Divakaruni lands Marshall Scholarship

November 30, 2005

By hammersmith

Two years ago Ajit Divakaruni, a University of Arizona undergraduate, struck a bold move and contacted a world-renowned biochemist, asking him for a spot in his lab.

Dr. Martin Brand, a leading expert in mitochondria and energy regulation at the University of Cambridge, granted Ajit’s request and let him work for six months as a full-time research student.

Next year Ajit will return to Brand’s lab to continue his work in the biosciences. But this time he will not only have the support of Brand but also the backing of one of the country’s most prestigious scholarships—the Marshall Scholarship.

The Marshall Scholarship, which pays for two years of graduate school at a university in the United Kingdom, is awarded to only 40 students nationwide. Ajit is Arizona’s only Marshall Scholar this year and the first Arizonan to receive it in three years. He was one of four scholars selected from the Los Angeles region, which consists of Arizona, Hawaii, Utah, Nevada’s Clark County, and Southern California. There are eight such regions.

This year three Flinn Scholars were named among the 17 finalists for the Marshall Scholarship.

Michelle Hertzfeld (’01), an international studies and East Asian studies major at UA, was a first alternate, placing her fifth out of the more than ninety applicants who applied for the scholarship in the Los Angeles region.

Michelle hopes to pursue a career in international environmental policy. In preparing herself for such a future she has traveled to China and Mongolia, backed by such prestigious awards as the National Securities Education Program David L. Boren Undergraduate Scholarship award, the National Science Foundation International Research Scholar award, and the Freeman Asia award. She has pursued Paleolithic archaeology and anthropology research as well as arid lands research.

Liz Dreeland (’01), a history and English double-major at Arizona State University, was a finalist for the Marshall.

Her undergraduate career has taken her off the beaten path to fence with the Hungarian Olympic team while studying in Hungary for a semester as an NSEP-Boren Scholar. She has also conducted independent research in Cuba and is a published poet, top-ranked fencer, and former president of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

For Liz, Michelle, and Ajit, taking the initiative to seek out their own experiences rather than follow traditional study-abroad lines has defined much of their careers as undergraduates.

After his freshman year Ajit sought out his own summer volunteer opportunity after the Eastern Europe seminar. He was originally supposed to work at a local children’s hospital but, when that did not pan out, he found a new home at the Oradea Centru de Minor, a shelter for abandoned and abused children. He calls the time spent with these children one of the most formative experiences of his college career.

“My time with those children taught me how to grow as a human being,” he said. “Now if I have developed a soft spot for those who, by accident of birth, lack the same opportunities I have had, it is because my own opportunities for personal and professional growth has come from others taking chances on me.”

Not only did Brand take a chance on Ajit, accepting him into his lab solely based on his professed work ethic, but another professor, Lynne Regan, also accepted Ajit into her lab following his research experience at University of Cambridge.

While at Cambridge, Ajit realized that in order to develop therapies that combat diabetes and obesity–his long term goal–he would have to study protein folding and engineering. To do that, he contacted Regan, an authority in protein design, to secure a position in her lab at Yale University.

In New Haven, Ajit worked individually on a bioinformatics project among eight post-doctoral researchers. Currently he is preparing a single-author manuscript for publication under the supervision of Dr. Regan.

By the time he finishes his undergraduate career at UA, Ajit will become the first undergraduate to graduate with honors in three disciplines—biochemistry and molecular biophysics, mathematics, and molecular and cellular biology. That honor requires three separate honors theses.

He will apply the three degrees to his doctoral work on proteins that show promise as future therapeutic targets for diabetes and obesity, a bioscience niche in which Ajit aspires to someday become a leader.

For those who have considered pursuing awards such as the Marshall, the Gates-Cambridge, or the Rhodes, Ajit offers a piece of advice.

The committee knows when someone is applying for a scholarship just for the prestige, he says. So do not apply unless you have a really good reason for studying in the United Kingdom. Instead, he advises people to pursue what they really love, and if that takes them to England for post-graduate work, then they should apply.

“Find out what you love to do, that discipline which makes your pulse race and keeps you up at night, and then do everything possible to become a leader in that field,” he said. “Oftentimes this means taking daunting risks when it is impossible to see what lies ahead of you, but with enough work and belief in yourself and your abilities these decisions will pay off, regardless of the outcome of the scholarship.”

Flinn Scholars have had a good track record of winning the Marshall scholarship. Past Flinn recipients include: Brian Lutz (’98), Michael Chu (’92), Alon Unger (’94), and Ian Larkin (’96).