-wrote and co-produced the song alongside Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Keyon Harrold, called Running (Refugee Song), also featuring Gregory Porter, Common. The proceeds will support the 65 million displaced worldwide through organisations such as Refugees International and Human Rights First.

The song came about through Andrea's friendship with world-renowned trumpeter Keyon Harrold. She had been talking to him about how to bridge the worlds of music and social innovation and activism.  Andrea, a singer well before she became a social entrepreneur, was keen to do more cause-related music and had been a long-term supporter of Refugees International. Keyon, Grammy Award-winning trumpeter from the now infamous town of Ferguson was looking to find a way to give back through music. So the two decided to pool their skills and create Compositions for a Cause with “Running” (aka Refugee Song) as the first project. Andrea pitched Keyon the idea for the subject and he came back with the beginning of a hook that would eventually be the foundation of the song.  Over the following months they pushed each other to the limits trying to get the song right. They constantly struggled to find the right balance between “cool” and “hip” and authentic and respectful. "Every little detail mattered because of the weight of the subject matter," says Andrea.

Keyon had worked with dozens of the world’s top popular artists, including the rapper Common and singer Gregory Porter. Andrea met Porter when Keyon joined his tour in late 2015. She says: "He is one of the most gracious, thoughtful, kind people you could ever encounter.  I adored watching him perform the namesake song of his latest album, “Take me to the Alley” featuring Keyon on the trumpet with such moving words about society’s less fortunate," says Andrea.  "So, when Keyon proposed that Gregory record the song, it was an absolute no-brainer to me.  He would no doubt deliver it with the same compassion and strength that has made him one of the world’s most popular singers today. I’m so grateful that he joined us and has become such a strong advocate for the cause."

Andrea also played a major role in putting the video together. She says that happened by accident when the original video editor had to pull out. She had been given ten of thousands of images and videos by the project's partner non-profits, but it seemed an almost impossible task to edit them in time for the launch two days away. Andrea spent the weekend before the song's launch going through all of the images and managed to come up with a storyboard, which she spliced with footage of Porter singing.

She says: "The verses are meant to take you on a journey from the moment you are forced to run, to the waiting period in the camps, to the decision to try to cross an ocean in search of asylum irrespective of the risks just to aspire for a better life.  We wanted to show how refugees, though vulnerable, are also incredibly strong and resilient to have lived through such an ordeal. One image I really love is of a Syrian man sitting in a tent giving his thumbs up to the camera, looking very dignified despite his surroundings.  He happened to look like my father.  And it made me think of how my father too would go to any length to protect his family.  In fact, recently, I went back to the small village in Italy where my grandfather fled enormous economic and political challenges to come to America. It was on the very top of a mountain. Incredibly remote. I tried to imagine how difficult the journey must have been for him. And how much more difficult were his first years in America. That trip back to my roots really drove home how these refugees are no different than our own family stories, except that they have been faced with some of the world’s greatest horrors and they survived."

The video ends with a feeling of hope that they will eventually find a new home with a brighter future. In less than 24 hours before the launch the video was finished. Andrea adds: "I am honoured that we could bear witness to some of their stories with this small gesture.  They are ultimately the stars of this song.  Their spirit to fight for a better future is what inspired us to write it for them.  Few of them may ever know how their face was part of this global campaign.  I only wish they knew how we are bearing witness to their struggle."

Building a movement

Andrea and her team are now trying to get as many people to download the song on iTunes.  "We aspire to build a movement of awareness that not only raises meaningful funds but also resonates among others who were previously not so aware of the refugee crisis," she says. And the results are already becoming clear. Despite no marketing or PR budget, the song has had nearly 200,000 listeners across the various platforms and has been featured at various rallies for refugees in the US.

And now more than ever the song has a special resonance.

The money raised will go to Refugees International, Human Rights First as well as to smaller organisations doing critical work on the ground.

The project has also allowed Andrea, who did an MPhil in Land Economy at the University of Cambridge, to return to her original passion of music. When she grew up all she wanted was to pursue a career in music. But, one day while touring Asia with the a capella group she musically led, she had a eureka moment that led her to take the other fork in the road.  She says: "We were scheduled to do a show in Bangkok, it was all over the newspapers.  I was incredibly excited.  That day we did all the kitschy tourism things one would do including touring the city along the river.  Unfortunately, the tour happened to pass a sweatshop with a back entrance close to the river.  A kid was standing inside the door staring at me.  Suddenly, everything came into perspective.  That kid was never going to see us perform in that fancy venue in Bangkok.  His life would never be touched by our concert."

She decided to focus instead on building schools in parts of the world where financing schools seemed impossible and created Africa Integras as a social impact investment company to finance and develop large-scale education infrastructure in Africa. "My real passion was self-determination for all - giving everyone the access to an education so they can decide what to do with it from there," she says.

While she was building her company, which has facilitated over $100 million in financing for universities in Africa so far, music fell by the wayside for several years until a colleague and friend Elliot Washor who had started 100 innovative high schools around the world asked her to sing in a jazz concert to raise money for a new school in Harlem. Andrea says: "It was a dream offer because it gave me the kick in the pants I needed to realise that a huge part of myself and my passions had been suppressed.” 

The response was overwhelming.  In two months Andrea pulled together a show at one of NYC top cabaret venues and it sold out.  “We raised $60,000, we released an album, it was crazy and fulfilling and that’s when it all landed for me,” she said.  “I could do both, but I wanted to ensure that as I stepped back into music more seriously, I did so always for the sake of a greater cause with each project I’d undertake." And it seems she couldn’t have picked a better time to find a voice of social activism in music. “Today, when I look at what has happened in America and Europe even since we released the Refugee Song, and how much we are being called upon to protect basic civil rights all over again, I realise how important it is to keep writing cause-related music. I have a lot to say about what’s happening in the world. And, hopefully, I can move a few hearts and minds into action as I do.”

*Read Andrea's blog on standing up for refugees. Picture caption: Refugees International Board Member Sarah Bacon with Keyon Harrold and Andrea Pizziconi and the RI Gala where Keyon and Andrea first performed the song live.

25/01/2017 - 11:03International civil servant, global nomad & policy activistHarum Mukhayer on what motivated her research into the law in disputed border regions.

Harum Mukhayer [2016] has spent the last eight years as a specialist in international environmental and natural resources law. She has advised governments in Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia on the design and implementation of natural resources laws and policies that better serve the poor.

She now wants to explore the wider issues raised further and her PhD in Law at Cambridge will focus on how the nature of customary law and legal systems in border dispute areas is fundamentally different. In doing that she is also drawing on experience gained in California where she was a Fulbright Fellow and learnt about Native American Indigenous Ecological Law and interacted with the Winnemem Wintu and Pit River tribes.

Her PhD will cover traditional rights under international law, raising questions about territorial and sovereignty issues in disputed areas, such as the Abyei Border Area in Sudan or the situation in Western Sahara, where people have coexisted and formed their own customs in the presence of artificial borders. She asks: “Where borders are disputed, can we really rely upon states to safeguard the interests of people who live on the margins? And who is responsible in these cases? It is not okay that the basis for sovereignty in such cases is artificial borders or that international law gives primacy to states. International law needs to be revised in such areas where state interests run counter to those whose presence, customary law and traditional authority predates that of the state.”

Harum’s PhD builds on both her preceding academic research and her experience of dealing with these issues on the ground. For her LLM dissertation, for instance, she designed a framework that adapts local customary law in a way that helps governments implement their obligations under multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) they have ratified. As a result of her LLM, she was invited by the UN Joint Programme on Local Governance (UNJPLG) to adapt her natural resources law framework to Somaliland and Puntland State of Somalia. And later on led the preparation of the Somali National Action Programme with the Somali government while working with the UNEP/UNDP Somalia.

Her role involved coordinating meetings with ministers and members of parliament, including consultations with village elders. As a young Muslim woman, in a very male-dominated environment, this presented challenges which Harum was able to overcome. She had to adapt how she operated; including how she dressed. For Harum, this ran counter to her nature as someone who challenges stereotypes and the perceptions of Muslim women in society.

In her work in Somalia, she adopted an innovative approach to match international law principles with local customs in order to find a middle ground based on state law. She drew on her own roots, tracing her paternal descent from a camel-herding tribe in Northern Darfur to connect with the Somali pastoralist heritage. She also facilitated sessions that raised questions about personal responsibility in local custom and the connection people hold to the land. 

Harum describes herself as “an international civil servant, a global nomad and a policy activist”. She believes that even the worst of governments can adopt good laws and policies. This underpins her commitment to working with governments that don’t always have the best global reputation. “I reject any notion that holds political instability or state fragility as an excuse for not securing human rights for those living at the margins,” she says.

Childhood and early studies

Though her family is from Sudan, Harum was born in Dubai where her father was working as a forensic scientist. In 1995, when she was seven, her family moved to Scotland so that her mother could do an LLM and the family could be near her older brother who was doing a biochemistry degree at the University of Dundee. Coming from an academic family, education was always a priority. Harum's parents were very positive about her creative writing and her father would encourage her to recite her poems and share them with the extended family.

