Colgate senior receives Churchill Scholarship

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Colgate senior Jacob Watts named recipient of prestigious Churchill Scholarship

The Office of National Fellowships and Scholarships (ONFS) is very pleased to announce that Colgate senior Jacob Watts, Class of 2021, has been named a recipient of the prestigious Churchill Scholarship. The Churchill is a fully-funded fellowship to attend Churchill College at the University of Cambridge to complete a one-year Masters research degree (MPhil). Jacob is one of only seventeen students nationwide to receive the Churchill.

According to the Churchill official announcement: This program was established at the request of Sir Winston Churchill as part of the founding of Churchill College, Cambridge. It fulfils his vision of deepening the US–UK partnership in order to advance science and technology on both sides of the Atlantic, ensuring our future prosperity and security. Churchill College was established in 1960 as a predominantly science and technology college and the National and Commonwealth memorial to Sir Winston Churchill. The Churchill Scholarship dates to 1963.

What makes the Churchill experience so exceptional is the unique opportunity to focus on independent research, the welcoming and non-hierarchical culture of Cambridge labs, the emphasis on work-life balance, and the rich environment for personal growth that Cambridge provides.

The Churchill Scholarship is not one that is earned by simply a strong application, but by years of dedication to undergraduate research. Jacob, who knew from his first-year alumni Memorial Scholarship (AMS) orientation that research was vital, decided to dive into undergraduate research after only a semester at Colgate and started his work with Professor Eddie Watkins’ research team in the Fern Ecophysiology lab. This work led to Jacob becoming a recipient of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Scholarship as a sophomore and later, the winner of the prestigious Barry Goldwater Fellowship in his junior year. In Spring 2020, he was also named Honorable Mention for the Udall Scholarship for his efforts as a Sustainability Intern and NSF REU, among many others.

Jacob’s research career at Colgate has been remarkable. In Summer 2018, after his first year at Colgate, Jacob astoundingly completed two undergraduate research projects. He first traveled to Costa Rica with his mentor, Professor Watkins, where they trekked throughout country collecting fern spores and data on tropical fern ecology. He then returned to Colgate to conduct experiments in the lab on the tropical ferns that he had collected. After this experience, he went to Macalester College in Minnesota as a part of an NSF REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) project on glacial lake sedimentology in Glacier National Park. Looking back on his first year, Jacob says: “I would not have done anything differently. Choosing to research with Eddie has been one of the best decisions of my life. Eddie has been an amazing mentor and has taught me almost everything I know about plants.”

In Fall 2018, in his sophomore year, Jacob continued his work in the Watkins lab. During the winter break, he returned to Costa Rica to take a course on Tropical Fern ecology and taxonomy. In the Spring semester, he was awarded the Beckman Scholarship. The Beckman funded Jacob for fifteen months to continue working with Professor Watkins during which he studied the effects of climate change induced drought on an Australian epiphytic fern (a fern that grows on trees). In December 2019, he also used his AMS funds to travel to Colombia, Argentina, and New Zealand to practice his Spanish and study tropical ecology field techniques with colleagues he had met on the fern course.

Jacob’s continuous research with the Watkins team led to him receiving Colgate’s nomination for the Goldwater Scholarship, and he was named a recipient in the Spring of 2020. The Goldwater is the highest undergraduate scholarship for students in STEM fields. His peer-reviewed publication in the Annals of Botany made his Goldwater application competitive. In addition, with his good friend and fellow Colgate senior, Aidan Harrington, he recently had an article accepted in the International Journal of Plant Sciences. In Summer 2020, with the pandemic restricting research on campus, Jacob set up a lab in his house and cultivated ferns. He was determined to not be deterred from his work.

In Fall 2020, Jacob continued his research as he was able, and also focused on writing. He applied to all the national fellowships within his reach, and was Colgate’s nominee for the Rhodes Scholarship, and one also for the Marshall Scholarship. Notably, he has also applied for the Fulbright Scholarship (US Student, Research) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). He has also submitted four applications to prominent PhD programs in Plant Sciences.

At Churchill College in Cambridge, it is very exciting that Jacob will undertake this study with Colgate alumnus, Dr. Adam Pellegrini ‘10, with the Department of Plant Sciences.  Their focus will be on the poorly studied interactions between plant root physiology, fire, and carbon sequestration. He will study grasses native to savannahs and prairies worldwide which grow at the Cambridge Botanic Garden. This project will develop his research skills and move science toward an understanding of what happens underground during a fire.

The Churchill Scholarship will open many doors for Jacob as he continues on a career path toward becoming a professor of botany and plant ecology. He says: “None of this would have been possible without the constant support, technical writing assistance, and encouragement from ONFS. I would especially like to thank Dr. Steve Wright and Anita Scheible for their help and immense support.” Jacob and ONFS encourage any and all students to get involved with research with the wonderful faculty at Colgate and to not hesitate to contact ONFS about fellowship opportunities which might be a fit.

What makes the Churchill experience so exceptional is the unique opportunity to focus on independent research...and the rich environment for personal growth that Cambridge provides.

Portrait of Jacob Watts