Bio student first at UO to win Gates Cambridge Scholarship

What Amelia Fitch really wanted to do after graduation was travel across Europe, hopping between countries and paying her way by working on organic farms. But now she can’t.

Not right away, that is. Instead, the UO senior and Clark Honors College student will be going to Great Britain on a Gates Cambridge Scholarship, one of the most prestigious postgraduate scholarships in the world and the first ever to be awarded to a UO student.

“It still doesn’t even seem real,” Fitch said, remembering the early morning email that brought the news. “I’m not even sure how to describe getting the scholarship. It’s just wild.”

A double major in biology and environmental science, Fitch will spend a year earning a master’s degree at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Plant Sciences. Her interest is in conservation biology, looking in particular at how land management practices affect the chemical composition and microbial communities in the soil of tidal wetlands.

The scholarship, awarded to just 35 Americans among 826 applicants this year, will let her dive deeper into the wetland mud than she ever dreamed possible. She will work alongside internationally recognized researchers, starting this summer gathering data from a test site in Ontario, Canada, and then traveling to the UK to begin her studies.

And thanks to the generous Gates Cambridge Scholarship, she’ll do it without having to worry about finances. David Hubin, who works in the Office of the Provost to encourage UO students to seek scholarships through the President’s Distinguished Scholars program, said he is immensely proud of Fitch’s success.

“Helping connect students like Amelia with these life-changing opportunities is extremely important to the University of Oregon,” Hubin said. “She is a one-of-kind student who earned this honor. I have no doubt she will make a significant impact on the world.

The award, established at Cambridge through a $210 million gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, covers all her university costs and travel expenses and even provides a monthly stipend for living expenses.

“This is the full ride, above and beyond,” she said.

Fitch learned the value of scholarships and the importance of donor gifts at the UO, where she attended on a Presidential Scholarship. She’ll graduate this spring debt-free, and she expects to stay that way while earning her first graduate degree at Cambridge, a world-renowned institution.

That’s a favor she intends to return.

“I am so grateful to the alumni who donated money to fund education in Oregon,” she said. “It’s made the whole difference. I think of it as an interest-free loan, because when I have a real job and I’m a real adult I can pay back into these scholarship foundations what I’ve been given.”

Fitch was born and raised in Astoria, where she was, almost literally, immersed in tidal wetlands. An inspiring high school teacher helped spark her interest in science in general and biology in particular, and when it came time to pick a university, the financial package offered by the UO helped turn her into a Duck.

She took full advantage of the opportunity, enrolling in the honors college and spending summers doing undergraduate research on campus and as far away as Ecuador as part of a neotropical ecology class. She took on the notoriously difficult Biology 212 course with particular gusto and ended up becoming a class assistant for the course and developing a passion for teaching.

“I absolutely loved being a TA,” she said.

Lately she’s been working in the lab of biology professor Scott Bridgham, director of the Institute of Ecology and Evolution, pursuing an honors research project on carbon cycling in marine and freshwater wetlands. She’s particularly interested in how land management is affecting microbial life in those important ecosystems.

Bridgham calls it an ambitious project that required the young scholar to pioneer new techniques for analyzing soil enzymes. Fitch will defend her thesis this spring and, working with a graduate student, hopes to have a paper submitted for journal publication within a year.

“I have no doubt that Amelia is well on her way to becoming a very successful environmental scientist, with Cambridge an important step on her path,” Bridgham said.

Where that path will take her after Cambridge is still up in the air. Fitch is still pondering whether to continue in school and get her doctorate or see where else her passion for science can take her.

Wherever that is, Fitch said she’ll always be happy her path led her to the UO. In spite of all the hard work behind her 3.94 GPA, Fitch said she always felt comfortable here. But now she’s ready to leave her comfort zone behind.

“This is such a great place, but I know I need to go someplace and be uncomfortable and stretch myself as a person,” she said. “Getting this scholarship, I just know it’s going to open so many doors.”

—By Greg Bolt, University Communications