At the age of 15, Harum enthusiastically set “career objectives” for herself, determined to live up to the expectations her father had for her. In her first year of undergraduate studies at Ahfad University in Khartoum she volunteered with the Community Animators Friendly Association (CAFA) which administered adult literacy courses to train in adult education, and attended workshops on community development issues such as reproductive health. In her second year she interned with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and made links with people working for the UN Development Programme (UNDP). In her third summer she worked for the UNDP Headquarters in Khartoum where she was offered the chance to work on development programming and post conflict work in the Trust Fund Management Unit (TFMU).

In 2005/2006 Harum decided to take a gap year, a decision that set her on the path to Cambridge. During her gap year she worked as an Administrative and Programme Assistant with the TFMU at the UNDP. This experience gave her confidence in her administrative skills and helped her make the decision to specialise in international development. But what made this a critical year in her life was the people she worked with in the TFMU, particularly Paul Crook, who was the TFMU manager and a development guru with 15 years of international development experience in the region.

Crook quickly identified Harum's potential and became (and continues to be) a key mentor. Crook would give her assignments to complete and textbooks to read, connecting the theory of what she learned in University with the world of international and humanitarian development. “He made me think about my CV and asked me if I had a three- to five-year Career Plan. I was only 17 - of course I didn’t have a five-year career plan, but he helped me be more strategic about what I wanted to do with my career,” says Harum.

At the end of her gap year Harum resumed her studies at Ahfad University. Then came another pivot. In her fourth year Harum did field work in the Nuba mountains in Sudan and became more interested in environmental issues and their role in community development. She began volunteering for a web-based corporate responsibility organisation and in her fifth year she did a research project assessing the social and environmental impact of civil society organisations in Sudan and South Sudan and their effectiveness and sustainability.

Development and the environment

After graduating in 2008 she took up a research assistant post working on fuel-efficient stoves as part of the Darfur timber and energy project. It was mainly a desk-based job in Khartoum, working on projects in Darfur and South Sudan. In early 2009 Harum moved to UNEP’s Juba office to coordinate the Keep Juba Clean and Green campaign and take on the management of the South Sudan Forests Project (SSF). Her role involved meeting government officials and coordinating meetings, designing posters and a radio campaign and project management. That experience taught her the power of good ideas even in the face of dubious politics. “I decided that I wanted to influence those ideas, how laws were formed and policies designed,” she says. In 2010 she negotiated a flexible contract with UNEP so that she could continue leading the work she started in South Sudan and also do an LLM in Natural Resources Law and Policy,at the Centre for Energy Petroleum Mineral Law and Policy (CEPMLP) at the University of Dundee.

The experience of simultaneously studying and working was critical in helping Harum arrive at the ideas that now underpin her PhD. She realised that post-conflict countries tend to rely more on local customary law and that it has a central, yet unofficially recognised, role in the management of natural resources in contexts like Sudan and South Sudan.

This culminated in her LLM dissertation. She then won a Hubert Humphrey Fellowship at the University of California Davis through the Fulbright programme. During her time in the US, she attended a course on Indigenous Ecological Law led by Professor Beth Rose Middleton and Darcie Houck which opened her eyes to the parallels that exist between tribes in Sudan and South Sudan, clans in Somali and indigenous people in North America.

She had known that she wanted to continue in academia, but had not been sure which discipline would fit best with her ideas. Her time at UCD and her interaction with Native Americans helped her realise that she wanted to focus on customary law, the plight of indigenous people and the distinct nature of their connection to land and its resources.

She had met Dr Sarah Nouwen, Co-Deputy Director of the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at the University of Cambridge, at a conference she attended at Durham University in December 2014. By chance, Harum and Dr Nouwen met while she was visiting Tuft University. Dr Nouwen encouraged Harum to apply to Cambridge.

Her PhD supervisor is Professor Eyal Benvenisti who has written a highly cited book on shared natural resources which Harum says had a big influence on her thinking when she was doing her LLM. As part of her extra-curricular activities she is an Executive Member of the Cambridge Pro Bono Project, leading a team of seven researchers on a project for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Harum says that she chose to do her PhD in Law, just as for the LLM, as a tribute to her mother. “She had me when she was 36, and put her entire career on hold to raise me and my younger brother. I wanted to do the PhD for her and make both my parents proud,” she says.

24/01/2017 - 12:04Opera for childrenJosé Izquierdo publishes a storybook to encourage children to enjoy opera.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has published a children's book on opera to encourage a new generation to enjoy the genre.

José Izquierdo wrote the book, Las Aventuras del Hombre Pajaro. Cinco Operas Contadas a los Ninos, after he was approached by the Opera House in Chile [Teatro Municipal de Santiago] to come up with a way of introducing opera to children.

After completing his undergraduate degree in Chile, Jose had worked with hundreds of schoolchildren teaching them about the importance of place and music as part of his job creating and managing the opera house's heritage archive. However, there were virtually no children's books on opera published in Spanish to build a wider enthusiasm for the genre.

José [2013], who is just completing his PhD in Music, says: "I thought this was a great project. The number of opera goers is constantly decreasing, mainly due to a lack of appreciation of it as entertainment (as it was in the 19th century) rather than as an elite phenomenon as many people think of it today."

He decided that two of the main problems is that children are usually taught about opera as a series of completely separate stories, one for each opera, so they are not able to understand it as a genre. Another issue is that a large number of the most popular operas are tragedies which depict serious themes such as murder and suicide.

José decided instead to create a new story, using the character of Papageno from Mozart's Magic Flute. The framework for the story was that Papageno was lost and, while trying to find his way back home, he met a host of characters from well-known operas who would tell him things which explained what opera is about. He says: "It can be read as a separate story, but at the same time convey information on opera and encourage children to go to the theatre and watch one or listen to one online."

The book is published by Ekaré, the main publisher of children's books in Latin America. The illustrations for it are the actual sketches for the opera productions in Santiago, which the artist modified slightly to fit the story. "In that way, it also showcases the artistry that goes behind of producing an opera, is something that adults can also enjoy and that most people don't know," says José.

The book was published in December and has received very positive feedback. As an appendix, it includes information on all the operas discussed and the history of the genre. José is hoping to follow up with a similar book on traditional dances from Chile.

José's PhD involves researching how Latin American composers united European and local influences in the 19th century. Much of the music has never been heard before and José has not only discovered old scores for the first time, but has been able to bring them back to life through working with musicians.

Picture credit: cover of Las Aventuras del Hombre Pajaro. Cinco Operas Contadas a los Ninos.

24/01/2017 - 10:25A child's best friendNew study led by Matt Cassels casts light on role of pets in child development.

Children get more satisfaction from relationships with their pets than with their brothers or sisters, according to a newly published study led by a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

Children also appear to get on even better with their animal companions than with siblings. The research adds to increasing evidence that household pets may have a major influence on child development and could have a positive impact on children’s social skills and emotional well-being.

Pets are almost as common as siblings in western households, although there are relatively few studies on the importance of child-pet relationships. ‘‘Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” says lead researcher Matt Cassels [2014], who is doing a PhD in Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge. “We wanted to know how strong these relationships are with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development.”

This study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, was conducted in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, part of Mars Petcare and co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of a larger study, led by Professor Claire Hughes at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research. Researchers surveyed 12 year old children from 77 families with one or more pets of any type and more than one child at home. Children reported strong relationships with their pets relative to their siblings, with lower levels of conflict and greater satisfaction in owners of dogs than other kinds of pets.

‘‘Even though pets may not fully understand or respond verbally, the level of disclosure to pets was no less than to siblings,” says Cassels. “The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely non-judgmental. While previous research has often found that boys report stronger relationships with their pets than girls do, we actually found the opposite. While boys and girls were equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more disclosure, companionship, and conflict with their pet than did boys, perhaps indicating that girls may interact with their pets in more nuanced ways.’’

“Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” says WALTHAM researcher Nancy Gee, a co-author of the study. “The social support that adolescents receive from pets may well support psychological well-being later in life, but there is still more to learn about the long term impact of pets on children’s development.”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

17/01/2017 - 10:03Biotech Summit addresses African developmentCarol Ibe's not-for-profit is holding its first African Diaspora Biotech Summit in Cambridge.

A not-for-profit organisation set up by a Gates Cambridge Scholar is holding its inaugural African Diaspora Biotech Summit in Cambridge in April.

Applications for the JR Biotek Foundation Summit opened this week. It will be held at the Sainsbury Laboratory Auditorium, University of Cambridge on Tuesday, 4th April 2017. The theme for the Summit is ‘strengthening research capacity building, innovation and commercialisation in Africa’.

J R Biotek was set up by Gates Cambridge Scholar Carol Ibe [2015] before she started her PhD in Plant Sciences. Its first workshop was held in 2014 in Nigeria. The organisation aims to enhance scientific research and STEM-based education in sub-Saharan Africa. 

It says the Summit was created to "provide a platform for Africa’s present and future leaders and key stakeholders, including the African diaspora to better understand the key challenges hampering sustainable development in Africa, and how collaborative work can help strengthen research capacity building, innovation and commercialisation so as to create opportunities for employment, investment and sustained socio-economic growth in Africa".

