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Johnian magazine issue 45

The Professor Sir Christopher Dobson PhD Scholarship

Written by Rachel Powell

2 min read

In the months that have passed since the memorial services for Chris Dobson, we have been reflecting on how best to commemorate him in perpetuity as a College. On these pages Associate Director of Development Rachel Powell explores our decision.

The outside world knew Chris as a giant of science, whose contribution to the understanding of the underlying mechanisms of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes will likely revolutionise their prevention and treatment. To Johnians, Chris was all this and more: an exceptionally committed Master who also somehow found the time to be a world-class researcher.

Profoundly engaged in the College community, Chris always had time for students, staff, Fellows and alumni. Over the years many Johnians experienced first-hand his warmth and hospitality. Indeed, Chris was the antithesis of the stereotypical image of the aloof scientist: he was greatly interested in people and their stories and cared deeply about fairness.

The son of parents who left school at 14 without qualifications, Chris was immensely grateful for the excellent university education he received free of charge, and he found the recent changes to the student funding arrangements at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level ‘troubling, particularly from the point of view of social mobility’. It is therefore no surprise that he championed the launch of the St John’s Studentship Scheme in 2016, the most generous means-tested undergraduate bursary in Cambridge. His next goal was to improve the level of funding offered to postgraduate students.

An inspiring and nurturing mentor, Chris directly enriched the careers of the many researchers who worked under him, over 100 of whom have taken up academic posts around the world. He maintained that his scientific discoveries owed much to the talented young people who came to work with him. They, in turn, insist that their success came from the values that he instilled in them: to follow their instincts and to view any research failure as an opportunity for greater understanding.

In light of Chris’s views on postgraduate funding and his passion for helping young researchers flourish, we have come to the conclusion that the best way to honour him at St John’s is with the Professor Sir Christopher Dobson PhD Scholarship for science. Covering fees, maintenance and travel for students from anywhere in the world, the Scholarship will preserve Chris’s ethos for future generations by providing them with the autonomy to follow their instincts, free from the increasingly rigid conditions of many external funding bodies.

The Scholarship will be open to applicants from all of the natural sciences, in acknowledgement of Chris’s conviction that ‘an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach is needed to try to tackle the multifaceted problems of today’, and will be run from an endowed fund for posterity. The ambition is to raise at least £2million, although in reality, as Chris himself would say, ‘the sky is the limit.’

Chris was enormously committed to St John’s and our community, believing it to be something special and in need of protection. Now, through the Professor Sir Christopher Dobson PhD Scholarship, we collectively have the opportunity to do as well by Chris and his memory as he did by St John’s.

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Rachel is Associate Development Director (Head of Major Gifts). She meets with Johnians to discuss the College’s current situation and priorities, and she explores ways that the Johnian community can work together to ensure that future scholars are able to enjoy the opportunities that St John’s has offered for generations.