Amherst Senior Awarded Churchill Scholarship
Issue   |   Wed, 02/19/2014 - 00:17

Senior Christopher Finch has been named one of 14 American students to receive the Churchill Scholarship, which will allow him to spend next year pursuing research at the University of Cambridge. The biochemistry major plans to work at the lab of Cambridge Professor Alison Smith, where he hopes to learn more about the ways in which plants can be used as a source of bioenergy.

Finch found out that he had been selected as a finalist over Interterm, when he received an email inviting him to participate in an interview for the scholarship program.

“Realizing that this was a possibility got me super excited,” Finch said. “They actually ended up offering me the scholarship right during the interview.”

In Smith’s lab, Finch will be focusing on how algae can be used for energy purposes. Finch said he is also particularly interested in how plants can be used to feed the growing world population, especially as starvation continues to be a serious global problem. He explained that bioengineering of plants can be a valuable tool for expanding the food supply — for example, by engineering seeds that are better suited to adapt to tough climates.

When he graduates, Finch will leave behind a legacy distinguished by several awards in biology and chemistry, as well as a career playing for the men’s ice hockey team. Finch was able to combine these two interests in 2012, when he led a series of concussion workshops for coaches in the Amherst area.

His interest in the science of concussions stemmed from a summer he spent working with Dr. James Hudziak at the Univ. of Vermont.

“As part of that research, I ended up spending a ton of time going over the literature and understanding the current scientific basis for what’s going on in a concussion,” he said. “After that experience, coming back to Amherst, I was really interested in continuing to do something with concussions.”

Finch met with groups of coaches who work with young athletes in the Amherst area. He said that many of these coaches had already had concussion-related training, but he hoped to talk to them in a way that incorporated the perspective of both an athlete and a scientist. In his workshops, Finch emphasized caution when dealing with potential head injuries.

“Take the kid out, even if there’s uncertainty about it,” Finch said, explaining what he told the coaches. “If you’re a 12 or 13-year-old playing your sport, it’s not the end of the world to miss a game to make sure everything’s all right. Especially because second hits can be really devastating, in terms of worse concussions or even death.”

The Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States awards the Churchill Scholarship to exceptional American students interested in pursuing science and technology fields. The scholarship allows students to spend up to a year studying at the University of Cambridge and to receive up to $63,000 in funding, depending on the exchange rate.

For Finch, the scholarship is an opportunity to begin a career that will allow him to pursue his interests in both bioengineering and business.

“I’m really interested in where science and business intersect, particularly the idea of entrepreneurship in science,” Finch said. “I definitely like the basic research, but I also want to take that research from the laboratory and put it in a form that can impact people’s lives in the marketplace.”

He hopes to gain more business experience and the future and has plans to earn a Ph.D., but said that he will continue to reevaluate his future plans as he discovers new interests and opportunities.