Seventy delegates – graduate students and early/mid-career professionals across different disciplines and profession, including biotechnology and applied biosciences, policy, sustainable development and business will be selected mainly from the diaspora to participate in the Summit.

The Summit will include a welcome speech given by Professor Elis Ferran, Cambridge's Pro-Vice-Chancellor for institutional and international relations, a keynote address delivered by Professor Lucy J. Ogbadu, Director-General of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Ministry of Science and Technology, Nigeria and panel discussion sessions led by experts who have made significant contribution to improve lives and systems in Africa. 

It aims to address:

·     The role of modern bio-technologies in improving agricultural productivity and food security in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050

·     Reforming Africa’s tertiary education system to make it globally competitive

·     Effective policy development and implementation strategies to accelerate sustainable development in African nations

·     The role and contribution of African women and the African diaspora in building a sustainable African bioeconomy

Carol said: "I am very excited about this Summit because it provides a unique global platform for all stakeholders, at all levels of development across the globe, to better understand the real problems affecting sustainable development in Africa and to become more proactive in finding practical solutions that are tailored to these problems. This is very important especially as we have seen the recent wave of amazing ‘do-good’ projects and initiatives developed for Africa and Africans by individuals, organisations and partners in developed countries. Unfortunately, these solutions often do not effectively address the problems for which they are created because of a limited understanding of the depth of the problems facing African nations and the African people.

"As an African who lived and went to school there, I understand the implication of poor development across all sectors, especially the agricultural and health care sectors in the continent and how they continue to affect millions of lives on a daily basis. This was my motivation for creating the African Diaspora Biotech Summit."

Training workshop and pitch competition

The Summit takes place in Cambridge around two weeks after the Molecular Laboratory Training Workshop 2017 that JR Biotek Foundation has developed for Africa-based agricultural research scientists and academics. The training workshop will be held in collaboration with the University of Cambridge's Department of Plant Sciences from 27th March to 3rd April 2017. It will offer 20 agricultural research scientists, PhD students and academics from different universities and research institutes in Africa new knowledge and technical skills in modern laboratory techniques that can help improve the quality of their research and teaching when they return to their home institutions in Africa. Eight of the PhD students will be awarded scholarships to attend the workshop and the Summit, funded by the BBSRC Global Challenge Research Fund and Trinity College, Cambridge.

JR Biotek Foundation has also launched the NextGen Africa Bioinnovation Pitch Competition which is designed to identify and celebrate bio-innovations made to improve lives and systems and to promote sustainable development in Africa. The competition will be held during the Summit. The goal is to encourage scientists and academics to think outside the box and start looking for opportunities to solve some of the problems they face in their various institutions, communities and countries.

Carol's PhD research aims to investigate accommodation mechanisms for both beneficial and detrimental fungi in rice roots. Whilst the beneficial fungus Rhizophagus irregularis has a mutualistic association with the rice crop, the detrimental fungus Magnaporthe oryzae causes rice blast, a deleterious disease that affects between 15-30% of rice harvest in field conditions. Carol is interested in finding practical solutions to the development of rice cultivars with better adaptation to low-input rice agroecosystems, improved biofertilisation systems and the development of effective disease control strategies against rice blast. 

For more information about the African Diaspora Biotech Summit 2017 and how to apply, please click here.

16/01/2017 - 12:27Human trafficking: what works?Sharmila Parmanand's research builds on her policy work on countering trafficking in human beings.

What makes for an effective policy to counter trafficking in human beings? Sharmila Parmanand’s research will examine the current anti-trafficking ecosystem. It’s an area she knows well having worked at the Philippines’ leading anti-trafficking organisation as Head of Policy for several years.

She is particularly interested in the policy-making process, but also the knowledge claims made about victims and women in vulnerable employment situations and how these claims are negotiated and produced, the relationships among international funders, the state, and civil society actors, and the effects on women of measures such as raids and rescue operations and rehabilitation.

A key focus will be on unintended consequences of policies in the Philippines. “I feel that the policymaking process may exclude some of the most vulnerable groups, especially sex workers,” she says. “According to one strand of law sex workers are criminals while anti-trafficking lends itself to the interpretation that they are victims. They fall between different laws, but in both cases they are not included in discussions and there is no systematic and robust  monitoring of what happens to people after they have been subjected to rehabilitation in shelters run by state agencies and nonprofit organisations. In a Catholic country, many arguments are moral ones rather than evidence-based ones.”

Sharmila [2016] says alternatives to sex work tend to be very low paid work, such as domestic service. It is possible to increase the $100 a month minimum wage for domestic service in the Philippines by working abroad, but even then minimum pay is only around $400 a month and they would have to be separated from their children. There are also many reports of abuse of foreign domestic workers. She says the women she spoke to look at the alternatives and many question whether they are better for them than the sex industry. She states: “Anti-trafficking measures need to better account for this demographic.”

Sharmila will do her research alongside her ongoing voluntary work as an international debate coach. She has worked in 30 nationss, including Palestine, and has a special interest in working with young women.

Political debate

Sharmila became interested in policy issues from an early age. She remembers being six or seven and her father bringing home a newspaper every day for her to read. Born in Zamboanga in the southern Philippines, she lived there until she went to college in Manila on a scholarship at the age of 16. Her father runs a general store and her mother is a housewife.

They placed a big emphasis on education. Sharmila attended a private primary and secondary school, funded in most part by scholarships. She initially thought she would study business when she won a scholarship to study at the top private college in the country in Manila. It had a strong record in the liberal arts and after the first two years she chose to specialise in politics.

Sharmila joined the debate team and took to it straight away. “It offered a safe space to talk about controversial and provocative things. Growing up in a small town it can be difficult to challenge established norms. In the debate team I could explore subversive ideas without fear of reprisal,” she says.

At university, Sharmila joined the Ateneo de Manila Debating Society, then one of the top 10 debate societies in the world, and enjoyed a fair amount of international competitive success Sharmila helped smaller schools start their own debate teams and coached them as part of a debate education programme and spent a significant amount of time after university engaging in international debate coaching

Gender and development

In 2011, she won an Australian leadership award to fund a master’s at the University of Melbourne in gender and development. “Given the social and political challenges in the Philippines I wanted to do development studies,” she says. “It seemed a natural progression from politics. I was very interested in women’s issues and gender equality. I could see a need for it in my country.”

Her master’s course lasted two years during which time she did fieldwork in the Philippines on microcredit and female borrowers for her dissertation and presented at academic conferences. “Microcredit was a big fad in developing countries. The idea was to give people access to credit so they could better themselves and then pay back the money. There was an emphasis on giving to women. The goals were to develop entrepreneurs and promote gender equality. My research questioned assumptions behind this and evaluated whether these goals corresponded to the lived reality of women on the ground,” says Sharmila.

She found that while women were happy to have access to credit, but that they were not using it to assert their collective rights. “They were using it to realise traditional obligations, spending more on the family and on being ‘a good mother’,” she adds. Partly this was to avoid seeming a threat to men. “There was not sufficient training in entrepreneurship and no basic social safety net for women,” she says.

When she finished her master’s, she returned to the Philippines and worked for Devex, a media platform for the global development community where she worked as a Development Analyst and Consultant, before moving to the leading anti-trafficking nonprofit, the Visayan Forum Foundation as Policy Director.

She had worked as a consultant to the organisation before, but the move to Policy Director at such a young age was a significant step up for her. Her role involved advising government officials and policymakers on trafficking trends and acting as a link between people on the ground and officials. The Foundation does research on all aspects of trafficking from trafficking of men in the fishing industry to sex trafficking. It also gets involved in rescue operations, supports victims and works with the police and other organisations and officials on the ground. It can be dangerous work, she says, and was very different to what she was doing in academia.


Soon after Sharmila started the job in early 2014 one of her debate mentors encouraged her to take a one-year debate coaching position at the University of Vermont. The Foundation said that, given that many Filipino victims were trafficked to the US, she could continue her work advising the government and sharing information from the demand side. So Sharmila spent the year doing two jobs in different time zones.

She returned to the Philippines in 2015 and to working full time for the Foundation, and felt the need to pursue research on the impact of anti-trafficking interventions under rigorous academic supervision. The seeds of her PhD dissertation were sown.

She applied to the University of Cambridge to do her PhD due to the strength of its Gender Studies programme. Sharmila hopes a PhD from Cambridge will help her to make the case for inclusion of sex workers in the policy-making process in the Philippines in view of its existing challenging policy environment.

Meanwhile she is continuing her debate mentoring while in the UK and has mentoring sessions lined up in Finland, Slovenia, Slovakia and Greece and will be running tournaments in the UK.

13/01/2017 - 15:21Confronting downstream oil theftFirst major study of downstream oil theft is released by company set up by Dr Ian Ralby.

A company set up by a Gates Cambridge Scholar and specialising in advising on strategic defence and security matters has released the first-ever major study on global downstream oil theft - a form of criminal enterprise that threatens to destabilise states and regions around the world.

I.R. Consilium, LLC released the report Downstream Oil Theft: Global Modalities, Trends and Remedies which was formally launched today at the Atlantic Council’s inaugural Global Energy Forum in Abu Dhabi.

