St John's College Review of the Year 2021

A look back at the past 12 months

Life and learning has continued at St John’s despite the challenges of the pandemic and, as 2021 draws to a close, we look back at some memorable moments – from stunning scientific discoveries to amazing achievements in sport, the arts and humanities. There has been much to celebrate as well as commemorate.

Delve into our review of the year below.


‘The show must go on’ was the attitude of all involved in this year’s St John’s Chapel Advent Carol Service, after Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha, tested positive for Covid-19 and six out of 16 young choristers were hit by illness. Organ Scholar, George Herbert, 20, stepped in to conduct the College’s world-famous choir:

St John’s Chapel and community pulls together as Advent Carol Service put in jeopardy

George Herbert
George Herbert. Credit: Nordin Ćatić.

Filip Bošković, a postgraduate scientist from St John’s whose research in nanoscale biology has the potential to be a ‘game changer’ in diagnosing respiratory diseases, featured on a national TV programme in his home country of Serbia:

Pioneering PhD student ends 2021 on a high after year of achievement


Seven outstanding students were honoured in the prestigious Larmor Awards in recognition of their excellent academic results and contributions to College life. The prize, which began in the 1940s, is named after Sir Joseph Larmor, the 20th century physicist and mathematician:

Talented performers, sportspeople and ‘brilliant historian’ among winners in 2021 Larmor Awards

First-year undergraduate Amir Kadkhodaei is a refugee who achieved his dream of coming to Cambridge. He told about his journey to St John’s after fleeing the regime in Iran:

From refugee to student: ‘How I came to St John’s is a miracle’

It was announced that St John’s is one of the Cambridge Colleges that will collaborate with a new state-funded specialist sixth form in the city, opening in September 2023, with a focus on pioneering learning and increasing diversity in maths:

St John’s partners with new Mathematics School to increase diversity in subject

As the Chinese Communist Party celebrated its 100th anniversary, new research by anthropologist Dr Zhenru Jacqueline Lin, carried out while she was a PhD student at St John’s, gave voice to a long-suffering group of Second World War veterans and the volunteers determined to honour them:

China’s problem war heroes


A man’s claim to be the great-grandson of legendary Native American leader, Sitting Bull, was confirmed thanks to a new method of analysing family lineages using ancient DNA fragments, developed by scientists led by Professor Eske Willerslev, Fellow of St John’s:

Living descendant of Sitting Bull confirmed by analysis of DNA from the legendary leader’s hair

A St John’s academic and world-renowned expert on the Polish composer and pianist, Fryderyk Chopin, was awarded a medal of honour at a special ceremony in Warsaw. Professor John Rink received the Bene Merito, an honorary decoration of the Republic of Poland:

Poland honours St John’s Fellow and world expert on Chopin

St John’s College announced that it will continue its reputation for musical excellence by featuring male and female voices – both adults and children – in its world-renowned choir for the first time:

Girls and women to sing as members of The Choir of St John’s

A ‘compelling’ new book by Professor Simon Szreter, a Fellow at St John’s, and Hilary Cooper explores why the UK was so unprepared for Covid-19. In After The Virus – Lessons from the Past for a Better Future, the pair also argue that Elizabeth I would have supported the poor in the aftermath of the pandemic:

Queen Elizabeth I would tell Boris to tax the rich rather than cut universal credit

Dr Graham Ladds, a pharmacologist and Fellow at St John’s, was awarded a prestigious Royal Society Industry Fellowship to work with AstraZeneca on developing life-changing medicines:

Academic to work with AstraZeneca on developing new and safer drugs

The Young Alexandrians, a debut novel by Fellow Dr A.C. (Ricky) Metaxas, who is a world-renowned expert in microwave energy, was published:

St John’s author writes historical saga of Middle Eastern conflict


Rowers gathered at the College’s Lady Margaret Boat Club to celebrate the launch of two new boats named after Professor Sir Christopher Dobson, scientist and late Master of St John’s, and Dame Louise Makin, businesswoman and Honorary Fellow:

Oldest College boat club in Cambridge welcomes former members back for special naming ceremony

Diary entries written by the nurses who treated Covid-struck St John's Fellow, Professor Peter Johnstone, were transformed into a choral work by an award-winning composer:

Choral work based on top mathematician’s battle with Covid-19 to be performed at Royal Festival Hall

Peter Johnstone
Professor Peter Johnstone. Credit: Nordin Ćatić.

