Two Pomona Seniors Heading to Cambridge University on Downing Scholarships

Rya Jetha and Mohammed Ahmad outside on Marsden Quad at Pomona College

Rya Jetha ’23 and Mohammed Ahmed ’23 will be pursuing master’s degrees at Cambridge University during the next academic year as recipients of the Downing Scholarship. Each year up to two Pomona students are selected for the award which covers all tuition, expenses and airfare associated with the year of study at Downing College, one of 31 colleges that comprise Cambridge University.

Jetha grew up and attended an international high school in Mumbai, India, and spent summers with grandparents in Northern California. For college, “I knew that I wanted to be in California at a small school, so Pomona was the most obvious option,” she says.

The pandemic campus closure came during her second semester at Pomona. She found herself back home in Mumbai taking classes that because of the difference in time zones, sometimes ended at 3:15 a.m. “And it was monsoon time in India, so the Wi-Fi was in and out,” she recalls. Taking a leave from the College, she enrolled in a remote intensive Arabic program offered by a Jordanian institute and also worked at a national newspaper in India. “I’ve always been interested in journalism and writing,” she says, and is considering it as a career option.

Although she grew up in a leading city on the Indian Ocean, Jetha says that until she began studying history and politics for her majors at Pomona, she knew little about the region. “The history I studied was contained within national borders,” she says. Her advisor and history professor, Arash Khazeni, helped her to see the wider Indian Ocean maritime region that encompasses a vast area of East Africa, the Gulf, and South and Southeast Asia.

For her thesis, Jetha is researching the experience of Africans in Bombay, as Mumbai was then known, during the colonial years in the 19th century. “There was a vibrant African community that lived in Bombay and they worked on the steamships,” she learned. “Nobody’s really written a history of Black Bombay during the 19th century. I’m trying to do something that there isn’t much scholarship on.” Her research has involved archives in Mumbai, ethnographic interviews with descendants of the 19th century Africans in the city, and some documents sent from England.

At Downing, Jetha will pursue a master of philosophy degree in world history. She plans to expand her research in the extensive British archives in London and Cambridge and reach back to the 18th century as well as the 19th. “I think I’m going to find some things that are just going to blow my mind,” she says. The experience may help clarify if Jetha wants to pursue an academic career or one in journalism. One possibility is doing public history and “bringing historical context to the region,” she says. “A lot of exciting geopolitical advancements are going to happen in the Indian Ocean and the broader Indo-Pacific region,” she notes. “People need to understand the historical context of what the maritime region has been in the past and what it could be in the future.”

Preparing for a Career in Medical Research

Mohammed Ahmed was born in Sudan and came to the U.S. with his parents as a young child. In his New Jersey hometown, he attended New Brunswick Health Science Technology High School, which deepened his interest in a medical career. He says that unlike the stereotypical immigrant parents who want their children to become engineers, doctors or lawyers, “they really just wanted us to have a better life than they had when they were growing up. As long as we had logic behind the choices we were making, I could have ended up being a journalist or historian or any other sort of career that I wanted.”

At the magnet high school he attended, which was located across the street from a major hospital, Ahmed listened to presentations by doctors, nurses and others in the health field and had the opportunity to shadow health professionals. During his senior year, he did a surgical internship at the hospital, scrubbing in and watching procedures. “When I went there for the first time,” he says, “I told myself, ‘If I’m afraid of blood, this is probably not for me.’” It was open-heart surgery, with one team cracking open the sternum and the other extracting a vein from the patient’s leg. “And as soon as I stepped in,” Ahmed recalls, “I saw that I was not fearful but I wanted to get closer and closer.”

Ahmed is completing a major in molecular biology and has been active in the lab of Professor of Chemistry Malkiat Johal. Next fall he will enroll in a master of philosophy degree program in chemistry at Downing College and will join a lab doing research on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. “I’m hoping that the work that I do within this lab contributes to the next steps for curing these diseases,” Ahmed says. He looks forward to studying abroad in the United Kingdom.

Earning a medical degree is a given in Ahmed’s career plans, though he is still weighing whether to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. program or one that integrates medical school with physician scientist training. His decision to pursue medical research came into sharper focus at Pomona when he heard a guest lecturer describe his own career pathway. “One quote that stuck with me,” Ahmed recounts, “was that as a physician, he could save the lives of hundreds of people. But as a researcher, you could possibly save the lives of thousands or millions.”

Downing College was founded in 1800 by bequest of Sir George Downing and became the 17th college of Cambridge University. “Profound change through research and learning is our reason for being,” the college notes on its website. It lists as its values scholarship, curiosity, community, integrity and kindness. “Wisdom is not handed down at Downing,” the college says of itself. “It is discovered.”