This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of Centrepiece.
What is it like to study at the world’s fourth-oldest university on one of the world’s most prestigious postgraduate fellowships? For Ben Cocanougher ’11 and Parker Lawson ’15, both currently at the University of Cambridge as Centre’s first two Gates Cambridge Scholars, it is the opportunity of a lifetime. Established by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship program selects approximately 90 scholars per year from some 6,000 applicants worldwide. Recently Cocanougher and Lawson shared some thoughts on their Gates Cambridge experiences.
The Beauty of Memory
Ben Cocanougher ’11 interrupted medical school studies at the University of Rochester first for a research fellowship at the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute outside Washington, D.C., and now for a Ph.D. in neuroscience at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge. After completing his medical degree and training to be a child neurologist, he hopes to treat children with rare neurological disorders and to study their disorders in the lab.
I love ideas. In Cambridge, I am surrounded by centuries of great (and not so great) ideas and people from all over the world who also love ideas. I love the stone steps worn by centuries of students’ steps. I am occasionally overwhelmed by dining halls that are hundreds of years older than the U.S. and by walking past the lab spaces where the electron and the structure of DNA were discovered. But most important, I love interacting with the diverse community in Cambridge that makes the city and university so vibrant.
The best way to explain Cambridge colleges versus Cambridge University—in a way that would most interest my fifth-grade self—is to compare the colleges to Harry Potter houses. The same way Harry is in Gryffindor—he lives and interacts with others in his house, but attends class with students from Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw, who are all part of Hogwarts—is the same way that I am a member of St. Catharine’s College but a student at Cambridge University.
The Gates community is in some ways like a second college. It is full of curious, ambitious, and friendly people who are excited about their work. The span of interests is wide, but there is also lots of space for collaboration between disciplines. In addition, there is a strong alumni network that I have been able to connect with in D.C.
I’ve spent six to eight months combined in Cambridge so far and will spend another year in Cambridge starting in the fall. I am working on the same projects at Janelia Research Campus and the University of Cambridge; at the moment, most of our lab equipment is at Janelia, so I have been spending more time there recently to complete experiments.
I am in Dr. Marta Zlatic’s lab, and she has a dual appointment at the University of Cambridge and Janelia. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is the second-wealthiest philanthropic organization in the U.S. and the second-best endowed medical research foundation in the world; it is a privilege to work at both Janelia, which is purposefully hyperfocused on a few challenging problems in science, and the University of Cambridge, where experts from all fields thrive.
I am primarily interested in how gene expression confers identity to the brain. The brain is made of neurons. These neurons communicate with one another to perform computations. It is our goal to better understand how these computations occur. By understanding the genes that each neuron expresses, we can better understand how these cells function. Do all neurons use the same cellular machinery? Based on my Ph.D. work, that seems not to be the case. In order to better understand how different this use of machinery can be, I have been creating an atlas of every gene expressed in every single cell in a small brain from the fruit fly larva (about 10,000 neurons). Hopefully this atlas will help us better understand how a small brain works.
I am also interested in how the brain changes to store memory. Disorders of memory (Alzheimer’s, autism, etc.) are devastating and have few treatments; our understanding of memory storage is still far from complete. I am searching for genes and structural changes in the brain that correlate with memory. Hopefully by clarifying a small piece of this puzzle, we will be able to build better models to understand memory storage, which may provide a path for the development of therapies.
I ultimately have two goals: to improve the lives of sick children and to learn something beautiful about nature. To achieve even a little of either is difficult but worth pursuing. Sometimes you can do both at the same time.
Third Times’s a Charm
Parker Lawson ’15 was already in Cambridge working toward a master’s in modern European history as a Rotary Global Grant Scholar at Selwyn College when he learned he’d won a Gates Cambridge award to continue his studies toward a Ph.D., this time in the department of Spanish and Portuguese. It was his third attempt at a Gates award. “I experienced my fair share of rejected applications,” he admits, “but each unsuccessful attempt informed my next endeavor.”
One of the less obvious advantages of being a Gates Scholar is the immediate induction into a vibrant campus community that provides robust programming, from a three-day orientation in the Lake District to a diverse slate of social, academic, personal, and professional development events throughout the year. These include the annual black-tie Gala, Day of Engagement (our take on a community service plunge), a program of Learning for Purpose workshops specifically designed for postgraduate researchers (think mindfulness, seminars on computer programming, how to navigate “difficult” conversations, etc.), plus periodic presentations of research and Scholar Stories (like the ODK Life Stories convocation at Centre). The scholarship is therefore much more than strictly financial: Gates Cambridge provides access to a dynamic community of peers from around the world whose research is frequently at the cutting edge in their respective fields.
Having already completed a master’s degree at Cambridge, I entered this academic year with less trepidation and more of a view towards making a positive start on my Ph.D. research. I already had a mobile phone and knew where the supermarkets were. I had an existing group of friends to hang out with, and I’d had a year to make some sense of Cambridge’s complex system of colleges and departments, graduate tutors, and research supervisors, to work out terms like plodge (porter’s lodge), MCR (rooms where post-graduate students of a particular college socialize and relax), and Evensong, and, crucially, to learn which direction to pass the port at a High Table dinner.
On a peer-to-peer level, there is no shortage of interesting conversation, whether about someone’s personal narrative or a research project. It is a welcome reminder of the internationally inclusive environment that colleges and universities work to foster. With regard to my interaction with faculty, my Ph.D. program does not consist of coursework but instead is focused almost entirely on the production of a doctoral dissertation in preparation for an academic career. To that end, I am grateful to be supervised by Professor Brad Epps, whose research is as diverse as it is prodigious, and my secondary advisor, Professor Dominic Keown, whose knowledge of Catalan studies is nearly without parallel in the field.
Demonstrating a commitment to improving the lives of others is the defining characteristic of the Gates Cambridge program. My project addresses longstanding questions about the formation and character of the nation, state, and identity in modern Spain and Catalonia. By focusing on pedagogical theory and practice from the mid-19th century onward, I argue that the civic function of education can be used to serve the goals of particular political projects, be it the attempt to forge a generation ethnically and linguistically “Spanish” or, on the other hand, the use of minority languages such as Catalan in the classroom in order to foster students committed to regional nationalism. I hope my Ph.D. provides a springboard into a career of academic teaching, research, and eventually, institutional leadership.