Scholarship-Winning Pomona Alumni Find a World of Opportunities in Cambridge

Four 麻豆影视 alumni standing on a bridge over the River Cam in Cambridge, England

Sofia Dartnell 鈥22 grew up loving to travel and imagining that someday she might study abroad. So when she got an email during her senior year at Pomona telling her she had won a Gates Cambridge scholarship, 鈥淚 nearly fainted,鈥 she recalls. The highly competitive award fully covers the expenses of a doctoral program at the University of Cambridge, founded in 1209 and one of the world鈥檚 oldest and most prestigious institutions.

This year, Dartnell has been sharing the Cambridge experience with three other Sagehens who are also pursuing graduate degrees there on full scholarships. Vera Berger 鈥23 is a Churchill scholar pursuing an MPhil degree in scientific computing. Mohammed Ahmed 鈥23 and Rya Jetha 鈥23 are Downing-Pomona scholars also studying for MPhil degrees, Ahmed in chemistry and Jetha in world history.

While their academic programs are rigorous, the four Pomona alumni find time to connect with each other as well as with new Cambridge colleagues. Berger, who was Pomona鈥檚 student body president during her senior year, says that as graduation approached, 鈥淚 anticipated feeling saddest about parting ways with my college friends.鈥 Knowing that her close friend Jetha would also be studying at Cambridge 鈥渕ade it so much easier!鈥 she says.

鈥淔or a relatively small school, it is amazing how many Pomona alumni end up at Cambridge,鈥 says Dartnell. 鈥淭own center is quite small and I frequently run into fellow Sagehens at restaurants and events.鈥 And, she adds, 鈥淚 always appreciate the kind and intellectual conversations I have with Pomona alumni, and it is lovely to have this community built into Cambridge life.鈥

Research focus

The degree programs in which Ahmed and Dartnell are enrolled are fully research-based. Ahmed is using the lens of physical chemistry to probe neurodegenerative disease. His senior thesis at Pomona prepared him for his work in Cambridge. 鈥淚 am used to the scientific method and enjoy the process of questioning, exploring and directing future focus based on what I find,鈥 he says. 鈥淭he lessons of perseverance and following curiosities I鈥檝e learned during my research at Pomona set me up well for my project at Cambridge.鈥

Dartnell鈥檚 zoology research keeps her regularly in the dark鈥攍iterally鈥攁s she raises bumblebees and trains a subgroup of parasitic bumblebees known as 鈥渃uckoos.鈥 She catches wild queens in fields around Cambridge and beyond and provides pollen, nectar, and a warm environment to encourage them to lay eggs. 鈥淭hey are kept in the dark to mimic their natural nesting conditions underground, and checked in red light, which the bees cannot see,鈥 she says. She hopes her work in insect conservation can one day help farmers adapt their landscapes to promote pollinator success while increasing pollination and crop yields.

Jetha says that she 鈥渇ell in love with studying and researching the history of the Indian Ocean at Pomona after taking Professor Arash Khazeni鈥檚 鈥業ndian Ocean World鈥 class my freshman year.鈥 She continued the study throughout her history major but found that source material was limited by geography鈥攊t was located in the UK and not digitized. 鈥淧rofessor Khazeni encouraged me to apply for the Downing scholarship to continue my research in Cambridge where I鈥檇 be a one-hour train ride from a treasure trove of archives in London,鈥 she says. 鈥淚鈥檓 working on a history of two small but powerful islands鈥擝ombay and Zanzibar鈥攄uring the 19th century. The historic oceanic connections between these two islands have been neglected in favor of land-based nationalist histories.鈥

Berger鈥檚 program in scientific computing is helping her hone skills that are very useful modeling scientific problems in her chosen field of astrophysics but are not often included in coursework. She is learning how 鈥渢o model anything that can be thought of as fluid鈥攍iquids, plasmas, and even solid materials that can squish or bend.鈥 Berger鈥檚 broader interest is how stars explode and evolve. She studies stellar flares鈥攍ike those of the Sun that are giving rise to widespread aurora borealis--Northern Lights--this summer, 鈥渢o understand how flares may contribute to the creation or destruction of life on other planets.鈥

Beyond the classroom

Life in Cambridge encompasses far more than academics. Each of the Sagehens is part of a residential college, an experience reminiscent of Pomona. 鈥淚 live in a house on Churchill College鈥檚 grounds with 12 other postgraduate students,鈥 says Berger. 鈥淚 knew I wanted to continue living in a residential academic setting after Pomona, and it鈥檚 been great to get to know my housemates.鈥 Jetha lives on the Downing College campus, where she says she is 鈥渂lessed with a beautiful view of the College鈥檚 secret rose garden, millpond, and expansive neoclassical architecture.鈥 From her window, 鈥渢he sunsets are extraordinary!鈥

Just as they did at Pomona, the four alums have found ways to try new things outside of class. Dartnell enjoys being part of a trivia team and salsa dancing. Berger learned to use the telescope near campus and joined the local roller derby team. Ahmed and Jetha joined the Downing College rowing team, and Ahmed throws javelin with Cambridge athletics.

This fall will mark the halfway point in Dartnell鈥檚 doctoral program. She鈥檚 aiming for a career in teaching, she hopes in a college like Pomona. 鈥淢y Pomona professors always encouraged me to dive deep and ask questions. This kind of critical thinking has been especially helpful when designing projects for my Ph.D.,鈥 she says. 鈥淧omona set me up for success.鈥

What鈥檚 next

For the other three Sagehens, fall will bring a transition to the next phase of life. Ahmed plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. program. Jetha is moving to San Francisco to begin a career in journalism. Berger will enroll in a Ph.D. program in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But Cambridge will have left its mark on their hearts, just as Pomona did. Jetha had worked toward the Downing scholarship since her sophomore year. 鈥淭he image I had of Cambridge before arriving was beautiful libraries, boats on the river and formal dinners in Harry Potter-esque halls, and honestly, my image was not far off!鈥 she remarks.

鈥淐ambridge is a school of history and tradition and there are so many Cambridge must-do鈥檚,鈥 says Ahmed. 鈥淚鈥檝e punted on the River Cam, seen a Shakespeare play, rowed for the college club, stayed away from the 鈥楩ellow鈥檚 Only鈥 grass, been to formal dinners at several colleges, seen King鈥檚 Chapel, been to Cambridge鈥檚 beautiful eco Central Mosque, and indulged in Jack鈥檚 Gelato many times,鈥 he recalls. Yet 鈥渢here are still so many experiences to be had.鈥