Students nab prestigious British scholarships

By Nora Sorena Casey

Two University of Chicago students are getting free rides from prestigious scholarships to study science at Cambridge University in England next year. Alumna Elizabeth Sefton (A.B. ’07) and fourth-year biological chemistry major Matthew Biancalana were awarded the Gates Cambridge and Churchill Scholarships, respectively.

The promise of a fully covered year of graduate study at Cambridge University, valued at $25,000, has made competition for each scholarship intense, with thousands of students applying for less than a hundred awards between the two programs.

Sefton plans to pursue a Master of Philosophy (M.Phil) in Zoology. The M.Phil is a one-year, research-based degree that Sefton plans to earn by comparing segmentation mechanisms in certain insects against those of vertebrates. During her time in the U.K., Sefton said that she also hopes to participate in science education at the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge.

While at the U of C, Sefton’s thesis work involved the study of pharynx development in zebrafish. She is currently still working with zebrafish as a research technician investigating hindbrain development.

Sefton said that after her year at Cambridge, she plans on obtaining a Ph.D. and hopes to study developmental biology at a university or museum while continuing to work as an educator.

“I wanted a shorter program to get more research done,” Sefton said. “The masters program at Cambridge will be largely research based and it won’t be coursework, which will be a new way of dealing with school.”

Biancalana is also pursuing a M.Phil at Cambridge, and plans to research drug design. Biancalana has done previous work with protein engineering, but at Cambridge he plans to work on engineering protein enzymes to synthesize compounds that have pharmaceutical applications.

“I view the Churchill as a chance to investigate drug development and decide if it’s a viable course of research in graduate school,” Biancalana said in an e-mail interview.

After his year abroad, Biancalana plans to pursue further graduate education, but said he is still undecided about a final career.

“One of the main reasons for applying to the Churchill was to have a chance to see how science is done in other countries. I’ve never traveled outside the U.S., if you discount crossing the border into Canada to visit a Pizza Hut,” he said.

Despite his lack of international experience, Biancalana said he isn’t concerned about the transition to his new academic home.

“While the U.K. is a completely different beast from the U.S., I’m not too worried about adapting to British culture,” he said.

Potential Gates Cambridge Scholarships recipients are selected by individual Cambridge University departments from a pool of about 3,400 non-U.K. students already accepted at Cambridge. Ultimately, anywhere from 250 to 300 candidates are interviewed. This year, 45 applicants received the scholarship. The scholarship was established by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 by a donation of $210 million.

Biancalana was one of 12 students to receive the Churchill award, after passing screening processes both at the U of C and on the national level.

Both scholarships cover all tuition fees and a living allowance of £10,000 to £12,000, depending on the length of the program.