Gates Cambridge

A global network of change makers

Cambridge Cambridge

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship programme was established with a $210m (£159m) gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with the aim of creating a global network of academically outstanding, socially-engaged individuals. Since its first cohort in 2001, over 1,500 scholars from more than 100 countries have been awarded the scholarship.

They come from all disciplines and there is no age barrier, meaning the scholarship benefits from a breadth of experience. What unites scholars is their academic brilliance and their commitment to improving the lives of others, however they seek to do this.  Many are now alumni and, although the programme is still young, they are having an impressive impact in many different ways across the globe. In addition to the many who are doing pioneering research in universities around the world, they include:

  • Kayla Barron (Peterhouse 2010) who is training to be a NASA astronaut
  • Social entrepreneurs like Riaz Moola (King's 2014), founder of CoGrammar, an award-winning UK and South Africa-based computer science education start-up
  • Politicians including Yeo Bee Yin (Corpus 2009), Minister of Energy, Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment in Malaysia
  • Entrepreneurs like Chandler Robinson (St John's 2009) whose MBA helped him start a biotech company to develop a potentially life-saving drug which has recently been acquired by a major drugs company.
"Since the first class of 2001, the Gates Cambridge Trust has awarded more than 1,600 scholarships to outstanding students from 104 countries, and across the world 1,200 alumni are making an impact in a wide range of fields."
Bill Gates

Here is a selection of alumni who are making a difference around the globe.

Tara Westover (Trinity 2009), USA

Tara Westover grew up in rural Idaho,  raised by a radical, survivalist father who was intensely paranoid about government interference in the lives of his family. As a child, she didn’t attend school and taught herself to pass a university entrance exam. While studying at Brigham Young University, she was exposed to ideas, viewpoints and subjects that she had not encountered before.

She describes the process in her best-selling memoir, Educated. The book tracks her journey from Idaho to Brigham Young to Cambridge University, where she won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to do a PhD in History. It has been widely and very favourably reviewed, with former president, Barack Obama, selecting it as one of his top five recommended reads for the summer.

The book ends with Tara summing up the intense process of self-discovery she underwent, comparing the decisions and choices she makes now with those of her childhood self: "The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made," she writes. "They were the choices of a changed person, a new self.  You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”

Wale Adebanwi (Trinity Hall 2003), Nigeria

Wale Adebanwi’s appointment as the first Black African Rhodes Professor of Race Relations at Oxford University was described as an inspiration for Africa by Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and he is widely viewed as a global leader in the African Studies community.

Professor Adebanwi, who is also Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford, is author of many influential 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 Professor at the University of California-Davis. He was also a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.

His book on the Yoruba drew heavily on his PhD thesis at the University of Cambridge, but also on years of working on Nigerian newspapers, including an underground weekly paper, during Nigeria’s struggle for democracy in the 1990s.

In addition to his books, Professor Adebanwi is the first African joint-editor of the journal Africa and is a former co-editor of the Journal of Contemporary African Studies.

Andrea Cabrero Vilatela (Pembroke 2011), Mexico

In the year and a half since she earned her PhD from the University of Cambridge Andrea Cabrero Vilatela co-founded a company which aimed to embed different nanomaterials in textiles to make smart clothing, such as sports shirts that monitor the wearer’s breathing rate. As co-founder, Andrea, from Mexico, successfully pitched to Nokia, winning the Nokia Open Innovation Challenge at the end of 2017 and was awarded an Innovate UK grant.

The company built on her academic expertise in nanotechnology and engineering and her experience of working with multiple start-ups at Cambridge and volunteering for Simprints, the digital fingerprint ID company co-founded by Gates Cambridge scholars. She was also director of operations at Cambridge University Technology and Enterprise Club.

Andrea’s PhD focused on optimising the growth and transfer of electronic grade graphene and is part of efforts to develop graphene applications in flexible electronics, such as organic LED and liquid crystal devices.

Now using her business experience to mentor and advise other start-ups, she says: “Cambridge is a magical place where you are encouraged to dream big. My career has been defined by my time at Cambridge and particularly, the experiences enabled by the Gates community. I was fortunate to meet incredibly inspiring people and I’m really grateful to be part of the community.”

Rajiv Chowdhury (Queens' 2009), Bangladesh

Five years since completing his PhD, Dr Rajiv Chowdhury is now a Principal Research Associate in Global Health at the Cambridge Department of Public Health. He also serves as the Scientific Director and joint Principal Investigator of an £8m four-year programme to address public health and environmental risks in Bangladesh. The programme involves a 100,000-person study of long-term health in Bangladesh and aims to help develop simple, scalable and effective solutions to control major environmental and lifestyle risk factors in Bangladesh.

