From l to r: Prof Louis Gates Jr, Dr Ali Smith, Dr Judith Weir, Prof Sir John Walker, Prof Sir Roger Penrose, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, Prof Stephen Toope, Prof Wole Soyinka, Prof Sir Simon Schama, Prof Kwame Appiah, Prof Elizabeth Robertson, Prof Edith Heard

Bright sunshine beamed down on the distinguished ten guests who gathered to receive an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge on 22 June. The conferment of honorary degrees is one of the highest accolades the University can bestow upon people who have made outstanding achievements in their respective fields.

This is a celebration of the empire of knowledge which is the only empire worth belonging to

Sir Simon Schama

The University’s Chancellor, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, presided over the congregation, which is held inside the Senate House and conducted in both English and Latin. Around 400 staff, students and other guests were also in attendance.

The honorary graduands this year are:

Professor Kwame Appiah - Kwame studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Clare College and did his PhD there. He is an Honorary Fellow at the College. He is also the present Leslie Stephen Lecturer. A Professor of both Philosophy and Law at New York University, Appiah has taught philosophy, African studies, and African American studies at the University of Ghana and at Yale, Cornell, Duke and Harvard Universities.

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr - The filmmaker, literary scholar, and institution builder, Henry Louis Gates Jr, came to Clare College, of which he is an Honorary Fellow, to study for his PhD. Currently Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard, Gates is known for pioneering theories of African and African American literature and has created more than 20 films, including a ground-breaking genealogy and genetics series, Finding Your Roots. Gates, affectionately known as Skip, said “All honours are a blessing, of course, but it is difficult to imagine one more meaningful than recognition from one’s alma mater.”

Professor Edith Heard - The epigeneticist and developmental biologist, Edith Heard, is an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, where she read natural sciences before obtaining her PhD at Imperial College London, investigating gene amplification in rat cells. She is currently Professor of Epigenetics and Cellular Memory, Collège de France, and Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). Edith said: “Today we are living in a truly exciting time for the life sciences. I believe that the University of Cambridge and EMBL are two great institutions that exemplify how science and technology can come together to advance discovery and inspire the next generation of scientists.”

Professor Sir Roger Penrose - The mathematical physicist and philosopher of science, Roger Penrose, studied mathematics at University College London before coming to Cambridge and St John’s College, of which he is now an Honorary Fellow, to complete a PhD on tensor methods in algebraic geometry. He is now Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics Emeritus in the University of Oxford. Knighted and appointed to the Order of Merit, Roger Penrose received the Nobel Prize for Physics, jointly with Reinhard Genzei and Andrea Ghez.

Professor Elizabeth Robertson - The developmental biologist Elizabeth Robertson came to Cambridge after reading zoology at the University of Oxford and worked for her PhD in the Department of Genetics and as a graduate student at Darwin College, of which she is now an Honorary Fellow. Currently a Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow and Professor of Developmental Biology in the Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford, Robertson is a pioneer in developmental genetics.

Professor Sir Simon Schama - The historian and art historian, Simon Schama, was an undergraduate at Christ’s College, of which he is an Honorary Fellow, winning a starred first in history and going on to a Fellowship and to direct studies in the subject. A recent Leslie Stephen Lecturer, he is presently University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University. A prolific scholar, writer and critic, his  television work has included work as writer and presenter of sixty BBC documentaries. He said “this is a celebration of the empire of knowledge which is the only empire worth belonging to.”

Dr Ali Smith - The author, playwright, academic and journalist, Ali Smith, is an Honorary Fellow of Newnham College, of Clare Hall and of Lucy Cavendish College, as well as Senior Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts at Trinity College. After reading English language and literature at the University of Aberdeen, coming first in her class and winning their Bobby Aitken Memorial Prize for Poetry, she first came to Cambridge and Newnham to begin work on a PhD in American and Irish modernism. Ali is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Professor Wole Soyinka - The playwright, poet, novelist and political activist, Wole Soyinka is an Honorary Fellow of Churchill College and has held visiting appointments at Cambridge, Legon, Atlanta, and Yale. He is presently Professor Emeritus, Dramatic Literature of the Obafemi Awolowo University. His numerous plays, poems, novels, essays and short stories won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986.

Professor Sir John Walker - The biochemist and molecular biologist, John Walker, is an Emeritus Fellow of Sidney Sussex College and Honorary Professor of Molecular Bioenergetics. While working at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge he developed protein sequencing to interpret early DNA sequences leading to the discovery of triple over-lapping genes in bacteriophages, and proof of modifications of the genetic code in mitochondria. His investigation of the enzymatic process creating adenosine triphosphate led to a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded jointly with two other scientists.

Dr Judith Weir - The composer Judith Weir was born in Cambridge to Scottish parents and first studied composition with Sir John Tavener. Now an Honorary Fellow of King’s College and of Trinity College she is the first female Master of the Queen’s Music. Internationally acclaimed for orchestral and chamber music, but perhaps better known for operas and theatrical work, her compositions often draw on sources from medieval history and the traditional stories and music of Scotland. She is President of the Royal Society of Musicians.

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