"A sense of belonging"

"A sense of belonging"

  • Julia Fan Li

Gates Cambridge Trustee and alumna Julia Fan Li (St John's 2008) reflects on the life-changing impact of the scholarship over its first 20 years.

Arriving after a 10-hour Air Canada flight, my earliest memory of being a Gates Cambridge Scholar was the coach ride to the Lake District. In the grey, drizzle-soaked six-hour journey each way, foundational friendships were formed and an introduction to English cultural life was imprinted. 

Coming from Vancouver, Canada, it was also my first time meeting other scholars who had different backgrounds than my own. They included graduates from Harvard and Stanford, from the University of Cape Town, the National Law School of India University and a scholar from rural Idaho who was mostly self-taught. If nothing else, after orientation weekend, you had learned a lot about the English weather and which members of the Scholars’ Council and the Gates Cambridge staff who you could turn to for help – as well as a sense of belonging to a community who shared your personal and professional adventure. 

I initially arrived at Cambridge for a one-year MPhil to translate my passion for biotechnology into working for the life sciences industry either in Boston or Basel. Sitting in the Scholars’ Room one afternoon, a few of us talked about going to the annual Cambridge S.T. Lee Public Policy lecture presented by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. I had never seen a Head of State talk before, so we jumped on our bikes and off we went. Arriving late and nabbing a seat in the back row, that one hour lecture changed my life. By the end of my MPhil, I had traded in my dream pharma job in Basel and was living and working in Kigali, Rwanda leading a team of three researchers examining how we could apply management accounting principles to improve hospital efficiency in Rwanda’s one and only kidney dialysis centre. 

Fascinated by the idea of why a biomedical entrepreneur making a tuberculosis (TB) diagnostic could not access the same levels of financing and risk capital as the same entrepreneur using the same technology platform for an early cancer diagnostic, I returned to Cambridge to work on my PhD thesis on Innovative Financing for Global Health instead of returning to industry. The additional three years at Cambridge allowed me to serve as Graduate Representative on the University Council, witness Bill & Melinda’s receipt of honorary doctorate degrees from Cambridge, participate in the 10-year Gates Cambridge Scholarship Reunion and spend fun moments with Bill Gates Sr. at the annual research symposium and dinner.

Gates Cambridge Scholars are chosen for their commitment to improving the lives of others, but for the current scholars and growing alumni population the scholarship also leaves an incredible personal mark, improving the lives of scholars too. 

Julia Fan Li

The leadership of the Scholars’ Council also grew tremendously over this time, with the additions of Learning for Purpose and greater community support for Gates Cambridge families. At the end of my PhD, I built on the research work and together with Lion’s Head Global Partners in London, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle and JP Morgan & Chase in New York City, we launched (with Bill Gates and Jamie Dimon) the world’s first $108mm Global Health Investment Fund in 2013. The 2013 vintage Fund is a top-performing fund financially and helped double the world’s cholera vaccine supply and helped commercialise the first new drug for onchocerciasis (river-blindness) in 30 years that can help WHO in disease elimination. 

The Gates Cambridge Scholarship community is truly unique. Drawing from an international base and without an age application limit, the scholarship is diverse. Whether you stay for a nine-month MPhil or 3+ years for a PhD, the community is accessible to your personal growth throughout. Over the years, the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association has also grown from strength to strength, hosting events not only in Cambridge and Boston/SF, but in Shanghai, Delhi and across Europe (and online via Zoom!). I started serving as a Gates Cambridge Trustee in 2017 and was welcomed to my first Trustee meeting with my newborn in tow.

In my time as an alumna, I have thoroughly enjoyed connecting with Gates Cambridge friends all over the world, both in person over coffees/ice-creams and professionally on video calls for work related efforts. Just in this past lockdown, Andrew Robertson and I re-connected over machine learning for drug discovery!

In the next 20 years, in my mind’s eye, I see large multi-year efforts in global health, global education and climate change led by Gates Cambridge alumni; Bill Gates interviewing additional alumni for his Gates Notes website (as had already happened once!) about their contributions; and further growth of the Alumni Association base to connect scholars personally and professionally beyond their time at Cambridge. Furthermore, I cannot wait for a Gates Cambridge alumna/nus to give the annual S. T. Lee Public Policy lecture at University of Cambridge as a Head of State!

Adapted from an article originally published by Gates Cambridge Trust

To learn more about the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, please contact: 


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