New research by Professor Tim Whitmarsh, A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture and a Fellow of St John’s, into a little-known ancient Greek text showed that ‘stressed poetry’, the ancestor of all modern poetry and song, was already in use in the 2nd Century CE, 300 years earlier than previously thought:

Ancient Greek ‘pop culture’ discovery rewrites history of poetry and song


A group of Cambridge Law students awarded a ‘best lecturer’ accolade to St John’s Fellow Dr Jodi Gardner. The Cambridge Law ‘Facul-Tea’ dished out ‘The Trial by Jury Award for the Best Lecturer’ at its virtual awards night:

‘Best lecturer’ honour from students for St John’s Law Fellow


A fundraising campaign in memory of a ‘legendary historian’ was launched to financially support students at Cambridge. A historian of medieval Spain, Dr Peter Linehan, Fellow of St John’s, died in July 2020 aged 76.

St John’s launches fund to support new generation of historians

Dr Victoria Harvey, Tutor for Undergraduate Admissions, revealed the eventful road that brought her to St John’s, including leaving university due to ill-health, returning as a single parent and time spent managing a windsurfing centre:

Behind the scenes with a Cambridge University Admissions Tutor

Victoria Harvey
Dr Victoria Harvey. Credit: Nordin Ćatić.

From delivering babies to helping to recover bodies from a plane crash, when Steve Poppitt was in the police force no two days were the same. The Head Porter spoke about his second career leading a busy team at one of the largest Cambridge Colleges:

Busy bringing order to chaos – Policing to Portering

Four alumni were recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for their extraordinary work in the arts and in shaping the UK’s Covid-19 vaccines strategy:

Johnian helping vaccines roll-out, opera singers and Royal curator receive Queen’s Birthday Honours

St John's Fellow Professor Graeme Barker led a team of archaeological scientists who won the 2021 Antiquity Prize for their outstanding research into the remains of a Neanderthal unearthed in Iraqi Kurdistan:

Antiquity Prize awarded for study into Neanderthal cave skeleton

Rebecca ‘Becca’ Howitt, a second-year, was named University of Cambridge Sports Club Personality of the Year after helping to keep the women’s water polo team afloat through the pandemic:

Undergraduate wins Sports Personality of the Year after making a splash

It has been a remarkable year for Cambridge University Rowing Club (CUBC) – and our athletes have  been in the thick of the action. Undergraduates Gemma King and Jo Matthews told about their love of rowing, training in a pandemic, and competing with an identical twin:

Blondie a highlight for rowers from St John’s

Jo and Gemma
Jo (left) and Gemma. Credit: Nordin Ćatić.

St John’s achieved the Platinum Colleges award – the top environmental award in the University of Cambridge Green Challenge – just one year after scooping Gold with its debut entry:

St John’s awarded Platinum accolade for green initiatives

We announced that we would be undertaking the most significant building project since the redevelopment of the Old Divinity School – the new Community Hub. Domestic Bursar Helen Murley and Tim Waters, Head of College Buildings, spoke about the project, which began in August:

Transforming Second Court for the 21st century

Women who will develop potentially life-threatening disorders during pregnancy can be identified early when hormone levels in the placenta are tested, a new study led by Dr Amanda N. Sferruzzi-Perri, a Fellow of St John’s, showed:

Scientists can predict which women will have serious pregnancy complications


St John’s College launched the UK’s most generous programme to fully-fund the education and living costs for students from lower-income backgrounds. The Free Places financial support package will cover tuition fees, accommodation costs and other day-to-day living expenses for up to 40 undergraduate students at a time:

St John’s announces ground-breaking plan to offer free university places to country’s most disadvantaged students

The Royal Institute of Philosophy awarded (jointly) its 2021 essay prize to Dr Lucy McDonald, a Junior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St John’s, for the first philosophical analysis of ‘liking’ on social media:

Philosopher’s thumbs-down to social media ‘likes’ gets award thumbs-up from Royal Institute

St John’s launched a series of climate crisis commitments to help the College reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The bold manifesto announced by Heather Hancock, Master of St John’s, will be embedded in every aspect of College life:

‘This global emergency cannot be ignored’ – Master of St John’s reveals action plan to tackle climate crisis

Three academics from St John’s were among seven Cambridge researchers elected to the Royal Society’s 2021 Fellowship of eminent scientists. They were Professor Usha Goswami CBE, Professor Richard Samworth and Professor Benjamin Simons:

Royal Society awards Fellowships to three pioneering St John’s scientists working for the benefit of humanity


