Three Yalies awarded prestigious Churchill Scholarships
Two seniors and an alumnus have been awarded Churchill Scholarships to study science, mathematics, engineering and science policy at the University of Cambridge for the 2022-23 academic year.
Courtesy of Megan He, Sarah Zhao and James Diao
Three Yalies, who are working on revolutionizing kidney care, repairing the polluted atmosphere and enabling new depths of data science, have been awarded Churchill Scholarships for the 2022-23 academic year.
Sarah Zhao ’22 is one of 16 recipients of the Churchill Scholarship in science, mathematics and engineering, while Megan He ’22 and James Diao ’18 are the only two national recipients of the Kanders Churchill Scholarship in Science Policy. Yale has become the first institution ever to have three Churchill Scholars in a single cohort.
“This was the first year we were able to award two Kanders Churchill Scholarships in science policy,” Winston Churchill Foundation Executive Director Mike Morse said. “This year’s cohort has an interesting balance of disciplines and of institutions of origin from across the country.”
The Churchill Scholarship, awarded to 16 American students annually, provides funding for one year of master’s study overseas at Churchill College in the University of Cambridge. The award was founded in 1959 at the request of Winston Churchill, after whom both the college and award are named, to further research and collaboration between American and British scientists. A committee of Yale STEM faculty selects two nominees, who polish their applications and submit them to the Churchill Scholarship national competition in November. The Churchill Foundation then selects 16 Churchill Scholars from among the nominees of over 120 participating institutions.
The Kanders Churchill Scholarship for science policy, launched in 2017, does not have a university-level nomination process. Instead, students express interest when applying for the Cambridge Master’s in Public Policy program. The scholarship is awarded annually to one or two recipients who join the cohort of 16 Churchill Scholars at Cambridge.
Zhao, who was selected from a pool of 110 nominees, is completing a joint bachelor’s and master’s in statistics and data science at Yale, while also majoring in mathematics. At Yale, she has worked on research in quantum computing and information theory with professor Liang Jiang, theoretical statistics and optimization with professor Zhou Fan and geometrical and topological data science methods in the
Summer Undergraduate Math Research at Yale program with multiple mentors, including Professors Smita Krishnaswamy, Jeffrey Brock and Ian Adelstein.
“I’m excited to explore both the theory and applications of machine learning,” Zhao said of her upcoming year at Cambridge. “I’m looking forward to learning more about the computer science view of the field.”
When not working on research, Zhao volunteers with the Yale Education Tutoring Initiative (YETI) and dances with Yale Movement.
Megan He, one of two winners of the Kanders Churchill Scholarship in Science Policy, is double majoring in environmental engineering and global affairs. Her research at Yale has focused on the emissions of organic compounds into the atmosphere.
Outside of research, she is the chair of the environmental engineering departmental club, a peer tutor in the physics department and an Engineering tour guide. While at Cambridge, she will pursue a master’s degree in science policy, focusing on how it relates to climate and air pollution.
Diao, the second Kanders Churchill Scholar, graduated from Yale in 2018 with degrees in statistics & data science and molecular biophysics and biochemistry. He is now a third-year medical student at Harvard Medical School, while also dual-enrolled at MIT in the Health Sciences & Technology program.
While at Yale, Diao worked extensively in the lab of Yale School of Medicine professor Mark Gernstein, focusing on developing extracellular RNA analysis tools. Diao also volunteered as a peer-counselor for Walden Peer Counseling and danced on Yale’s Ballroom Dance team.
Diao’s work focuses on using technological tools to improve health for diverse populations. He was named a 2022 Forbes “30 Under 30” in the healthcare category for his work eliminating the use of race in kidney function tests.
“My goal is to better understand the bits and gears through which data and innovations have to flow in order to reach the bedside,” Diao said. “Whether that means understanding clinical guidelines, what kind of things clinical guidelines should think about when considering population health or how best to bring new technologies to patients in a way that does that.”
Rebekah Westphal, assistant dean of Yale College and director of the Office of Fellowship Programs, views the students’ distinction as “a reflection of the strength of Yale’s STEM education and research possibilities, but also of the incredible support Yale students receive from their faculty and other academic advisers.”
Morse urges the Yale faculty to “keep it up!” and to continue giving students the chance to be creative and to push the boundaries of knowledge. “Let them continue to surprise us,” he said.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to see Yale students who are absolute top scholars in STEM fields recognized for their work and potential through this fellowship,” Westphal said. “The difficult part is always that we have more stellar applicants than we can nominate each year.”
Morse told the News that each year, the Churchill Foundation’s national selection committee, which is composed of former Churchill Scholars, is blown away by the research accomplishments that the nominees have amassed at such a young age. He says many committee members wonder if “they themselves would…have won against this kind of competition.”
Westphal encourages potential applicants to start thinking about the Churchill Scholarships early, in the spring of their junior year, and to meet with her as part of that process.
Morse emphasized the unique nature of the scholarship as an enabler of scientific exploration, characterizing the year at Cambridge as an “opportunity to do something risky” without the typical pressure to design a conservative, working experiment that will land a postdoctoral position. Morse encourages Scholars to “embrace that opportunity.”
Applications for the 2023-24 Churchill Scholarship will open on Yale’s Student Grants Database during summer 2022.