March 31, 2003

Cornellian Wins Churchill Award

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Imagine spending a year studying at Cambridge University in England, free of cost, with an additional stipend to cover room and board. As a recipient of a Winston Churchill Foundation Scholarship, Yolanda Tseng ’03, a student in the College of Engineering, will be able to do so.

The Churchill award affords a senior or a graduate student a year of graduate study in engineering, mathematics or science at Churchill College, Cambridge University. This year’s competition included nominations from more than fifty schools in America, and only eleven scholarships are rewarded each year. Cornell has about four to ten applicants compete within the University each year, and usually nominates two of those for national selection.

Tseng, one of the recipients of the scholarship, is majoring in biological and environmental engineering, and has conducted research in the lab of Prof. Dan Luo, biological engineering, since the summer after her sophomore year. Her current research involves the use of atomic force microscopy to observe the structure of the unusual DNA molecules that Luo’s lab has created. She also spent last summer working at Harvard Medical School, using fluorescence resonance energy transfer to observe protein-protein interactions.

In Cambridge, Tseng will work with Dr. Robert Henderson, pharmacology, Cambridge University, in doing research. Currently, her ultimate goal is academic medicine, and she hopes to obtain both an M.D. and a Ph. D.

Tseng explains that she didn’t get a chance to go abroad as an undergraduate, because she had become very involved in research and did not want to take a break. She said that “one of [my] biggest regrets was not going abroad, so this is a redeeming chance.”

Tseng previously received the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship in 2002, which is available to students who demonstrate extraordinary dedication and ability in mathematics, sciences, or engineering. Tseng says that the Churchill scholarship was “a natural extension from the Goldwater scholarship.” Initially, Tseng contacted former winners to ascertain their experiences, then she researched the different programs available at Churchill College.

The application process itself usually takes several months, and has many criteria. Along with a high GPA and class rank, the applicant must have four letters of recommendation and have done well on both the general and subject based Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). In addition, the applicant must research the programs at Churchill College in order to determine which program would most befit his or her interests.

Applicants must first submit their material to a campus committee. This committee looks at many different aspects of the candidate’s submission. It is important that the student has a lot of research experience, sometimes going as far back as high school, and shows a consistency of interest in one topic. Additionally, the candidate must have an extremely high GPA (usually 3.8 or higher), a really close relationship with advisors, a challenging course load, and an ability to explain one’s research work in comprehensive fashion.

Beth Fiori, the fellowship advisor at Cornell, as well as one of the members on the committee which reviews applications for this scholarship, explains that she “looks to see if the applicant can communicate in a way that shows excitement and can break it down to ways that the average intelligent person can understand”.

Fiori says that eighteen Cornell students have won this scholarship since 1974, and from the period of 1997-2001, more Cornell students have been recipients of the Churchill scholarship than any other institution. She explains that Cornell is one of the top three recipients of the award, and attributes Cornell’s success to the fact that Cornell “has really strong science people, including presidential research scholars, and to the fact that the “Cornell undergraduate research board has an awful lot of interest in getting strong candidates.” Additionally, quite a few faculty members on the review committee were Churchill scholars themselves and therefore “have good judgment on what it takes.”

Fiori explains, “I felt pretty confident about Yolanda’s application. We were very pleased, but I wouldn’t say we were shocked.”

Luo concurred, “I was not surprised at all when I heard that she had won the Churchill.”

Tseng, however, was more humble. “It took the support of the committee so that Cornell was able to get a Churchill scholarship,” she said. “[I would] encourage anyone who has an interest to pursue this, because I didn’t think I had a chance.”

Fiori advises anyone who might be interested to get involved with research early, use summers wisely, review the programs available at Cambridge, and contact her early.

Archived article by Yonit Caplow