This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 edition of Centrepiece.
Stephen Metcalf ’14 has been named a Gates Cambridge Scholar—Centre’s third. He will begin a three-year Ph.D. program in public health and primary care at the University of Cambridge in the fall.
Ben Cocanougher ’11, the first winner, was named in 2016 and will complete a Ph.D. in neuroscience this spring before returning to the University of Rochester, N.Y., to finish an M.D. Parker Lawson ’15, named in 2017, is looking at the relationship between educational reform and variegated notions of nation, state, and identity in modern Spain and Catalonia for his Ph.D.
Established in 2000 by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, the program offers one of the world’s most prestigious postgraduate fellowships. Each year it selects approximately 90 scholars from some 6,000 applicants.
Metcalf is interested in childhood adversity and resilience. Using existing data in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, he and his mentors will consider resilience with respect to adolescent mental health and educational achievement.
“In research we tend to focus most of our funding and time on the things that go wrong in a person’s life, but I think we have much to learn from those who do better than expected given their backgrounds,” he explains. “If we can uncover the factors that relate to resilience, we may be able to better help those who need it most. I [am interested in] this overarching question:
Given similar histories of hardship, why do some children do better than others?”
Growing up in Ashland, Ky., surrounded by the poverty and poor health that plague so much of Appalachia, Metcalf was disturbed by the area’s fundamental inequalities.
“I find it disheartening that so many of our opportunities in life are determined by the circumstances we’re born into,” he says. “I’m committed to improving equity—not just of resources but of possibilities. I see resilience to adversity as one of many potential pathways that may lead to a greater ability to thrive.”
A stand-out behavioral neuroscience major at Centre, Metcalf won the College’s top math prize as a sophomore and the Ormond Beatty Alumni Prize for a distinguished record as a senior. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
His search for meaning in life, a longtime quest, led him to use his Brown Fellow research funds to spend a month at a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan one summer. He later spent a semester studying metaphysics and existentialism at the University of Oxford. As a senior, he did a John C. Young project on spiritual memoirs and autobiographies.
Although he may seem to have blended his multiple interests into a smooth trajectory, his way did not always seem clear. As a rising junior at Centre, he, like many college juniors, had no idea what he wanted to do when he grew up. His tenacious approach to solving problems inspired him to go through the roughly 4,500 options listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which he narrowed down to about 200 possible options. Eventually he found his way to epidemiology, earning an M.Phil. at Cambridge in 2015 with an examination of the association between the immune system and mental illness.
For the last two years he has been part of Dartmouth medical school research teams looking at health behavior change and at policy-focused research on the U.S. opioid crisis. His research has resulted in four co-authored papers in peer-reviewed journals.
“Substance use in the household is among the types of childhood adversities I’ll study as part of my Ph.D.,” he notes.
A three-time Gates Cambridge applicant, Metcalf credits his ultimate success in part to additional experience. However, the most important factor, he says, was the “generosity” and “the support of a long list of amazing peers and mentors.”
His advice to the next Gates Cambridge Scholar from Centre: “It’s easy to connect the dots in hindsight, but in no way does my life narrative fit a linear path to my proposed studies,” he says. “Yours doesn’t have to either.”
by Diane Johnson
April 23, 2019