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

Four Pomona College alumni standing on a bridge over the River Cam in Cambridge, England

Sofia Dartnell ’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, “I nearly fainted,” 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’s 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 ’23 is a Churchill scholar pursuing an MPhil degree in scientific computing. Mohammed Ahmed ’23 and Rya Jetha ’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’s student body president during her senior year, says that as graduation approached, “I anticipated feeling saddest about parting ways with my college friends.” Knowing that her close friend Jetha would also be studying at Cambridge “made it so much easier!” she says.

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

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. “I am used to the scientific method and enjoy the process of questioning, exploring and directing future focus based on what I find,” he says. “The lessons of perseverance and following curiosities I’ve learned during my research at Pomona set me up well for my project at Cambridge.”

Dartnell’s zoology research keeps her regularly in the dark—literally—as she raises bumblebees and trains a subgroup of parasitic bumblebees known as “cuckoos.” She catches wild queens in fields around Cambridge and beyond and provides pollen, nectar, and a warm environment to encourage them to lay eggs. “They are kept in the dark to mimic their natural nesting conditions underground, and checked in red light, which the bees cannot see,” 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 “fell in love with studying and researching the history of the Indian Ocean at Pomona after taking Professor Arash Khazeni’s ‘Indian Ocean World’ class my freshman year.” She continued the study throughout her history major but found that source material was limited by geography—it was located in the UK and not digitized. “Professor Khazeni encouraged me to apply for the Downing scholarship to continue my research in Cambridge where I’d be a one-hour train ride from a treasure trove of archives in London,” she says. “I’m working on a history of two small but powerful islands—Bombay and Zanzibar—during the 19th century. The historic oceanic connections between these two islands have been neglected in favor of land-based nationalist histories.”

Berger’s 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 “to model anything that can be thought of as fluid—liquids, plasmas, and even solid materials that can squish or bend.” Berger’s broader interest is how stars explode and evolve. She studies stellar flares—like those of the Sun that are giving rise to widespread aurora borealis--Northern Lights--this summer, “to understand how flares may contribute to the creation or destruction of life on other planets.”

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. “I live in a house on Churchill College’s grounds with 12 other postgraduate students,” says Berger. “I knew I wanted to continue living in a residential academic setting after Pomona, and it’s been great to get to know my housemates.” Jetha lives on the Downing College campus, where she says she is “blessed with a beautiful view of the College’s secret rose garden, millpond, and expansive neoclassical architecture.” From her window, “the sunsets are extraordinary!”

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’s doctoral program. She’s aiming for a career in teaching, she hopes in a college like Pomona. “My 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.,” she says. “Pomona set me up for success.”

What’s 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. “The 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!” she remarks.

“Cambridge is a school of history and tradition and there are so many Cambridge must-do’s,” says Ahmed. “I’ve punted on the River Cam, seen a Shakespeare play, rowed for the college club, stayed away from the ‘Fellow’s Only” grass, been to formal dinners at several colleges, seen King’s Chapel, been to Cambridge’s beautiful eco Central Mosque, and indulged in Jack’s Gelato many times,” he recalls. Yet “there are still so many experiences to be had.”