Members of the rugby team raised nearly £7,000 for the Bone Cancer Research Trust in just 21 days by bear-crawling backwards for 777 laps of the playing fields (or equivalent)  in memory of Sam Fitzsimmons, their former captain. Sam died in May 2020 from a rare form of bone cancer:

The Redboys smash fundraising target for Sam

Two Fellows were awarded the coveted Pilkington Prize in recognition of their teaching excellence. Dr Hannah Joyce and Dr Edward Tipper were among 13 winners of this year’s prize, which is awarded annually by the University of Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning:

‘Delight’ as two College Directors of Studies win teaching Prize

Fellow Dr Helen McCarthy was shortlisted for the 2021 Wolfson History Prize - the UK’s largest history writing prize - for her critically acclaimed book, Double Lives:

Fellow’s ‘landmark history’ of the lives of working mothers shortlisted for top writing Prize

Helen McCarthy [credit Jonathan Ring]
Dr Helen McCarthy. Credit: Jonathan Ring.

Findings by a team of scientists from The Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, led by Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John’s, were described as the ‘moon landings’ of genomics – and it is thanks to black bears who defecated in a remote cave in Mexico 16,000 years ago:

Stone Age black bears didn’t just defecate in the woods – they did it in a cave too

The College nurse, four academics and a PhD candidate at St John’s were shortlisted for awards by Cambridge students for their exceptional contributions to education and pastoral care during the pandemic:

Six members of St John’s community honoured in student-led awards

Richard Partington was appointed as the new Senior Tutor at St John’s College, formally taking up his role in September:

Senior Tutor appointed at St John’s

An acclaimed memoir translated from Russian into English by Sasha Dugdale, our writer-in-residence, made the International Booker longlist – and was later shortlisted:

Russian memoir translated by St John’s writer and poet nominated for International Booker Prize

Heather Hancock, Master of St John’s College, paid tribute to His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who died aged 99 on 9 April 2021:

Master of St John’s pays tribute to Prince Philip

Scientists found that powerful algorithms used by Netflix, Amazon and Facebook can ‘predict’ the biological language of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. Professor Tuomas Knowles, lead author of the study and a Fellow at St John’s, said: “Bringing machine-learning technology into research into neurodegenerative diseases and cancer is an absolute game-changer.”:

Artificial Intelligence could ‘crack the language of cancer and Alzheimer's’

Postgraduate Theo Weinberger rowed for the victorious Light Blues in the historic Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race on Easter Sunday after missing out in 2020 due to the pandemic. Beforehand he spoke about making his comeback, training in lockdown and why this year’s Boat Race would be extra special:

St John’s rower Theo gets second chance at making Boat Race history


Old computer hardware from St John’s was recycled to support families and children in need during the pandemic:

Computer donations help pandemic-hit families access remote learning

Matthew Seah, a surgeon-turned PhD student, reached the regional finals of FameLab UK, a science communications competition, as part of the Cambridge Festival:

FameLab beckons for St John’s PhD student

Personal campaign materials of slavery abolitionist and St John’s alumnus, Thomas Clarkson, formed the basis of a thought-provoking new virtual exhibition hosted by the College Library. Slavery and Abolition: Collections Uncovered was a first-time collaboration between the Library and Wisbech and Fenland Museum:

‘Uncomfortable and unpleasantly true’ story of slavery and abolition told in new exhibition bringing key collections together

David Garciandía Igal, who was doing an MPhil in Politics and International Studies, co-authored a book calling for the religious freedom of workers in the UK and EU:

Student calls for workers’ religious freedoms to be fully respected to help prevent divisions in society

Three clinical medical students told about the challenges they faced on the front line of the pandemic, working across the NHS in the grip of Covid.

Inside the NHS with St John’s medics

Credit: Nordin Ćatić.

Professor Stefan C Reif OBE, Emeritus Professor of Medieval Hebrew Studies and a St John’s Fellow, saw the publication of his autobiography, Bouncing Back – and Forward: From Immigrant Household to Cambridge Fellowship. Professor Reif was founding director of the world-renowned Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University Library.