The report, co-authored by Dr Ian Ralby, CEO of I.R. Consilium and a former Gates Cambridge Scholar, says that downstream oil theft - criminal misdirection of oil and oil products at any point after transfer to refineries - is a burgeoning global issue. Citing “theft, fraud, smuggling, laundering, [and] corruption”, the report details how such criminal activity “has become a significant threat not only to local and regional prosperity but also to global security and stability”. The document’s three parts present 10 case studies examining downstream oil theft in a range of geographic settings, analyse trends in downstream hydrocarbons crime, identify key stakeholders and recommend approaches to confronting this growing challenge.

The study, conducted in cooperation with the Atlantic Council and with support from SICPA, shows that downstream oil theft is not merely an isolated criminal activity; it also serves to finance terrorist groups, violent insurgents and organised crime syndicates. 

It says downstream hydrocarbons crime is a complex and sometimes ambiguous problem; its perpetrators “range from sophisticated and sinister international networks to well-meaning humanitarian service providers on limited budgets in poor and desperate communities”. It adds that addressing the challenge in all its facets will require international cooperation, reform, regulations and standards, direct intervention and concreate countermeasures, all of which it discusses.

The formal presentation of Downstream Oil Theft featured an expert panel including Dr Ralby as well as Éric Besson, former Minister of Industry, Energy, and Digital Economy for France; Dr. John C. Gannon, former Chair of the US National Intelligence Council; and Kola Karim, Group CEO at Shoreline Energy International. 

Dr Ralby [2007], who was external officer on the Gates Scholars Council during his time at Cambridge, did an MPhil which critiqued the jurisprudence of the Iraqi High Tribunal, arguing that, regardless of actual guilt or innocence, the court had misapplied the law in the Hussein trial. This segued into his PhD, titled “Private Military and Security Companies in the Uncharted Spaces of the Law”, examining the gaps in the accountability of private security companies and the relative merits of the ongoing efforts to close those gaps. That work fed directly into his active role in the international processes and led to him establishing I.R. Consilium.

Picture credit: Wikipedia.

20/12/2016 - 12:11Taking the initiativeMatt Varilek appointed President of community and development organisation The Initiative Foundation.

One of the first cohort of Gates Cambridge Scholars has been appointed president and chief executive officer of a leading US community and economic development organisation.

Matt Varilek, former chief operating officer of the US Small Business Administration in Washington, DC, will officially take up his new post at the The Initiative Foundation on 3rd January.

The Foundation provides loans and financing to help businesses in Central Minnesota create jobs and invests in community organisations that build the local economy. It has dispersed more than $81 million in targeted grants and loans since it was set up 30 years ago. 

“The Initiative Foundation's outstanding work related to economic development, community development and philanthropy is an ideal match with my own professional background and rural upbringing,” said Matt [2001], who did a master's in Environment and Development at the University of Cambridge. “As someone who has personally experienced the transformative impact of philanthropy, I am thrilled to return to Greater Minnesota to join a distinguished organisation like the Initiative Foundation, which makes such an incredible impact in the communities it serves.”

As chief operating officer of the US Small Business Administration, Varilek oversaw agency-wide operations in support of the SBA's small-business lending, venture capital and private equity work as well as its entrepreneurial training, government contracting and disaster recovery efforts.

Prior to his move to Washington DC, Varilek served as SBA regional administrator for the most rural of the agency's regions, guiding delivery of small business programs and services in South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Montana.

Before joining the SBA, Matt stood for Congress in South Dakota. He also worked as Economic Development Director for US senator Tim Johnson and was Legislative Assistant for Economic Development to Senator Tom Daschle.

Matt has also worked in the private sector, analysing energy and environmental commodity market dynamics as director of policy and research for Natsource LLC, a commodities brokerage with offices in London, New York City and Washington, DC.

19/12/2016 - 20:50Tackling cancer with nano-drugsVijay Kanuru on translating his research on nanoparticles into a successful business.

Vijay Kanuru [2006] is just about to expand his nano-drug development firm in the UK after success in India. Oncocur Limited develops nano-drugs to fight cancer and builds on Vijay’s PhD research into nanoparticles. He says: “Cancer is growing across the world. There are two main challenges: the toxicity of treatments and the fact that cancers are becoming drug resistant. Nanoparticles can penetrate any site of the body, even neurons. It means we can deliver drugs straight to cancer cells so the healthy cells are not affected.”

Now he is collaborating with his PhD thesis internal examiner Professor Andrew Wheatley in the Department of Chemistry. Vijay first became interested in enterprise at Cambridge, through attending Judge Business School workshops and has since launched two business, of which Oncocur is the latest. “Cambridge offers you a broader education than just the subject you are studying. It helped me develop a methodology of learning and how to approach the problem,” he says.

Oncocur has five team members, including chemists, biotechnologists and pharmacologists. Its business model involves discovering drugs to fight cancer and developing intellectual property. It is not the normal one for medical enterprises in India which focus on manufacturing rather than developing new drugs.

That is why he is returning to the UK next year to expand Oncocur with venture capital funding. He is also in talks with the Welsh government. He has drawn on his Cambridge network, including Gates Cambridge contacts, to develop the business. He returned to Cambridge this summer for the Gates Cambridge Biennial where he linked up with fellow alumnus Dan Greenfield. “It was very productive and cross disciplinary. Gates Cambridge is such an active community and the quality of people is so good,” says Vijay.

A desire to learn

He says his interest in scientific enterprise is part of “an intrinsic desire to learn”. Vijay was born and grew up in a village near to Guntur in Andhra Pradesh state in south eastern India. He comes from a family of farmers and was the first person in his family to get a university degree. Brought up by his grandparents, he says both his family and himself were very aspirational and that from an early age he dreamt of going to Cambridge, having read about scientists who studied there.

As a child he was passionate about cosmology and physics and was a top student in his school, but he gradually moved over to physical chemistry as he grew older since that was a more realistic course of study in India.

Vijay did his undergraduate degree at Nagarjuna University in Guntur followed by a two-year MSc in Chemistry at the University of Pune in Pune. Right from the start of his master’s Vijay started doing research, something he had always wanted to do since he was a child. Before he finished his course he had published a paper in an international journal on his work on how nanoparticles can accelerate chemical reactions.

He applied to two departments in Cambridge to do his PhD and was offered a place in both.


He chose to do his PhD in Chemistry with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and began in autumn 2006. However, just before he arrived his supervisor moved to the University of Oxford. That meant Vijay had to revise the focus of his PhD. “I chose to combine surface physics and nanoscience to try and understand how nanoparticles work as catalysts of chemical reactions and underlying mechanism of nanoparticles' surface reactivity. It meant I had to learn new things which I enjoy,” he says.

It also led to a new theory regarding the role of nanoparticles as catalysts which is now generally accepted. Previously, it was thought that nanoparticles were a precursor to real catalysts for chemical change. Vijay’s research showed nanoparticles themselves could be catalysts. It examined the surface mechanism of bond formation on metal nanoparticle surfaces during catalysis. The process is central to the design and development of efficient materials for environmental and medicinal applications.

By the time he finished his PhD he had published two papers in peer reviewed journals and won several awards, including the Young scientist award of the International Association of Catalysis Societies and the Lowry prize for the best PhD work in his department.

While he was at Cambridge he became very involved in the Gates Cambridge community. He was on the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council, later joining the Board of the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association and hosting two events in India, including the Gates Cambridge Emerging Leadership Summit in 2013. He has also been a Gates Cambridge ambassador, visiting universities in India to speak about the scholarship. “I’m an ardent Gates guy,” he says.

In fact, he says when his PhD finished he didn’t want to leave Cambridge, in large part because of Gates Cambridge. He moved to Cornell to do a post-doctorate focused on how nanoparticles - including nano alloys and carbon nanomaterials - can be used for fuel cells and batteries.

While he was in the US, Vijay had to travel back to India for his sister’s wedding and during his trip he was invited by his former supervisor at the National Chemical Laboratory Pune to give a keynote speech about nanotechnology opportunities for industry. He had good feedback from business people who felt the time was right to invest. He started his first company, Applied Nanomaterials Pvt Limited, which makes nanoparticles more cost effective so they can be commercialised. His business partners had years of experience in the business world and were on the point of retiring.

Vijay, whose role is now more that of a CEO than a scientist, says being an entrepreneur has been a rollercoaster. “You need a knowledge of science and technology and an awareness of commercial aspects such as marketing and communications,” he says. “You also need to believe in yourself and be able to inspire others.” It is a role which has required him to keep learning new things in keeping with his early thirst for knowledge.

Picture: cancer cells from Wikimedia Commons

15/12/2016 - 13:17Lessons from Silicon SavannahMarlen de la Chaux co-authors chapter in new book on Kenya's IT sector.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has co-authored a chapter in the first book of its kind to offer an in-depth analysis of a single African country's technology sector and the factors shaping it.

The book, ‘Digital Kenya, An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making’, has just been published in hard and open source versions by Palgrave Macmillan and is edited by Kenya’s former permanent secretary for ICT, Professor Bitange Ndemo and Stanford University-based Tim Weiss.

