Two Ducks reach the final round for top scholarships

This month, a UO student and an alumna are preparing to compete with elite students across the country as finalists for two highly prestigious postgraduate scholarships.

Caitlyn Wong is a candidate for the Rhodes Scholarship and Sandra Dorning for the Marshall Scholarship. If they win, their postgraduate studies will be across the pond: Wong at the University of Oxford and Dorning at the university of her choice in the U.K.

Wong is a biochemistry major on track to graduate this December. An ambitious 4.0 student, she was a captain of the UO soccer team, worked in the evolutionary biophysics lab of professor Mike Harms and fundraised tens of thousands of dollars for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation in her spare time. She is considering pursuing a doctorate in medicine.

“I ideally want to be a pediatric oncologist and study childhood cancer and work with patients that have childhood cancer,” she said.

Dorning was a marine biology major who graduated in June 2017. She interned for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2015 as part of the Ernest Hollings Distinguished Scholarship Program. After graduating, she worked first as a summer intern and then as a research technician in the biology lab of UO professor Kelly Sutherland. She’s interested in international marine policy related to fisheries management.

“As I had a variety of different research experiences throughout my time here, I found myself always drawn to these bigger questions of how we can use this scientific information to make change,” Dorning said. “I realized that my passion for writing and public speaking and my interest in conservation kind of all came together in the policy venue, so I’m hoping to sort of put all of those things together.”

Josh Snodgrass, associate vice provost for undergraduate studies and director of distinguished scholarships, was in charge of endorsing the now-finalists’ scholarship applications.

“We do really well for distinguished scholarships when we actually get our students to apply for them,” he said. “Our problem is that most UO students don’t apply for whatever reason. They either don’t know about it or they don’t think they’ll be competitive, but it turns out that with the rates for getting these things or getting to be finalists, we actually do really well.”

It was the day before Wong’s last soccer home game when she found out that she was a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship. She was out to dinner with her parents and several friends.

“I think a couple people were arguing about who was going to pay the check, and I just checked my email in the midst of that. I was like wait, you guys, that’s not important right now — I just got an interview!” she said. “It was cool because I was surrounded by people that I care about.”

Dorning was also with her family when she received her potentially life-changing email. They were ecstatic.

“All summer they watched me as I worked to put together my application, and they know that I’ve always wanted to visit and study abroad in the U.K.,” she said. “This would be my first opportunity to do that, so they’re already sort of scheming how they can come over and visit me while I’m there.”

As finalists for their respective scholarships, Wong and Dorning will each face an interview in front of unknown panelists. They could be asked about a variety of topics ranging from their personal histories to current events related to their research interests.

Snodgrass is preparing Wong and Dorning by creating two mock interviews for each candidate. Just like the real panels, Snodgrass’ will feature panelists who understand the finalists’ specialties but also people from different backgrounds.

“For example, I might put an English professor on a panel to probe from that direction,” he said. “I’m intentionally, of course, putting people onto panels to try to intimidate them a little bit.”

Wong is a Clark Honors College student, and Dorning is an alumna. At the honors college, both found respite from their heavily science-based workloads by exploring interests in other subjects.

“The structure of the program and the small classroom, intense intellectual discussions really help you grow as a student and as an academic as well as a person,” said Wong. “It’s really good to have a balance between that and the sciences. I think that I am a very in tune with ethics and morals and things in the humanities, but I’m also a scientist, so it’s really nice to be able to balance both of those.”

Both candidates developed their honors college theses at UO research labs.

“I’m just really grateful for all the opportunities I was able to capitalize on at the university because that has helped me reach where I have in this competition, and I think the opportunities here for undergrad research are just amazing,” said Dorning.

According to Snodgrass, undergraduate research is key to making UO students competitive in the battle for distinguished postgraduate scholarships.

“That’s become my mission: to beef up what we’re doing for undergraduate research, and then use that to help us bring in distinguished scholarships,” he said.  “We are a major research institution, but we have this teaching mission and we have this research mission. Oftentimes they’re totally separate, so we have to work to converge those and really involve undergrads in a way that makes our campus distinct from other universities.”

Wong’s interview will take place in Seattle; Dorning’s will be in San Francisco.

“I’m just excited,” Snodgrass said. “It’s wonderful to have these candidates and you never know what’s going to happen. You can’t bank on a candidate getting it, but if you’re within striking distance, there’s always that possibility.”

As their interview dates approach, both Wong and Dorning feel cautious confidence, but neither will be crushed if things don’t pan out.

“I think it’s okay to be hopeful and to say that you are hopeful because I think even if I don’t get it, at the end of this I’m not going to be super upset,” Wong said. “Either way, this has been a great experience already and a great honor.”

—By Sarah Eddy, University Communications