By Benny Mojela
Kristen Burgess, Rhodes University Chemistry PhD Candidate, has been selected for the illustrious Gates Cambridge scholarship comprised of 77 outstanding scholars worldwide. Born in Johannesburg, Burgess spent some of her early school years there before moving to Makhanda, attending Kingswood College before she matriculated from Victoria Girls High School. She was accepted into various programs at Wits University and Rhodes University but chose to stay in the Eastern Cape for a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree.
Burgess faced many challenges during her academic journey, including the difficult decision to give up ballet dancing to focus on her studies. After struggling with Maths and Physics, she opted for Chemistry and Biosciences as her major subjects in her undergraduate degree. This subject choice sparked her interest in pursuing a career involving Chemistry and Biology.
In her second year, Burgess enjoyed the most intriguing year of her academic career, thanks to the practical experiments she conducted while majoring in Chemistry, Biochemistry and Microbiology. Although she considered triple majoring in her third year, Burgess decided to focus on Chemistry and Biochemistry to avoid spreading herself too thin. When choosing between the two subjects for her Honours degree, she chose Chemistry because she found it more intellectually stimulating and challenging.
Burgess is pursuing a master’s degree, researching anticancer therapies based on her Honours project. Her research focuses on designing light-responsive molecules that can produce cytotoxic molecules to kill cancer cells, moving away from traditional chemotherapy. Burgess said, “I hope it will be the premise of my career in the future as a scientist to unpack its mechanism before using chemistry to intervene.” She hopes to merge Chemistry and Biochemistry to take an interdisciplinary approach to cancer treatment, which means understanding how cancer attacks the body before intervening with chemistry.
Burgess’s dream of studying abroad was close to her heart, though she did not know how to turn it into a reality. Her perseverance led her to apply for the Rhodes Trust in 2021, hoping for a chance to fulfil her dream. However, the response she received was not what she expected. The Rhodes Trust informed her that she needed to take some time to figure out how she could make a significant impact in the world. Although it was a hard pill to swallow, Burgess knew she needed to hear it. The experience made her a stronger and more resilient person.
Burgess discovered Gates Cambridge Scholarship through the inspiration of a close friend one year ahead of her. Initially, she wanted to study at Oxford; her friend encouraged her to check out the PhD programs at Cambridge upon browsing the Cambridge website. Burgess found the Gates Cambridge Scholarship and threw her hat in the ring. After a heap of effort into the application process, she was selected for the Scholarship.
Determined to study abroad, she applied to Rhodes University Flanagan Scholarship, which funds students to study overseas. She was selected for the Scholarship, the first positive response she received from her numerous applications. The Scholarship provided half of the funding she needed to study at Cambridge, while the Gates Cambridge Scholarship offered funding for all expenses. So, when she was selected for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, she asked that her Flanagan Scholarship be reallocated to another deserving candidate.
Besides Cambridge and Oxford, Burgess had also applied to King’s College, London. She was accepted into a fully funded PhD program on the Mechanics of Life. It intrigued her because her partner is also working on his career in London. Still, she chose the Cambridge Chemistry programme because it resonates with what she has always wanted to do to impact the world significantly.
She looks forward to building a global science career and contributing to the development of science. Burgess said, “I don’t want to be limited to one area, but I hope to travel the rest of the globe interacting with other scientists”.
She is passionate about understanding how cancer works and how to bring real solutions to it. Her passion for finding solutions for cancer is genuine. “I have a loved one suffering from cancer, and I hope to contribute helpful knowledge about it,” Burgess said. The future looks bright for as she embarks on a new adventure with the support of these prestigious scholarships.