It critically assesses the cultural, economic and political forces at play for the “Silicon Savannah” and discusses in depth the ‘Kenya’ story. It asks why establishing ICT start-ups on a continental and global scale remains a challenge and looks at the factors that have contributed to Kenya's international success stories, such as innovation hub iHub.

Gates Cambridge Scholar Marlen de la Chaux [2013], who is doing a PhD in Management Studies, has co-authored one of the 15 chapters with Angela Okune, a US-Kenyan pioneer of digital innovation research in Kenya. The chapter, entitled The Challenges of Technology Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets: A Case Study in Nairobi,  explores the initial struggles surrounding technology entrepreneurship in Nairobi.

It looks at why the creation of technology start-ups in Nairobi has remained so challenging despite support from growing numbers of motivated entrepreneurs, innovation hubs and interested seed-capital investors via an in-depth case study consisting of more than 70 semi-structured qualitative interviews with technology entrepreneurs, investors, innovation hub staff and technology professionals in Nairobi. They say: "We discovered that because of technology entrepreneurship’s relative novelty, the key actors’ perspectives on the processes and practices associated with it are not yet aligned. The results were that the actors’ social interactions are marked by contradictions, divergences and ambiguities that have hampered the creation of successful technology businesses in region."

The chapter also discussed how to overcome these challenges and looks at the issues from the perspective of funding, business skills development and views about what constitutes a viable technology consumer market. It ends with a series of recommendations.

The authors write: "Our recommendations depart from the conventional approach of defining, measuring, and filling gaps associated with funding, skill training, and market readiness—because our analysis has found that the definitions of these gaps differs substantially between key actors, and simply filling them is therefore unlikely to facilitate technology entrepreneurship in the long term. Instead, we argue that it is important to resolve the contradictory, divergent, and misaligned perspectives among the key actors."

Bitange Ndemo, Digital Kenya co-editor says: “Kenya’s ICT sector is booming, with unimaginable potential, producing some of the most disruptive innovations on the continent. However, entrepreneurs are still faced with significant challenges when it comes to scaling their businesses, and we felt compelled to find out why, by collating insight and analysis from expert voices working in the area. Digital Kenya is documenting the Kenyan ICT journey, not only to spark lively debate, but also to provide a stable reference point from which investors, academics, students and commentators can make better informed decisions about how they interact with and embrace Kenya’s technology eco-system.”

*Picture credit: Inside Afria's Hubs 17 by Jonathan Kalan.

14/12/2016 - 10:36Communicating the science of DNAKerstin Goepfrich wins physics prize and produces Naked Scientist programme

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has produced a BBC podcast and won a prestigious physics prize.

Kerstin Goepfrich [2013], who is finishing a PhD in Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory focused on smart nano-objects folded out of DNA, produced a one-hour show for the acclaimed Naked Scientists podcast. It included an interview with Gates Cambridge alumnus Vitor Pinheiro [2001] on his research into XNA as a synthetic form of DNA, its therapeutic potential and whether it can be used to create new life.

The podcast also included a section where Kerstin went to a school to test a new DNA sequencing technique - a handheld portable device that plugs into a laptop. She got a group of schoolchildren to find out what is inside a smoothie by sequencing the smoothie's DNA. 

Kerstin says: "I think it is a real step change in technology - previously I'd have had to go to a big sequencing centre. We then turned this experiment into a nice citizen science challenge, where people can try and find out what fruit I put into my mystery smoothie – by looking at its DNA.”

Kerstin was also presented with the Abdus Salam Prize this month for a paper on her work uncovering a physical mechanism of ion conduction across lipid membranes, which was published in the journal Nano Letters earlier this year.

In the prize essay she writes: Realising that fifty percent of the currently approved drugs target ion channels quickly adds a more practical dimension to my research, one that is based on the hope that better understanding of ion channels will lead to the design of better drugs. It fuels the hope that designer pores could replace defective channels in cells and thereby potentially offer a cure to the numerous diseases related to ion-channel malfunction – from cystic fibrosis to autoimmune diseases."

The prize, which is awarded to final-year PhD students, is named after the Nobel Laureate Professor Abdus Salam. Part of the prize ceremony involved Kerstin giving a talk at the Cavendish Graduate Student Conference.

Picture credit: Wikimedia

13/12/2016 - 18:57Larger brain size in mammals linked to longer lifeCorina Logan's study of red deer shows females with larger brains live longer

The size of a female animals' brain may determine whether they live longer and have more healthy offspring, according to new research. 
The study*, Endocranial volume is heritable and is associated with longevity and fitness in a wild mammal, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, shows that female red deer with larger brains live longer and have more surviving offspring than those with smaller brains. Brain size is heritable and is passed down through the generations. It is the first extensive study of individual differences in brain size in wild mammals and draws on data comparing seven generations of deer. 
Across species of mammals, brain size varies widely. This is thought to be a consequence of specific differences in the benefits and costs of a larger brain. Mammals with larger brains may, for example, have greater cognitive abilities which enable them to adapt better to environmental changes or they may have longer lifespans. But there may also be disadvantages, for instance, larger brains require more energy so that individuals that possess them may show reduced fertility.  
The researchers, based at the University of Cambridge's Zoology Department and Edinburgh University's Institute of Evolutionary Biology, wanted to test if they could find more direct genetic or non-genetic evidence of the costs and benefits of large brain size by comparing the longevity and survival of individuals of the same species with different sized brains. Using the skulls of 1,314 wild red deer whose life histories and breeding success had been monitored in the course of a long-term study on the Isle of Rum, they found that females with larger endocranial volumes lived longer and produced more surviving offspring in the course of their lives. 
Lead author Corina Logan, a Gates Cambridge Scholar and Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in Cambridge's Department of Zoology, says: "The reasons for the association between brain size and longevity are not known, but other studies have suggested that larger brains are a consequence of the longer-lived species having longer developmental periods in which the brain can grow. These hypotheses were generated from cross-species correlations; however, testing such hypotheses requires investigations at the within-species level, which is what we did." 
Corina adds: "We found that some of the cross-species predictions about brain size held for female red deer, and that none of the predictions were supported in male red deer. This indicates that each sex likely experiences its own set of trade-offs with regard to brain size.” The study also showed that females' relative endocranial volume is smaller than that of males, despite evidence of selection for larger brains in females."

Corina said: "We think this is likely due to sex differences in the costs and benefits related to larger brains. We don’t know what kinds of trade-offs each sex might encounter, but we assume there must be variables that constrain brain size that are sex specific, which is why we see selection in females, but not males." 
Tim Clutton-Brock, who set up the Rum Red Deer study with Fiona Guinness in 1972 and initiated the work on brain size, points out that the reason that this kind of study has not been conducted before is that it requires long term records of a large number of individuals across multiple generations and data of this kind are still rare in wild animals. 
*The study, Endocranial volume is heritable and is associated with longevity and fitness in a wild mammal, is co-authored by C.J. Logan, R. Stanley, A.M. Thompson, T.H. Clutton-Brock from the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge and L.E.B. Kruuk from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh.It is published in Royal Society Open Science 3:160622. Picture credit: Alex Thompson.

30/11/2016 - 19:16Understanding world politics in 2016Four scholars will give their perspective on political developments around the world in 2016.

Four Gates Cambridge Scholars are taking part in the first internal symposium to be themed solely on world politics.

The event, next Tuesday, will discuss developments in 2016 in the US, Europe and Brazil as well as why China's political system remains so different from other East Asian states.

The speakers are Victor Roy, Yevgen Sautin, Farhan Samanani and Paulo Savaget Nascimento.

Victor's talk is entitled The Great Fracturing: Five faultlines for understanding 2016. Victor [2012], who is doing a PhD in Sociology, says analysts have been looking for reasons to explain the US election outcome, with economic anxiety and ethnoracial animus as the two leading candidates. Using an analytical framework from sociology that draws on data from across fields, he will instead show how five specific faultlines are working in an inter-related manner to produce such outcomes in the US but can also explain the rise of the far right in Europe and the Brexit result. He says: "People from all across society - from politics, business, academia, and the arts, and from local communities, national government and global institutions - must reckon with the trends and forces driving these faultlines. I present this data as an invitation to consider the multiple responses and new possibilities that can and must be forged in the coming years."

Farhan's presentation, "I'm not racist but..." Understanding the rise of nativism within a complex world, also looks at the explanations given for the rise of nativist or racist sentiments seen in the Brexit and the US general election campaigns. He says: "By and large, explanations for this phenomenon have focused on large scale factors. Supporters of nativist movements are said to be forgotten victims of de-industrialisation or of the inequality resulting from globalisation, or else are seen as those who have been left behind by the progressive identity politics of the last few decades. But these macro-level explanations fail to account for why nativist is seen as an answer to such woes - why it has such particular emotional and political appeal."

Farhan [2013], who is doing a PhD in Social Anthropology, will draw on his research in a London neighbourhood to make a case for how nativism has been used as a tool for simplifying a complex world. He states: "Firstly, it collapses the complex network of forces shaping modern society into a simpler perspective, where a single, identifiable group can be held to blame. Secondly, it asserts the value of familiar, face-to-face relations over abstract economic and political ones, particularly because people tend to think of inter-personal relationships as more trustworthy and as easier to think with. And third, it imagines a world where people's own self worth doesn't have to be vindicated by unfamiliar others, but where it can be taken for granted amongst peers who are presumed to share one's fundamental perspective. These may all be fantasies, but I will draw on evidence from Anthropology and Psychology to argue that they have become highly alluring fantasies in this day and age." He will end by suggesting what might be done about this state of affairs.