Fellow’s memoir reveals life journey from Jewish immigrant childhood to St John’s College

Aquila, the College’s all-female vocal group, released a song on International Women’s Day, recorded in lockdown. Co-written by Rebecca Watts, poet and Library Projects Assistant, and Aquila director Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, the song is called Friends Apart and True:

Watch the video

From our first female Master, to leading research into life-threatening pregnancy complications, we looked at a year of incredible achievements by the women of St John’s to mark International Women’s Day 2021:

A year of achievement for the women of St John’s

When award-winning postgraduate student Jonathan Gilmour started bumping into things and falling over at the age of seven, his family thought he was going through a clumsy phase. But tests discovered that Jonathan has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Jonathan spoke about his life at St John’s and the pandemic:

‘I’ve known for a long time how fragile life is – the rest of the world is just catching up’

A newly created 3D model of First Court as it was 500 years ago found its way home to St John’s, after navigating the challenges of the pandemic. Alexander Kusztyk, who was in the second year of his PhD in History of Art, was the driving force behind the project to recreate the stunning architecture of Bishop Fisher’s First Court:

Whispers of the past breathe life into First Court project

College model
The model of First Court. Credit: Nordin Ćatić.

New College Head Gardener David Austrin, a former BBC journalist, revealed how his passion for plants saw him divert to the career path that brought him to St John’s:

From digging up news to putting down new roots


Dr Vivienne Westbrook, Lady Margaret Beaufort Visiting Fellow, made a film telling the inspirational story of how she learned to paint during the Covid-19 crisis. She hoped it would help others find creative solutions to their own lockdown blues:

Seeking lockdown solace in art

Tributes were paid to award-winning astronomer Professor Roger Griffin, who spent his career studying starlight and died at the age of 85. A Fellow of St John’s College 1962-1965 and again from 1972, he was Emeritus Professor of Observational Astronomy at the University of Cambridge:

Stargazer and Fellow of St John’s dies aged 85

Professor Griffin in 1960. Photo credit: John Kilgour.
Professor Griffin in 1960. Credit: John Kilgour.

In his new book, Professor Malcolm Schofield, Emeritus Professor of Ancient Philosophy and Fellow of St John’s, argued the key political ideas of the famous Roman orator, Cicero, are as topical now as they were 2,000 years ago:

The Roman ‘influencer’ whose voice still speaks to us in troubled times

Scientists made a ‘vital step’ towards understanding the origins of Parkinson’s Disease – the fastest growing neurological condition in the world. The study published in Nature Communications presented compelling new evidence about what a key protein called alpha-synuclein actually does in neurons in the brain. Dr Giuliana Fusco, Research Fellow at St John’s, was lead author of the paper:

Function identified of ‘mystery protein’ that kills healthy brain cells of people with Parkinson’s

An influential Treasury report into the economics of biodiversity led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, Frank Ramsey Professor Emeritus of Economics and Fellow of St John’s, was launched at The Royal Society:

Professor set to reveal findings of Government report into the importance of Nature for global economies and prosperity


A pandemic-beating access scheme was launched online by the St John’s Admissions team to help state school GCSE and A-Level  students on the path to a place at a competitive university:

New state school access programme will help students on their journeys to university

Dr Ester Salgarella, Junior Research Fellow in Classics, made huge strides towards deciphering a mysterious Greek script that could transform our knowledge of Crete’s Minoan civilization:

‘Rosetta Stone’ of the internet could help researchers finally solve puzzle of ancient Minoan language

Researchers found that butterflies have evolved to produce a strongly scented chemical in their genitals, which they leave behind after sex to deter other males from pursuing their women. Scientists led by Professor Chris Jiggins, Fellow of St John’s, mapped production of the scented chemical compound to the genome of a species of butterfly, called Heliconius melponene, and discovered a new gene:

Male butterflies mark their mates with a repulsive smell during sex to ‘turn off’ other suitors

St John’s College signed up to take part in a pioneering new scheme launched by the University of Cambridge – a Foundation Year, offering talented students from backgrounds of educational and social disadvantage a new route to undergraduate study:

Cambridge University Foundation Year to ‘transform lives’ with new route to undergraduate study for disadvantaged students

In her new book Mary Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion, and Politics, Sylvana Tomaselli, St John’s historian and Fellow, shed light on the less salient side of Wollstonecraft, known as the pioneer of English feminism and a keen abolitionist of the slave trade and slavery:

‘Mary Wollstonecraft wasn’t a killjoy’ – says author of new book on the trailblazing writer
Head Gardener Adam Green retired from St John’s after 35 years at the College. He spoke about his colourful career, from presenting lilies to the Queen, to building snowmen in the Scholars' Garden:

Green by name and green by nature: memories of a Head Gardener

Professor Usha Goswami was made a CBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours. The St John’s College Fellow, who is Director for the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, and Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience, became a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for services to educational research:

Queen's New Year Honour for St John's academic

Published 30/12/2021

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