In August we have a number of prestigious scholarships close, which if they are awarded, see Otago Graduates represent Otago at international renowned academic institutes like Oxford or Cambridge University. One of these scholarships is the Cambridge -Rutherford Memorial Scholarship. I recently caught up with Elisabeth Liddle and Max Wilkinson, who were named the Rutherford Scholars for 2015.
Mel : First up, congratulations on your success with the Rutherford scholarship. Can you tell us a bit about the scholarship and what it means to you to receive it?
Elisabeth:Thank you very much, it is all very exciting (and a little overwhelming!). Winning the Cambridge-Rutherford PhD Memorial Scholarship is an absolute honour and I feel extremely privileged to be handed such an amazing opportunity. The scholarship is administered by the Rutherford Foundation (under the Royal Society) and is jointly funded by the Rutherford Foundation and the Cambridge Trust. It provides me with a fully paid 3 year PhD at Cambridge (fees, accommodation, annual return airfare to NZ and a living stipend), all of which is a little bit surreal still. I am excited to represent New Zealand and the Rutherford Trust at Cambridge and across the developing world as I seek to understand and improve water supply and quality with the aim of improving the standard of living in developing countries.
Max: Thank you very much, it is incredibly exciting! The scholarship is awarded by the Rutherford Foundation of the Royal Society to about three young New Zealand researchers each year, and provides full funding for three years of PhD study at the University of Cambridge – this includes university and college fees, living costs, and one return flight each year. Obviously this is a really awesome opportunity – Cambridge has a really strong academic environment and was one of the major birthplaces of my discipline (molecular biology). It therefore means a lot to get this scholarship, as it will set me up for my future career with really good experience and connections.
Mel: So what will be your topic of research at Cambridge (in layman’s terms)?
Elisabeth: My broad research interest is water supply in developing nations, focused on the safety and sustainability of shallow hand dug wells for supply. My Master’s project was based in a city in Zambia assessing the quality of the shallow wells in the informal communities of the urban area and whether they were safe for human consumption, along with the challenges that locals face on a daily basis.
My PhD proposal is a continuation of this research, looking at the groundwater recharge in this area, analysing where the recharge water is coming from, how it varies seasonally (there are 9 months of dry season so knowing whether water is being added to the water table during this time is really important), and how locals’ challenges vary throughout the year to understand the different types of help that will be needed at different times of the year.
Max: The fundamental workings of life are not at the level of your organs, or even of your individual cells: they are at the level of tiny machines within cells made of proteins and nucleic acids (like DNA and RNA). I’m really interested in what these machines look like and how they work, in molecular detail – what we call structural biology.
I haven’t finalised a research topic at Cambridge, but it will revolve around structural biology. One of the likely possibilities is looking at the structure of the ribosome: a very complicated machine that makes all of the proteins in a cell. Another possibility is examining the structure of the spliceosome: a machine that processes the instructions for making proteins. These projects will all help give a better understanding of the fundamental workings of life.
Mel: The scholarship offers funding to support study in the UK at Cambridge University. What was the main reason for you to look at studying overseas and did you consider staying and studying here at Otago?
Elisabeth: I most definitely considered staying at Otago for my PhD as I love it here. Three of my older siblings went to Otago so it kind of runs in the family and to be honest, it would have been a nice and easy transition based on my PhD being a continuation of the research I have already been doing in the department. However, I decided that it was time for a change (and a new challenge) and that I really wanted to be working alongside those at the top of this field in the world. Most of these researchers seem to be based in the UK and there is a lot of funding for this type of research. Cambridge itself has a Water Environment Research Group, with the majority of these researchers working on water provision in developing nations in some form.
Max: I definitely considered staying at Otago for my PhD – my current research topic with Peter Fineran and Kurt Krause is awesome, and I’d have been really happy staying to pursue it further. Also, at the moment my intention is for my scientific career to be in New Zealand. However, I think overseas experience is really important: it diversifies your world perspective (both scientific and otherwise) and is really good for making contacts.
A place like Cambridge attracts amazing minds from all over the world into one, rather small, town. The advantage of going there is therefore not only its amazing facilities and research output, but also the people you meet on a day to day basis: people you can talk to and exchange ideas with, and also maybe future collaborative partners. Science is a pretty small world, and these collaborations are becoming more and more important.
Mel: What tips would you give applicants who are looking at applying for a scholarship like the Rutherford?
Elisabeth: Be bold! Apply even if it all seems a little too hard out for you! If you have a dream, you have to be confident enough to put yourself out there in the first place. For the actual application process, spend the time writing a full research proposal before you start the application. For the application itself, you only need a half a page for your project summary, so having a 25 page document behind this may seem like a waste of time, but having this helped me a lot in formulating what I actually wanted to do and made the interview process a lot easier when I was asked further details about my project. Also, be in contact with potential supervisors at Cambridge, this really helps and is another reason to have a full proposal prepared.
Max: It’s really important to have thoroughly researched Cambridge and your proposed course. Getting in contact with potential supervisors can seem quite intimidating, but is really helpful – I found that everyone I talked to was lovely and really helpful. If you already have connections to Cambridge, that can be useful – ask your current research supervisor, and you might be surprised about who they know.
For the actual application it helps to have a good academic record – but you also really want other strings to your bow, because these are stressed in an application and in an interview. Things that show you’re a human. For example, for me this was music – I’m a very keen performer on the trombone and piano, as well as a composer. Talk up things like that, even if they don’t seem too important to you. Do you play a sport? Have you learned a language? Have you volunteered? What are your hobbies? These are all really good things for an application like this. The interview panel is also interested in commitment to New Zealand – they don’t want to throw all this money at you and see you disappear into the void. Lastly, if you get to the interview stage, the most important thing there is probably enthusiasm: if you genuinely love and care about your proposed research, you should talk like that. Careful and calculated responses in an interview are never as good as genuine, natural responses. (For me the interview panel was very lovely, so this in the end was very comfortable.)
Mel: After you have completed your studies at Cambridge what is your plan for world domination? (this was Claire’s question)
Elisabeth: Post Cambridge I plan to continue to work in this field, assessing water supply challenges and implementing new programs for new safe structures for water supply throughout the developing world. This is yet another reason to go to Cambridge, to expose myself to those who are doing the work I want to. Hopefully getting to know them with give me a foot in the door for getting a job afterwards in this area.
Max: Haha, unfortunately I’ll probably just do a couple of postdocs (sorry, boring I know).
Mel: Cambridge is famous for it’s rivalry with Oxford will you be taking part in famous boat race (just a general note my old boss at Waterstones in the UK rowed with Hugh Laurie)
Elisabeth: Of course! Well I mean, I will be cheering from the banks! I don’t know if I would be much help in the actual boat.
Max: I’d love to if I had any skill with a boat! But I will definitely wander over to see the footlights – the Cambridge amateur theatre club whose past members include the likes of Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Emma Thompson, Douglas Adams, David Mitchell… etc.
If you are interested in studying at either Cambridge or Oxford in the UK, then you may wish to visit the Universities New Zealand website which offers of number of prestigious scholarship. Equally feel free to send us an email and we can talk you through your options.