Paulo's talk is entitled The Reawakening of the Far Right in Brazil. He says that while far right authoritarianism and hatred aren’t new in politics, they are rising fast not only in the Global North, but also in several middle and lower-middle-income regions, such as Brazil, India and the Philippines. Paulo [2015], who is doing a PhD in Engineering, will talk about Brazil's recent political history before discussing in more depth the reawakening of the far-right. He hopes to open a discussion on the similarities and differences between different regions in order to expand perceptions of what is happening and discuss potential responses.

Yevgen [2016], who is doing a PhD in History, will address the historical background to modern Chinese politics. His talk, The Furnace of Revolution: Manchuria and the Creation of Modern China, covers his research on the reintegration of Manchuria into China from 1949 to 1954 which he says was a major step in solidifying Communist rule over China and developing political institutions that continue to this day. In addition, he says, the process catalysed the transformation of the Chinese Communist Party from a regional guerrilla force into national ruling party. He states: "Relatively little work has been done on this topic and it’s the kind of focused issue that allows the tackling of important broader questions, including about the Cold War, the determination of borders, and the making of a new China after 1949. These early years of the PRC also shed light on why China's political system has remained so markedly different from other East Asian states and also escaped the fate of the former Eastern Bloc."

*The symposium takes place on December 6th from 7:30-9:30pm in the Gates Cambridge Scholars Common Room. All scholars and their guests are welcome. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

25/11/2016 - 09:45From an internet cafe to software developmentLawrence Owusu on developing a passion for computer science and the main lesson Cambridge taught him.

Lawrence Owusu’s biggest disappointment became his greatest opportunity. After being told he had not been accepted onto an architecture course in Ghana, he spent a year working at an internet cafe where he developed a passion for computer science.

That passion took him to Cambridge where he did his master’s and was the seed of a successful career in software development.

Lawrence was born in Nigeria and lived there until he was four when his parents moved back to Accra in Ghana. They had moved to Nigeria for work - his father was running a bakery business and his mother was a midwife. Lawrence is the eldest of five children.

He attended a mixture of state and private schools. He did well academically and was joint best student in his cohort at his junior secondary school. He then moved to Mfantispim School - the same high school that former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had attended - where he boarded.

By the time he started at junior high school Lawrence knew he was more interested in science than in the arts, although he enjoyed technical drawing. At secondary school he took part in the school’s debating club and travelled across Ghana to take part in competitions. He was also became very engaged in his Christian beliefs at secondary school. “It was when I turned 11 that I discovered the importance of religion to me. It is core to everything I do,” he says.

Computer science

When he finished school he applied to university to do an ultra-competitive course in architecture, but due to a strike by university lecturers that year, only a tiny number of the top students were accepted. Lawrence says this was a very low point for him. “Many of my friends who had chosen subjects with less stringent admissions requirements were accepted. I felt like a failure,” he says.

That decision, however, was to change his life. Lawrence started working as manager of an internet cafe run by a family friend and developed a love of computers. “I had no idea about computers before that, but I was helping people to browse online and spent the year playing around with computers and helping people learn about them,” he says.

After a year he applied to do computer science at university and was accepted. Not only did that change the course of his career, but he also met the woman who was to become his wife on the course.

During his four-year degree course at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology [KNUST] he went the extra mile, driven by his enthusiasm for computer science. Tech was becoming huge outside Ghana and inside, it was a pioneering subject to take. Lawrence got the highest grade ever attained in his department.

He was also very involved in Christian organisations and was president of the one of the Christian unions on campus. As part of that work, he organised a summer vacation programme involving students going to remote villages to educate people about social and health issues and teach the Gospel at primary schools. “I had lived in the city and these people were very poor. You don’t see that level of poverty living in the city,” he says. “It really opened my eyes and, although they were poor, they ate more healthily than people in the city. The people eat what they grow. It is very organic.

Lawrence also co-founded the KNUST Linux Club. He says a lot of students in Ghana do courses because their parents think they are a good idea, but lack any enthusiasm or interest in them. “Many students in my class didn’t seem to want to do computer science so I organised classes to explain some of the course work to them and also introduce them to Linux,” he says.

He also worked as a teaching assistant in the computer science department and was a teaching assistant in the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT during vacations.

At the end of his course Lawrence knew he wanted to continue in academia and do a master’s, but there were no universities in Ghana at that time which offered a master’s in computer science.


He applied for a scholarship in Australia, but didn’t get it. Then his wife requested an application pack for him to study at the University of Cambridge. “I thought it was a waste of time as it is so competitive,” said Lawrence. “She made me fill it in.” He got an interview and was shortlisted for two scholarships, including the Gates Cambridge Scholarship which he eventually won.

Lawrence was accepted to do an MPhil in Computer Speech, Text and Internet Technology and started in autumn 2007. He was keen to move away from theory and to use computer science to do something practical. He was interested in cutting edge research on programming computers to understand and interpret speech.

“It’s a difficult area because language is so complicated and not logical,” he says. In addition to the difficulty of the course, he was struggling with the cold UK weather and with cultural differences in how master’s courses are taught in the UK and in Ghana. In the UK, he says, there is much more emphasis on independent study. He overcame those challenges and finished his Cambridge course with distinction.

Lawrence says what he learnt at Cambridge has been invaluable in his job, but not perhaps in the way he had anticipated. “Most of the computer science I use in my current job,” he says, “I learnt in Ghana, but the main thing I learnt at Cambridge was confidence and that I can sit in a room with the best brains in the world and will not be intimidated.”

Lawrence attended Gates Cambridge events and after he finished his course he went back to Ghana with a fellow scholar to encourage other students to apply for the scholarship and to tell Ghanaian students that “they are better than they think they are”.

Soon after he left Cambridge, Lawrence married his girlfriend, who had been studying at LSE. The two soon started a family and now have three children, aged seven, four and two.

While he was at Cambridge, Lawrence was offered a job in Tessella - a software company close to Oxford and stayed there for eight months after his master's course, working as a software developer. He was made redundant during the recession and has been building financial software at various banks in London ever since. He has recently become a contractor and is currently working as a Senior Java consultant for Unicredit, a European bank, building foreign exchange (FX) pricing and trading systems.

On the side he has developed his own android app which brings together news from different media houses in Ghana in one place. Initially he did it for himself, but soon saw that there were potentially many Ghanaians living outside Ghana who wanted news from home so he put it on Google Play Store. The app has had over 100,000 downloads since. Lawrence is keen to develop further useful apps and has also signed up as a buddy for new African scholars studying in the UK.

Although his young family means he has to focus his time on work and family life, he is interested in using his skills for greater social impact.

*Picture credit: Internet backbone c/o Wikipedia.

21/11/2016 - 11:07Decolonising AustraliaAboriginal community activist to speak at Cambridge event organised by Gates Cambridge Scholar.

A leading Australian aboriginal community activist will be speaking about decolonisation of Australia at an event co-organised by a Gates Cambridge Scholar and the Critical Theory & Practice Seminar Series at the end of the month.

Roxley Foley [pictured] is Firekeeper of Canberra's Aboriginal Tent Embassy which represents the political rights of Aboriginal Australians. His lecture, co-organised by Gates Cambridge Scholar Stephanie Mawson, is entitled Decolonising Australia: Roxley Foley on Aboriginal Sovereignty.  It will take place on 28th November at Pembroke College.

Stephanie says: "He will cover issues of ongoing Australian colonial paradigms that are contributing to the continued dispossession, assimilation and genocide of Australia's original sovereign peoples. The Aboriginal peoples of Australia are leading the fight to decolonise a society set on destroying itself through ecological suicide and class and race warfare."

The lecture will address issues ranging from "the relevance of historical revisionism and how a skewed view of history perpetuates ongoing atrocities under new euphemisms" and the meaning of self determination and land rights to how indigenous knowledge can influence ecological and economic sustainability and create a new political paradigm.

Foley is in the UK as part of a delegation campaigning for the return of several artefacts, including the Gweagal Shield held by the British Museum and several spears held by the Archaeology and Anthropology Museum in Cambridge.

The campaign is focused on artefacts that Captain Cook took from the Aborigines after a violent struggle in Botany Bay in 1770. Artefacts like the Shield have only recently come to light.

On its Facebook page, the campaign states: "Aborigines make up 3% of the Australian population with many living in conditions of abject poverty unthinkable to non-Aboriginal Australians. Aboriginal Australians have an average life expectancy 10 years shorter than non-Aboriginal Australians, and they are grossly overrepresented in Australian prisons, where even their children are tortured. Tucked away in this British Museum room with a generic name and brief explanation, the Gweagal shield is almost as well hidden as the history of violence and resistance it represents."

Stephanie [2014] is doing a PhD in History focusing on the early history of Spanish colonisation in the Philippines and broader Spanish Pacific world. She has been active in projects of community building among history students in Australia and worked as a researcher at a large trade union on campaigns that fight the inequality experienced by Australia's lowest paid workers.

