Centre College graduate Benjamin T. Cocanougher has been awarded one of the world’s most competitive postgraduate fellowships, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
Established by Bill and Melinda Gates in 2000 with a $210 million endowment, the prestige of the Gates award is already on par with the more established Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
Described in the announcement as one of “the world’s most brilliant future leaders,” Cocanougher will begin work in fall 2016 on a Ph.D. in zoology at Cambridge University in England. Founded in 1209, Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world (after Oxford) and the fourth oldest surviving university in the world.
Provost Barry Everitt of the Gates Cambridge Trust described this year’s 35 U.S. recipients as “a highly accomplished and diverse group who have already achieved much in terms of their academic studies, leadership abilities and commitment to improving the lives of others.”
Approximately 90 highly competitive scholarships are granted annually. Some 1,500 Gates alumni are spread across the world since the award’s inception, representing 103 countries and 600 colleges or universities.
“We are extremely proud of Ben’s accomplishment,” Centre President John A. Roush says, “and he joins an impressive list of graduates going on to earn exceptional postgraduate fellowships, blazing a trail as the College’s first-ever Gates Cambridge recipient.”
Centre College has produced two-thirds of Kentucky’s Rhodes Scholars over the last half century and more than 50 Fulbright and 12 Goldwater scholars since 1991. Centre students have also received numerous Rotary International awards and a Boren fellowship.
Currently working toward his M.D. degree at the University of Rochester, Cocanougher graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Centre in 2011 with a B.S. degree in biochemistry & molecular biology.
He is also completing a research fellowship at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where he is engaged on a project titled “Establishment of selective connections in the Drosophila nerve cord” under the direction of Dr. Marta Zlatic. The study involves investigating the principles by which neurons connect to form circuits during embryonic development.
Cocanougher plans to continue this line of research with Zlatic, who is returning to Cambridge, by studying how memories are stored in a whole brain and how this process goes awry in disease.
“By understanding the mechanisms of memory storage,” Cocanougher explains, “I hope that it may be possible to investigate the changes in memory formation in disease and develop rational therapies for memory formation disorders, including autism and Alzheimer’s disease.”
The scholarship allows Cocanougher to return to England, where he studied in spring of 2010 as part of the Centre-in-London Program. An average 85 percent of Centre students study abroad.
The London program’s co-director that year, Associate Professor of Chemistry Jeff Fieberg, says that Cocanougher is “one of the kindest, most sincere students that I have taught.”
Fieberg adds, “Ben always enjoyed being challenged, and he always exceeded my very high expectations. He also enhanced the study abroad experience for all of his student colleagues by asking insightful questions as we visited places like Darwin’s house in Kent, the National Gallery and, of course, the Cavendish Laboratory (both old and new) in Cambridge.”
Stephen E. Asmus, the H.W. Stodghill and Adele Stodghill Professor of Biology and Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, echoes this praise. He directed Cocanougher’s John C. Young Scholar senior honor thesis, “Microvessel regulation by tyrosine hydroxylase-immunroactive interneurons in the developing rat cerebreal cortex.”
“Ben was enthusiastic and successful in every endeavor, always asking thoughtful questions that pushed me to think deeply about our research project,” Asmus says.
He continues, “Beyond all of his academic abilities, he genuinely cared about others, demonstrated when he started a local chapter of Best Buddies that paired a Centre student with a mentally handicapped adult in Danville for mutual support and encouragement.”
Professor of Biology and Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Stephanie Dew reiterates these impressions.
“Ben was an outstanding student, but he was also widely recognized as an exemplary student-leader on campus, including as a member of the student judiciary,” Dew says. “Student judiciary members are highly regarded on campus, nominated and elected by their fellow students based on their leadership, honor and integrity.”
January Haile, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry & molecular biology, was particularly impressed not just with Cocanougher’s work ethic and intelligence but how “he was also a good citizen in the classroom and laboratory. Ben was pleasant and gracious to his colleagues. He was humble as well about his abilities and worked diligently with his peers to solve problems in and out of the academic arena.”
Professor of Chemistry Joe Workman, Centre’s chief health professions advisor, credits Cocanougher’s biomedical research interests as developing from his work in summer camps devoted to children with life-threatening diseases.
“Ben worked at these camps for several summers,” Workman explains, “and it was clear to me that these children had a profound effect on him. He was really committed to educating himself about their illnesses and preparing himself to someday make a contribution to solving those diseases.”
Workman cites Cocanougher’s contributions at a camp for children with spinal muscular atrophy with inspiring him to contact a researcher in that area at the University of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
“Ben also found time during the academic year to work with children who have Asperger’s syndrome and autism,” Workman says.
Among his many honors at Centre, Cocanougher received the Max P. Cavnes Prize, awarded to the best-loved and most-respected senior man and woman; the Ormand Beatty Prize, awarded to a senior with a distinguished record; and a Fine Arts Scholarship.
by Michael Strysick
February 11, 2016