Dr Chowdhury, who has worked as a doctor in Bangladesh, also leads the Global Health Research theme within the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge and is the lead Principal Investigator of several other international research projects.

While he was completing his PhD in Public Health and Primary Care, Rajiv was named the first recipient of the Bill Gates Senior Prize in recognition of his outstanding work in public health. At the time he had published 15 high-impact papers while completing his PhD (he has since published roughly 100 peer-reviewed papers, many in high-impact biomedical journals).

He says: “My time as a Gates Cambridge Scholar inspired me to contribute further in global health as I found some of the underpinning values of the programme and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a whole very motivating with their emphasis on collaboration, rigour, innovation and optimism.”

Hanna Baumann (King's 2012), Germany

Hanna Baumann has been fascinated by the subject of divided cities since she was young, having been born in what was East Berlin. Her PhD in Architecture at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Urban Conflicts Research focused on Palestinian mobility in Jerusalem and the ways in which the city has both included and excluded Palestinians.

She is now a researcher at the RELIEF Centre at University College London where she has been 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.

Hanna has recently been awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship to compare the ways refugees are integrated into host societies in Germany and Lebanon, in particular how infrastructure and public services define the relationship between refugees and their host countries.

She says: “Completing my PhD at Cambridge as a Gates Scholar gave me more than just the ability to fully immerse myself in my research for four years, a real luxury in itself. It provided me with a network of friends and colleagues who work at the cutting edge of their respective fields and have thus broadened my horizon in all kinds of unexpected directions. I continue to keep in touch - and even collaborate - with many of them."

Alex Vail (St John's 2010), Australia

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 where he was the only child, he spent his childhood surrounded by visiting marine biologists and was taught via Australia’s School of the Air over the radio.

In the last few years he has been translating his research and that of other scientists into popular science documentaries. He has worked as a cameraman on Blue Planet 2  on subjects ranging from shark behaviour to coral bleaching. He has also done some presenting on fish behaviour and has been working on his own documentary on fish intelligence for the last couple of years.

He says his experience at the University of Cambridge and as a Gates Cambridge Scholar has had a big impact on his current work: “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.”

Srilakshmi Raj (Caius 2007), USA

Just over a year ago, Srilakshmi Raj was named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in Healthcare in recognition of the potential impact of her research into genetic variation in different population groups. Earlier this year she was selected as a regional finalist in the British Council's Study UK Alumni Awards after she won a national award in the US.  The award received thousands of applications from international UK alumni in 123 countries.

Srilakshmi is currently researching how genetic variation acts in different environmental contexts to predispose individuals to complex disease, particularly heart disease and stunting. 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.

In the last few years she has been working on African, Indian and European genomics and on a variety of diseases, including hypertension, coronary heart disease and stunting, using new techniques to explore the links between genes and the environment.

Her research has benefited from the interdisciplinary approach inspired by Gates Cambridge, for instance, conversations with a fellow Gates Cambridge Scholar who specialises in public health led to her collaborating with a nutritionist to investigate the role of long-term dietary habits on phenotypes.  She says: “Such interactions have informed how I do my research and how I communicate with other researchers. Gates Cambridge is a wonderful community.”

A global community

What makes the Gates Cambridge experience different is the emphasis on community and on creating a multi-disciplinary global network of future leaders. Both the Scholars Council and Alumni Association are led by scholars.

This sense of community, which at the University of Cambridge revolves around the Gates Cambridge Scholars’ Common Room, has led to several cross-disciplinary joint ventures.  These include Simprints, a fingerprint identification system for applications in global health, microfinance and fighting corruption, co-founded by Gates Cambridge scholars Toby Norman (Sidney Sussex 2011), Daniel Storisteanu (Clare Hall 2012) and Alexandra Grigore (St Edmund's 2012).

Simprints has won numerous awards, including a $2m (£1.5m) innovation prize to prevent maternal and child deaths in the hardest-to-reach regions of the world.

Rob Rivers (Clare 2003) and Rebecca Saunderson (Corpus 2012), co-chairs of the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association, say: “The very special sense of community which Gates Cambridge fosters is a vital part of the scholarship’s impact, not just at Cambridge but in the years afterwards. Being surrounded by passionate, altruistic people is extremely inspiring and stimulating. Ideas are debated and developed and lasting friendships and professional bonds formed. These are the potential seeds for the kind of innovation we need to address today’s global challenges.”

Watch a film about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship programme.