*The lecture will take place on 28 November at 5.30pm in the Nihon Room, Pembroke College. For more information click here.

18/11/2016 - 09:26The Pearl GateSofia Singler designs and contributes to book on one of Finland's most prominent modernist poets.

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has contributed to a new book of poetry on one of Finland's foremost poets.

Sofia Singler [2016] has both designed and written a chapter in the book on Lassi Nummi’s poetry entited Liekkiportti: Esseitä Lassi Nummen Tuotannosta (“The Pearl Gate: Essays on the Poetry of Lassi Nummi”). 

Nummi, who died in 2012, is one of the most prolific and respected modern Finnish writers and influenced the development of Nordic literary modernism, particularly in terms of the cultural commentary, philosophical questioning and lyrical complexity that define his œuvre.

The Pearl Gate” brings together a selection of critical academic essays, each dissecting a different aspect of Nummi’s poetry, written by scholars in literature, cultural history and classics, among other fields. The collection is edited by Dr Katriina Kajannes, Docent in Literature the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

Singler, who is doing a PhD in architecture, says: “For Nummi, architecture is a diptych of life and death: it functions as a dual metaphor of love and loss. Usually architecture aims for the eternal and the timeless, yet ruination, decay and fragmentation are inherently part of it. Through this duality, the architecture in Nummi’s poetry comes to symbolise both love and death simultaneously. Nummi’s poetry makes extensive use not only of straightforward architectural imagery – say, windows, doors or other typical building elements – but also of more complicated, abstract conceptions of multi-dimensional spaces and places in relation to time.”

Singler, who has practised as an architect in the US, specialises in the design of schools and libraries and has also undertaken advanced study in housing and apartment design. Her PhD  is on 20th-century architectural history and theory. In 2009, Singler’s research project on the role of architectural and spatio-temporal metaphors in Finnish modernist poetry won second place in a prestigious research competition organised by the Academy of Finland, a governmental funding body for scientific research.

In addition to authoring the book’s chapter on architecture as a dual metaphor for love and death, Singler was responsible for the cover illustration and design of the book. Alluding to Renaissance frescoes, the book's publisher Athanor says her interpretation of the book’s title – “The Pearl Gate” – presents an intentionally ambiguous understanding of a garden that appears to be wilting and blossoming at once. “In architectural iconography,” Singler says, “the gate marks, rather straightforwardly, an entryway. The question for the modernist mindset is what that entryway leads into – and it is this question that Nummi’s poetry so poignantly asks.”

08/11/2016 - 09:21Democratic challenge for REDD+Libby Blanchard has co-authored a chapter in a new book on climate change mitigation strategies and carbon offsets.

The attempt by California to incorporate international forest carbon credits into its climate mitigation strategy is described in the chapter of an important new book on climate change mitigation strategies and carbon offsets, published this week.

The chapter, co-authored by Gates Cambridge Scholar Libby Blanchard and her PhD supervisor Dr Bhaskar Vira, appears in the book The Carbon Fix, published this week.

Based on Blanchard's PhD research, it details public debates and discourses on the possibility of incorporating REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) carbon offset credits into California's climate mitigation strategy. It focuses on the social impacts of REDD+ and considers the extent to which groups who will be impacted by the proposed policy have a voice or are represented within the debate and what legitimacy this representation holds.

If implemented, REDD will have profound implications for the social equity, rights, and welfare of different groups of people directly impacted by the policy, with the greatest impact on the vulnerable and marginalised. The chapter finds that the power of certain actors to shape narratives over perceived social impacts affected (and will continue to affect) the strategies' ultimate design. The analysis highlights the highly unequal landscape within which public policy debates take place and the potential for democratic processes to lack effective mechanisms for the representation of interests of those who have most at stake in relation to climate policy. 

Blanchard [2013], who is finishing her PhD in Geography at the University of Cambridge, believes the findings could increase understanding of the political dynamics involved in climate governance issues and contribute to more effective, equitable and inclusive climate mitigation strategies.

California is an important case study, Blanchard says, because state governments have begun to develop regional, transnational and subnational climate change mitigation strategies and California has been at the forefront of this trend with their Global Warming Solutions Act, passed in 2006.

This law seeks to reduce the state's emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. California is also at the vanguard of linking the REDD initiative with other climate mitigation strategies, such as formally linking their cap and trade programme with Quebec. In addition, it is considering linking 'jurisdictional REDD' forest carbon offsets with Chiapas, Mexico, and Acre, Brazil, into its programme. "If California does incorporate these REDD offsets into its programme, it could be the first official compliance market to use REDD credits," says Blanchard.

07/11/2016 - 12:56Tech pioneerBen Cole on his career in technology and how the Gates Biennial inspired his new start-up.

Ben Cole developed an early interest in computers. He started computer programming at the age of seven and by eight was helping local businesses with their computers.

It’s an interest that has seen him work at some of the top technology companies, such as Facebook, become a Google “technology pioneer” in Africa and launch various technology products before starting his own company - the result of a collaboration that sprung from the first Gates Cambridge Biennial this summer.

Ben [2011] was born in New York. His father, an electronics teacher, was an early adopter of personal computers and Ben had a computer from the age of five. He says he had limited space to play at his apartment so he gravitated towards the computer. By the age of seven he was programming and by eight he was spending the summer advising local businesses on, for instance, how to use Word.

Ben created an imaginary computer company and became fascinated by tech entrepreneurs. “I was an unusual kid,” he says. “Very few people were into that kind of stuff at the time.”

It was a foretaste of things to come - years later he worked for Google, helping local businesses get onto the internet. “They were still struggling 15 years later,” he says.

At high school he put his computer programming on hold and focused on his academic work. He was torn between business and computer science and did a lot of business-related activities as there were more opportunities than in computer science.

When he applied to university he was not still not clear if he would go for business or computer science.  In the end, he decided to go to Cornell and do a four-year course, majoring in information science, which included design, policy and psychology and focused on computing in its human context.

Technology pioneer

From the beginning he got stuck into research projects, for instance, on large scale data analysis and in his final year he worked part time as a social network analyst with Facebook. He did two summer internships at Google and worked as a teaching assistant at Cornell. In his third year, in 2009, he did a semester at Oxford University, which he describes as “life-changing”. “I had never travelled before and I fell in love with the UK and the Oxbridge set-up,” he says. He also got to travel around Europe and says the experience opened his eyes and gave him an appetite for travel and for taking a year out.

After graduating, he decided he wanted to go to Africa and found a job as a technology pioneer with Google in Ghana which involved him travelling eight months out of 12. His job was to help organise the emerging markets team, launch products for small businesses, come up with product strategies and liaise with journalists and activists. One project invoved him organising the first flash mob in Ghana for a product launch.
It was while he was in Ghana that he applied to do his MPhil in Advanced Computer Science at Cambridge University. He did his interview via Skype from Google’s Lagos office.

He was keen to go back to university and he wanted to do something that would be relevant to the developing world. He decided to work on a proof-of-concept Android app for search and rescue workers in disaster situations. The app could inform workers who were trying to find their way out of difficult situations.

After Cambridge, where Ben was communications officer on the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council, he went back to Google as Mobile Product Lead, joining the One Today app team two weeks before launch. One Today is an app that makes exploring and donating to social causes more engaging, on Android, iOS, and the web. Ben says that, since he had never worked on mobile development at Google before, he would have been out of his depth if he had not had his time at Cambridge.

In total he had been working on and off with Google for eight years. Over that time the company had grown a lot and he says he is very grateful for being able to do the work he did at such a young age. However, he felt it was time to move somewhere smaller and more flexible. So in October 2014 he moved to Kickstarter as Product Manager. Kickstarter is the world's largest funding platform for creative projects. Over his time there Ben launched the company’s first sophisticated project recommendation engine and worked on the consumer testing of products.


Last November he left and moved in January to a smaller company, KnowMe, a start-up which specialises in enabling authentic self expression and meaningful connection through the medium of video.

As Director of Product in a start-up he enjoyed the chance to be very hands on.

Over the summer, Ben attended the first Gates Cambridge Biennial where he met up with a fellow Gates Cambridge Scholar who specialises in machine learning. The two got talking and came up with an idea for a software solutions start-up. Ben left his job in September and is working on the start-up and doing consultancy work.

He says: “The Biennial was two of the best days of my life. It is so rare to spend time in that environment again. The panel debates were great with panellists from different perspectives talking deeply about a topic. It is very much in the spirit of Gates Cambridge. They were multidisciplinary and insightful. Before I came to Cambridge I was thinking about going to another university. When I visited Cambridge I met people and had conversations about engineering and the Arab Spring. It opened my mind. If I had gone to the other university I would just have talked about computer science. It is important to have that diversity of perspective that you get at Cambridge and with the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.”

Ben hopes the start-up will launch in the next several months and will show the impact a Gates Cambridge collaboration can have.

*Picture credit: DARPA and Wiki Commons.

