Biology student wins coveted Gates scholarship

Andrew Tanentzap didn’t tell anybody – not even his parents – he had applied for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship until he knew for sure he had it.

The 23-year-old biology graduate student kept mum for months. Oh, he’d told friends and family he’d applied to the University of Cambridge in England and a top Ivy League school in the United States. And he’d shared the good news this spring that the American university had offered him an all-expenses-paid studentship to complete a PhD in ecology. But when Cambridge accepted him in March, he’d kept it a secret – and waited.

Left: Andrew Tanentzap brandishes garlic mustard, a non-native species that has invaded the hills behind Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings

"It was great news, but I didn’t tell anyone because I had to demonstrate that I could pay tuition and living expenses to study for three years in the UK," said Tanentzap. He didn’t want to raise his parents’ hopes only to disappoint them if he couldn’t come up with the money.

All he needed was $150,000 by July 31, the deadline for accepting Cambridge’s offer.

When he’d applied to Cambridge, Tanentzap had ticked a little box: Yes, he would like to be considered for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. In March he’d cleared the first hurdle to be eligible for the scholarship – acceptance to Cambridge. In May, he cleared the second hurdle – an interview by phone.

He was expecting the call. The Gates Cambridge Trust, set up by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to administer 230 international scholarships at any one time, had alerted him. On Thursday, May 10, before anyone else was out of bed, Tanentzap waited in the basement of his parents’ Willowdale home. When the phone rang at 7am, he knew by the ring that it was an international call – and he knew he would have only 20 minutes to make a good impression. He lifted the receiver.

On the other end were several senior British scientists. The trust had told Tanentzap to expect questions about his research and why it excites him, about the broader field he’s in, and why coming to Cambridge would help his work. The final advice was "relax and enjoy the interview." After cursory introductions, the interviewers skipped the niceties and cut to the chase. "They wasted no time," said Tanentzap. "They fired one question after another. It was the most intense interview I’ve ever had."

Six days later, in the early morning quiet of ecologist Dawn Bazely’s lab where he spends long days, Tanentzap was surprised to see an e-mail from Britain. He’d won one of the 100 Gates Cambridge Scholarships given annually to outstanding graduate students from outside the UK to study at Cambridge. Not only was he an exceptional student full of scholarly promise, he had persuaded the trust interviewers he would use his Cambridge education for the benefit of others and to improve the common weal. Worth $165,000 Canadian, the scholarship would cover his academic and living expenses for three years and pay for his flight to and from England.

"I was so excited I had to read the e-mail two or three times to make sure I wasn’t reading what I wanted to see, that I wasn’t dreaming," said Tanentzap.

Before Tanentzap boards a plane to London for his first trip to the UK in September, he must defend his master’s thesis on the impact of overabundant deer populations and invasive plants on southern Ontario forests. He will also travel to Norway with Bazely, director of York’s Institute for Research & Innovation in Sustainability, for a workshop on International Polar Year research.

Right: Tanentzap sorts soil samples he’s testing for nitrogen, possible evidence of herbivory in eastern Ontario parks 

He can hardly wait to get to Cambridge, one of the best universities in the world for plant sciences. Over the next three years, he expects to work on a global predictive model of forest dynamics that integrates the impact of overabundant herbivores in southern Ontario, the UK and New Zealand. Current models that predict what forests will look like don’t consider herbivory, says Tanentzap. "Work from our lab shows that herbivores have a profound effect on forests," he says, referring to Bazely-led research over the last 16 years documenting the local impact of white-tailed deer in southern Ontario. "How can you predict the future of forests if you don’t consider one of the driving forces impacting them?" At Cambridge, Tanentzap hopes to extend his research to predicting the role of forests as carbon sinks, which affect climate change.

For a future professor who can rhyme off the Latin names of every invasive plant he studies, Tanentzap is keen to communicate science in clear, simple language so that ordinary people understand, care and take action. "Science shouldn’t just be about throwing data at someone," he says. "A good way to get people to do something about current ecological problems is to present them as issues of human security."

For instance, how do you make people care about too many deer? Tanentzap has thought hard about this. You explain that because deer are eating too many saplings, they are killing the next generation of trees, which will accelerate climate change, reduce the benefits of forests, such as cleaner air and water, and affect the timber industry. Too many deer also destroy crops, cause collisions on highways and carry tick-borne infectious diseases.

Human security has traditionally been seen in terms of war, terrorism and external threats to the state, but environmental disasters such as fires, floods, avalanches, hurricanes cause more deaths than war, Tanentzap told his Cambridge Trust interviewers, citing the United Nations definition. 

The York student hopes to take advantage of Cambridge’s intercollegiality and talk to political scientists and social scientists about reframing the message of science so that people can make meaningful decisions about protecting ecosystems. He’s already collaborated outside his discipline with York atmospheric scientist Peter Taylor and limnologist Norman Yan to figure out that wind-breaking trees contributed to the recovery of a once-dead Sudbury-area lake. And Tanentzap regularly meets with government and private landowners to influence policy and management of natural areas.

"I think the Gates Cambridge Scholarship Trust is looking for people who are able to engage people across boundaries and take a global perspective," says Tanentzap. His interviewers clearly thought he fit the bill.

By Martha Tancock, York communications officer