Alina Guna on winning a Gates Cambridge Scholarship

April 15, 2014 by Dominic Ali - U of T News

Named after its honorary patrons Bill and Melinda Gates, The Gates Cambridge Scholarships are among the world’s most prestigious full-cost academic awards.

Each year they are awarded to outstanding students from countries outside the UK to pursue any full-time postgraduate degree at the University of Cambridge.

This year, the organization awarded a scholarship to 22-year-old University of Toronto student Alina Guna who’s specializing in neuroscience with a major in cell and molecular biology. U of T News caught up with her to learn how she’ll be putting the scholarship to use.

How does it feel to be awarded such a prestigious scholarship?

I feel honoured and humbled to win a scholarship whose ideology so closely mirrors my own. Apart from requiring academic excellence, the Gates also emphasizes that education comes with social responsibility. I am also very excited to be part of a collection of such passionate international leaders and hope to learn a lot from them.

What activities will you undertake at Cambridge?

I’ve always been quite interested in public speaking and formal debate, but never quite mustered up the courage. So one of the first things I’ll be doing is signing up with the Cambridge Union Society. Cambridge also has rich intellectual capital which I plan to take advantage of. I predict I’ll spend most of my time outside of the lab crashing other department’s seminars!

What will you study at Cambridge?

I’ll be doing a PhD in biological science at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology focusing on protein quality control pathways. I plan to examine how misfolded and mislocalized proteins are recognized and targeted for degradation. A solid understanding of this process is essential for gaining insight into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

What drew you to this field?

I came across this field of study in a very roundabout way. I was originally not fond of biology so my first research experience was in the Focused Ultrasound Group at Sunnybrook Hospital. I spent a summer building MRI coils for a project with the eventual goal of developing a drug delivery method for patients with Alzheimer’s disease. This really spurred my interest in neurodegenerative disease. I have since worked on projects that addressed cognitive and genetic aspects of neurodegeneration. However I became very interested in what happens at the protein level. Moreover, there is much insight we can get into the pathological state by having a solid understanding of protein quality control pathways in the healthy system.

Where is your hometown?

Hard to say! I was born in Romania, and spent my childhood in Miami, Florida and East Lansing, Michigan in the United States before moving to Toronto.

You could’ve attended any school in the world. Why did you decide on U of T?

When deciding on a university, I had very vague notions about what I wanted to study but I was sure that I loved research. In this respect, U of T was the perfect choice. I came because of the research opportunities available and the fact that undergraduates are encouraged to get involved in research as early as possible.

How did your experiences at U of T influence you?

I am extremely fortunate to have met some stellar people at U of T who guided my intellectual and social growth. I am particularly grateful for Drs. Morgan Barense and Anne Bassett, incredible mentors and wonderful supervisors. Both provided me with the tremendous privilege of seeing how good science is done. I am also indebted to previous Neuroscience Association of Undergraduate Students’ presidents Cynthia Chan, Samantha Yammine and Amirah Momen. They were fabulous role models to have and constantly challenged me to be a better person in all aspects of life.

What are your future plans?

I can’t imagine living a life without biological research, so I hope to continue doing this as a professor or in another capacity. However, if you had told me four years ago that I would be off to Cambridge to study protein folding I would have likely retorted with an equally absurd accusation! So as always I will let my research interests guide me. I also think science has a huge role to play on a wider, social scale. Whatever professional niche I settle into, I hope to incorporate aspects of science education, policy and community engagement.

What advice would you give others aspiring to win a Gates Cambridge scholarship?

Don’t focus on winning the Gates! My biggest piece of advice is to focus on learning and integrating all of this wonderful information we have available into your life.

If after the end of four years you are a direct sum of all the textbooks you’ve read then a terrible injustice has been done! The magic happens when you let yourself fall down the rabbit hole and deeply engage with what you’re doing.

That’s the real win; everything else will follow.