02/11/2016 - 13:38Scholar wins prestigious biology prizeSuyang Zhang wins Max Perutz Student Prize

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has been awarded the most prestigious prize for students at the University of Cambridge's Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

Suyang Zhang, who is doing a PhD in Biological Sciences, has been awarded the Laboratory's Max Perutz Student Prize which is named after the Nobel Laureate.

The Prize is awarded annually for outstanding work performed at the Laboratory prior to the award of a PhD. 

Suyang was awarded the prize "for her elegant analysis by biochemistry and electron microscopy of the mechanism by which the key protein complex APC/C is controlled as cells go through cycles of division".

Suyang was recognised for the paper, Molecular mechanism of APC/C activation by mitotic phosphorylation, published earlier this year in Nature on which she was lead author. It revealed the molecular mechanism for activation of the anaphase-promoting complex in mitosis, a key regulator of cell division. Defects of the APC/C are frequently observed in different types of cancer so Suyang's aim is to understand how it works through various structural and biochemical approaches.

Suyang [2014] says of the Prize: "It was a great honour for me to receive this prize at the end of the second year of my PhD."

01/11/2016 - 13:05Innovation on two continentsA start-up founded by a Gates Cambridge Scholar has scooped a top award from Facebook.

A UK and South African-based start-up founded by a Gates Cambridge Scholar has won Facebook's top award for innovation in education in Africa.

Hyperion Development, a social enterprise founded and directed by Riaz Moola while he was an undergraduate and developed during his master's at the University of Cambridge, has taken the $230,000 prize for its pioneering work in the field of computer science education which aims to both boost the South African economy and also act as a social enterprise model for exporting skills from Africa.

Riaz [2014] founded the social enterprise after being confronted at university by the huge differences in educational opportunity in his country, particularly in his own subject, Computer Science. Inspired by recent MOOC platforms such as Coursera, he created an online course platform adapted to Africa which paired tutors - typically Computer Science graduates - with students trying to learn programming through a low-bandwidth, text-based resource. The aim was to lead a national initiative to revolutionise the fields of Computer Science and software development in South Africa. The platform has grown to be the largest of its kind in Southern Africa and Hyperion Development is now going international.

To do so, it has developed a novel business model: it offers part-time, online courses to students in the UK through its UK site which went live this week. These students are then paired with expert coding mentors sourced from the top 1% of raw talent in Africa. That means that when people learn online with Hyperion, they get a dedicated, one-on-one mentor supporting them through the course on a daily basis - not just a computer marking their work or pre-recorded videos.

But the company takes it a step further - ‘to solve the world's largest educational problem’, is how Hyperion phrases it:  for every course the company sells abroad, it delivers a free course to a low-income or unemployed youth in South Africa, creating employment and educational opportunities in African countries where youth unemployment is as high as 54%.

The company has already grown into the largest provider of software development education in the African market, with over 10,000 registered students from 14 countries. In then selects the top 1% of students to become online trainers for UK-based students.

Its model was recognised by Facebook's Innovation Challenge in Africa Awards which aim to identify “leading examples of … online services that provide real value in the categories of education and economic empowerment”. Hyperion won the top prize in the category of education. Facebook’s Founder, Mark Zuckerberg, congratulated the winners in a recent Facebook post.

Hyperion’s model has also been backed by Google - making it one of the few African organisations backed by both tech giants.

Riaz said: “The award will allow us to scale our offerings more rapidly internationally, accelerating what is already a profitable and socially impactful business. We’re excited to work with Facebook and to make software development education and careers open to all.”

Hyperion, which is headquartered in the UK in Cambridge as an incubated start-up at Cambridge's Judge Business School, has just confirmed another $40,000 in matched funding from Google and the South African Department of Science & Technology, bringing their 2016 grant funding total so far to US $270,000.

The Hyperion team work from offices in Durban and Cambridge. Riaz says its strong international links - team members include several Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh graduates - mean it can ensure software development in South Africa matches the highest international standards.

28/10/2016 - 13:21From cholera transmission to Chavez's VenezuelaFour Gates Cambridge Scholars will discuss their research at an internal symposium on Tuesday.

Four Gates Cambridge Scholars will give talks on research ranging from cholera transmission and the cell surface structure of bacteria to drug addition and racial politics in Venezuela at an internal symposium next week.

The Gates Cambridge internal symposium takes place on 1st November.

The speakers are:

- Emma Glennon [2016], who is doing a PhD in Veterinary Medicine. She will give a presentation on cholera transmission in the modern world.

She says that while cholera can be transmitted via water and this type of transmission has the potential to spark explosive epidemics, it can also be transmitted from person to person through more direct types of contact. However, the balance of these two transmission pathways is not well understood. She has used a mathematical model of cholera transmission to try to understand how both direct and waterborne transmission of cholera work together to maintain cholera epidemics in Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the most cholera-prone cities in the world. She says: “The interplay between these transmission types has direct implications for public health control measures to restrict - and climate change to drive - cholera.”

- Paul Bergen [2013], President of the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council. He will talk about his research into a cell surface nanomachine of bacteria, called the flagellum, and how it enables their movement and ability to cause disease. He will detail his laboratory’s work on uncovering the combined role of two proteins, FliK and the FlhB export gate, in bacterial motility, a previously unknown mechanism.  Paul is completing his PhD in Pathology.

- Parvathi Subbiah [2016], who is doing a PhD in Latin American Studies. She will speak about the role played by race in Venezuelan politics. Her research is looking at specific racial and cultural elements in the political identity of Chavismo that have helped the movement identify with the majority of Venezuelans and will analyse Chávez's discourse on race to determine the part it played ih his election as president. She says: “The study hopes to answer if, and if so how, Chávez's movement made skin colour an important element of political legitimacy and to give  a better understanding of how social and racial identities help shape and conform our political identities.”

- Alanna Just [2016], who is doing an MPhil in Medical Science [Psychiatry]. She will give a talk entitled “Reward processing in addiction – disentangling the effects of drugs and familiarity”. Her research addresses the issue of whether the brain abnormalities found in drug users are caused by drug use or whether they are the cause of drug use. It draws on studies of drug users and their siblings. Alanna says the implications are significant. If, for instance, users and their siblings have similar abnormalities in reward processing that may indicate an underlying neural trait that increases vulnerability to drug dependence prior to drug exposure. If not, it may suggest that there is a different brain network implicated in addiction. Moreover, if research shows siblings and those who are only recreational users have some sort of neural resilience to addiction that could inform the development of future treatment and therapies.

*The symposium takes place in the Gates Cambridge Scholars Common Room from  from 7-9pm. Scholars and their guests are welcome. Picture credit of Hugo Chavez: Wikipedia.

20/10/2016 - 10:39The quest for consciousnessSridhar Jagannathan talks about his research into the hugely complex realm of human consciousness.

What is the process involved in losing consciousness in a natural way? In other words, what happens when you fall asleep every night? How can we be alert one minute and then suffer brain fade the next?

These are just some of the questions being addressed by Sridhar Jagannathan’s research into the hugely complex realm of human consciousness.

The implications are far-reaching, not just for those suffering from severe problems relating to consciousness, such as brain-injured patients or even those who have suffered from stroke, but for all of us, from those who need to stay alert during long working hours to those who suffer from insomnia.

Sri is investigating how people lose consciousness naturally, its effect on attention and whether the process of losing consciousness can be described in a mathematical model.

Sri's PhD in Psychology is made up of three parts. The first focuses on measuring brain activity at the moment of losing consciousness or alertness. “It can be very complex because this can be a very subjective thing. We are drawing up a method to characterise how alert we are,” says Sri. He presented his research at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness conference in Buenos Aires this summer where he won the prize for the best poster in neuroscience.

Speaking about the wider implications of his research, he says: “We are looking to detect when a person is not as alert and what individuals’ characteristic sleep onset process is. That could have an application at work, for instance, for long distance train drivers.”

He adds that sleeplessness is a symptom of many diseases and that finding the key to how we fall asleep could be more impactful than other approaches.

The second area he is looking at is what happens to the attention of people when they are falling asleep. “When normal people are half asleep they make a lot of errors and this affects right-handed people more,” says Sri. “This is similar to people who suffer strokes - right-handed people suffer most. It seems that alertness could be related to a particular mechanism of attention in the brain. I am looking into the biological mechanism in the brain that causes that. It has implications for understanding how to address attention deficit in stroke patients.”

The third area is a more collaborative project using mathematical tools to characterise the dynamic process of transition from consciousness to unconsciousness. Sri says this could have applications for patients with brain injury who have periods when they are alert and others when they are not. At the moment it is impossible to predict when these periods of alertness will occur. Sri will begin work on this at the end of his second year.


Sri was born and brought up in Chennai, India. His parents ran a small shop. His mother, who had not gone to university herself, took her children’s education very seriously. “She always encouraged me,” says Sri. That included sending Sri and his sister to school an hour away from home in order to get a better education.

Sri struggled with mathematics in the beginning, as he didn’t enjoy learning by rote. However, he improved and excelled at geometry in particular. When he left school he was not sure what he wanted to do. He opted for an engineering degree mainly by default and when he had finished he worked for close to four years writing/debugging algorithms in car airbag systems for Bosch. However, he felt his problem-solving skills could be used to take on bigger challenges.

He became very interested in biomedicine - the newness of the field