Yale seniors Rachel Kurchin of Pierson College and Matthew Shafer of Ezra Stiles College are among the 39 American students who have been selected as Gates Cambridge Scholars this year out of 769 applicants from 36 universities.
The competitive scholarship program fully funds at least one year of graduate study at the University of Cambridge. This year Yale students and alumni also received nine Rhodes Scholarships and two students received Churchill Scholarships to study in the United Kingdom.
Kurchin, a physics major whose interests range from renewable energy to the violin, will enter a one-year M.Phil. program in materials science and metallurgy, a prelude to a doctoral program in materials science or applied physics.
“Our dependence on finite, polluting energy sources and the havoc it's wreaking on our planet and politics is without a doubt the biggest problem in this generation,” said the senior from Rochester, New York. “Scalable, economic renewable energy sources are a key component to the solution of this problem, and it's absolutely key that we pursue them before this crisis worsens further.”
Kurchin's senior project at Yale — supervised by Minjoo Larry Lee, associate professor of electrical engineering — relates to semiconductors for solar cells.
At Cambridge Kurchin plans to continue working in a similar vein, within the university's Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. She and her mentor there, Stoyan Smoukov, have not yet settled on a specific project, but she said it might involve auxetic materials — “which means that if you stretch them, they expand both in the direction of stretching and also in the transverse direction. Imagine pulling on a rubber band and seeing it get wider as well as longer.”
They are especially interested in investigating materials that exhibit bistability — those that could stay in both the “stretched” and “unstretched” states without additional energy input. One potential object exhibiting bistability would be a reusable packing material that collapses to a much smaller volume for storage, she said.
At Yale Kurchin has served as co-president of the Society of Physics Students and as a science and engineering ambassador for the Admissions Office. She also helped organize the 2012 Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.
In addition to her interest in science, she plays violin in the Jonathan Edwards College Philharmonic and in various pit orchestras for campus theatrical productions. “I've also become interested in traditional/fiddle music over the years, particularly that from the British Isles, which is yet another reason I'm incredibly excited to spend a year in that part of the world,” she said.
She expects to return to the United States for her doctoral studies.
A native of Augusta, Georgia, Shafer will work toward an M.Phil. in political thought and intellectual history at Cambridge. That goal reflects an intellectual and spiritual journey for Shafer that is more than academic. Raised in a culture dominated by evangelical Christianity and nationalist politics, he early on took an interest in the political and ethical values inherent in religion.
While he was still in high school, he had two experiences that set him on a course to embracing more humanist values for himself, he says. The first was doing his own close reading of the Bible. “Reading the Sermon on the Mount, I realized that Christ was talking about non-violence and social justice,” he recalls. Then, between his junior and senior year of high school, he attended a course on Christianity and non-violence at Emory University, and became more firmly committed to moral cosmopolitanism and social justice
Shafer began Yale as religious studies major and ended up majoring in philosophy. In his application for the Gates, he wrote: “I informally constructed an interdisciplinary course of study around the formal core of the philosophy major, drawing on the resources of the university’s programs in German studies, history, religious studies, political science, divinity, and ethics, politics, and economics [EPE].”
His senior thesis, which he wrote in the fall under the guidance of Seyla Benhabib, director of the EPE program, is on the “political theology of human rights.” His graduate work at Cambridge will continue this line of inquiry, particularly focusing on “the theological roots of political non-violence in the West.”
Shafer has managed to combine his academic interests and political commitments with extracurricular activities. Last summer, for example, he traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, to do research on the role political non-violence played in the anti-apartheid resistance and the transition to democracy. Throughout his four years at Yale he has been very active in Global Zero, an international organization for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
While he intends to pursue an academic career, he says he believes it is important to stay engaged in public discourse, making a contribution to the cause of social and political justice.
The Gates Cambridge Scholarships were established in 2000 by a donation of $210 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the University of Cambridge. They are awarded to outstanding applicants from countries outside the United Kingdom to pursue a full-time postgraduate degree at the University of Cambridge. Scholars are selected for their intellectual ability, commitment to improving the lives of others, and leadership potential.