Engineer, scientists and #MeToo researcher among Gates Cambridge scholars aiming to change the world

“Like their predecessors, this year’s cohort are extraordinarily impressive”

Four ‘outstanding’ international postgraduates have been offered places at St John’s College in October, as part of the Gates Cambridge scholarship programme.

St John’s alumni Emma Houiellebecq and Claudia Cornelissen, along with Clara Munger, are among 73 new scholars-elect who are due to make up the Gates Cambridge Class of 2021. A fourth postgraduate, Elizabeth Wiita, was named in February by the Gates Cambridge Trust as one of its US cohort. The women are due to start their PhDs at St John’s in Michaelmas Term.

The Gates Cambridge scholarship programme, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary, is the University of Cambridge’s leading international postgraduate scholarship programme. It was established through a US$210 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000 and remains the largest single donation to a UK university.

Since the first class in 2001, Gates Cambridge has awarded more than 2,000 scholarships to scholars from 111 countries at more than 600 universities across the world. The new scholars-elect are expected to be joined by up to 10 scholars who are deferring from 2020, to form a class of 83 this October.

“My research will explore how to strengthen the resilience of essential infrastructure and services in fragile urban contexts”

Emma Houiellebecq

The four women expected to join St John's later this year all share a desire to have a positive impact on the world, in different ways.

Emma, from Canada, studied her MPhil Engineering for Sustainable Development at St John’s in 2016-2017 and now plans to return to do her PhD in Engineering. The Civil Engineering graduate from the University of British Columbia said she has always been fascinated in how to approach complex problems and during her MPhil she gained skills that would enable her to contribute to real challenges in the world.

“Over recent years, I have put these skills into practice while working with NGOs and the International Committee of the Red Cross in countries affected by disaster or conflict in southern and eastern Africa and the Middle East,” said Emma. “During these experiences, I have seen how challenging it can be to respond to complex urban crises where, over time, the additional strain on services and the eventual degradation of public infrastructure compounds the likelihood of wide-scale public health crises.

“At Cambridge, my research will explore how to strengthen the resilience of essential infrastructure and services in fragile urban contexts which are faced by a convergence of protracted insecurity, climate risks and environmental degradation.

“I am honoured to have been selected for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and I look forward to joining a cohort of inspirational leaders and scholars who are contributing to real change in this world.”

“I believe the stories we tell affect what our social, cultural, and political movements can achieve”

Claudia Cornelissen

Claudia, from Belgium, was an English undergraduate at St John’s, graduating in 2018, when she first became interested in feminist literary theory. As a Master’s student in Gender at the London School of Economics, she researched the role of narrative in the #MeToo movement and gained an interest in the politics and ethics of representation. Currently at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Flanders, she is due to return to St John’s to do a PhD in English. Her research will focus on feminist revisionist literature.

She said: “I have a profound belief in the transformative potential of literature, and as a Gates scholar I will be researching literature’s ability to both reflect and evoke societal change… Through my work, I hope not only to shed light on a popular strand of contemporary women’s writing, but also to research the epistemic function of this literature, as I believe that the stories we tell affect what our social, cultural, and political movements can achieve.

“I am very honoured to be joining the Gates Cambridge community, and I am looking forward to learning from and collaborating with like-minded scholars.”

“By combining stem cell biology and microfluidic technologies, I hope to shed light onto the underlaying mechanisms of how organisms form”

Clara Munger

Clara Munger, from France, is currently studying for her Master’s degree in Natural Sciences at AgroParisTech Biotechnology and aims to do her PhD in Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at St John’s. Clara said her Master’s has given her insights into different fields of biology and taught her an interdisciplinary approach to science.

She said: “Amazed by the zygote’s ability to form a complex organism from a single cell, I was particularly drawn to the field of developmental biology. Since the vast majority of developmental studies were performed in mice, during my PhD I wish to further elucidate embryonic development in our own species. Human peri-implantation development still remains a black box and I hope that by combining stem cell biology and microfluidic technologies, I will be able to shed light onto the underlaying mechanisms of how organisms form.

“Passionate about natural sciences, I wish for everyone to have access to such education. Therefore, I have been working for several years with the charity organisation Agros Migrateurs, which aims to enable refugees arriving in France to resume their studies in the field of science. I am honoured to join the Gates Cambridge community, which shares a common desire to make a positive impact on the world.”

“I study ways to increase access to medicine: diseases do not have geographic borders; everyone deserves treatment”


As previously reported, Elizabeth, from the United States, hopes to do a PhD in Chemistry at St John’s. She studied the subject as an undergraduate at Barnard College of Columbia University, where she developed an interest in manipulating cellular structures and surroundings to improve global health outcomes. She said: “Before college, I had witnessed major disparities in health care while travelling abroad as an artistic swimmer for Team USA, inspiring me to study ways to increase access to medicine: diseases do not have geographic borders; everyone deserves treatment.”

Elizabeth furthered her studies as a Fulbright Scholar in Romania and now in the Chemical Engineering Department at Columbia University. Her PhD will explore the transportation of nucleic acids into cellular environments, a process which is fundamental to achieving targeted health treatments, including therapeutics, CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing and vaccines. Elizabeth said: “With this research, I seek to address not only crucial scientific questions, but also gaps in international medical care, where stable and easily transportable therapeutics are crucial in ameliorating health disparities.

“In the lab, I feel an overwhelming sense of comfort, curiosity, and responsibility; I look forward to the opportunity to enact change as a part of the Gates Cambridge community.”

Professor Barry Everitt FRS, Provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust, said: “This year has been extraordinarily challenging, but it has highlighted the importance of the international, outward-looking and socially committed approach of these diverse and outstanding scholars. The scholars-elect have been selected to reflect the mission of the Trust that has been made possible by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s generous and historic gift to the University of Cambridge, the 20th anniversary of which we are currently celebrating.

“Like their predecessors, this year’s cohort are an extraordinarily impressive and diverse group who have already achieved much in terms of their academic studies and leadership abilities and have already shown their commitment to improving the lives of others in multiple ways.

“We are sure that the 2021 class of scholars will flourish in the rich, international community at Cambridge and will make a significant impact in their fields and in the wider global community."

The class of 2021 come from 30 countries: 41 are women, 31 are men and one scholar is non-binary.

Meet the full Gates Cambridge Class of 2021 scholars-elect

Published: 30/4/21

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