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Nitika Mummidivarapu receives Gates-Cambridge Scholarship

Recent UC Davis graduate Nitika Mummidivarapu (Class of 2019) will be going to Cambridge University under a prestigious Gates-Cambridge Scholarship to pursue advanced study in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology. She says that coursework in STS and English helped her forge a path leading from biochemistry to the history of science and then to medical school, looking ahead to a multilayered career as a physician and a writer.

My Journey to Gates-Cambridge

By Nitika Mummidivarapu

Having been raised in a trilingual household, it was not uncommon to hear all three languages in one sentence; it was simply a quotidian aspect of my hyphenated identity. Growing up, I became more aware of the reasoning behind the linguistic choices my parents made, often having to consider a multitude of factors in this single decision that felt unique to my own family and background. My perception and understanding of the world were constantly molded by the observations I made, which fostered a passion for the scientific field given its dependence on observation and its uniformity across cultural barriers.

I had grown to idealize and admire the scientific process. Biochemistry simply made sense: the story of molecules interacting with each other in the cell was a narrative that felt natural to me. In college, I found that scientific principles that I had been taught about since high school culminated into beautiful theories of atomic machines doing work on the Newtonian scale. The knowledge presented to me in classes was concrete and had stood true against countless refutations. However, this knowledge was the product of over a millennium of work – I simply hadn’t considered the fault lines that existed in the scientific processes that produced this knowledge.

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Starting my third year at UC Davis, I decided to challenge myself with a humanities class. I stumbled upon a lecture of Dr. Milburn’s ENL/STS 164 and surprisingly found a comfortable topic for a biochemistry major: Robert Boyle. Most students who have taken chemistry are familiar with Boyle’s Law and its relation to the Ideal Gas Law. However, we weren’t talking about PV=k in this class, we were discussing Boyle’s experiments with the air pump and his work called New Experiments. I left that lecture feeling a multitude of emotions: shocked by the depth of the history and philosophy of science, fulfilled by the totality of concepts that we were discussing, and upset that I had never thought about the origin of something as fundamental as Boyle’s Law.

Over the quarter we worked through classics like Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Watson’s The Double Helix. We focused primarily on the literary modes that contributed to the dissemination of knowledge in these works. In the way that I found a love for science through my family’s linguistic determinations, I rediscovered a passion for literature because of my scientific background. Together, these two diametric fields informed a possibility of exploring each other through STS, a truly interdisciplinary field.

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Since early 2016, I have annually returned to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air as a reminder of the concomitant brevity and capacity of life. A momentous quote in this book that resonated with me deeply was: “You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving." Empowered by this idea, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and explored the possibility of going into the humanities for graduate studies. The process of applying for prestigious scholarships was challenging and the moments of self-doubt were deeply present and pervasive.  I struggled with feeling as though I deserved to be considered, and one of the many reassuring things Scott Palmer told me was “It’s not up to you to decide if you’re worthy. Be yourself, and let the [scholarships committees] decide.” Thus, the journey to Gates-Cambridge became a profoundly personal one. The most rewarding aspect of this process was not that I had received the scholarship, but that I had decidedly put myself out there to try.

Tearing up in my friend’s D.C. apartment the night before my Gates interview, I realized that I couldn’t imagine a life for myself that wasn’t interdisciplinary. I was determined, someway and somehow, to make this happen. The Gates-Cambridge scholarship provides me with the support to help these newfound dreams come true, and I wouldn’t be in this position without the countless people and serendipitous moments that led me to believe in myself.

 

Acknowledgments

I would like to give a special thank you to the following members of the UC Davis community for their mentorship, support, encouragement, and inspiration:  Dr. Colin Milburn, Dr. Mona Monfared, Dr. Celina Juliano, Scott Palmer, Dr. Claire Filloux, Dr. Gerardo Con Diaz, Dr. Emily Klancher Merchant, Dr. Daniel Stolzenberg, Dr. Margaret Ronda, Dr. Elizabeth Constable, Bryan Teefy, and Lauren Uchiyama.