Meet the Australian science scholars!

June 14, 2019

Recently we announced that three lucky young people had won the Weizmann Australia scholarship to attend the 2019 Weizmann Institute of Science’s Dr Bessie F. Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) in Israel. The scholarship winners are Sai Campbell, Julian van Gerwen and Caleb McKenna.

The ISSI runs from 2-25 July on the Weizmann Institute campus in Rehovot, Israel and Sai, Julian and Caleb will join over 80 students from around the world, working in labs with researchers who have chosen a career in science.

Here is your chance to find out more about these three exceptional, budding scientists and their passion for learning…

Sai Campbell

Supported by the Trawalla Foundation to attend the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Dr Bessie F. Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) 2019

Sai Cambell is undertaking a Bachelor of Philosophy at the Australian National University (ANU), which she said attracted her because of its strong focus on research, neuroscience and oncology, and close links to the John Curtin School of Medical Research. Her future career aspirations are to work on diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, which will be “key issues in an ageing world”.

Sai graduated as Dux from the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Burwood in Victoria in 2018 where she undertook the International Baccalaureate (IB) and graduated with an ATAR of 99.95, whilst awarded the Academic Excellence prize for IB Higher Level Biology.  At the school she was a Prefect and Environment Captain, as well as an informal advocate for STEM amongst girls.

 “It‘s my strong passion to encourage younger girls to consider pursuing STEM subjects as a career and address the sad dearth of women in science,” said Sai.

During her time at school Sai was always involved in extra-curricular activities, as long as they involved biology, such as representing Australia at the 29th International Biology Olympiad in Iran in 2018 where she received a bronze medal for her performance in the theoretical and practical examinations.

 “The Olympiad was the most enjoyable aspect of my high school years as I had the privilege of being able to really engage with biology and chemistry at an in-depth level which I only ever found thrilling and fascinating,” she said.

Biology and science in general are Sai’s passion, encouraged by her single parent father who introduced her to books and learning at an early age.

“I’m an avid reader. One of my clearest childhood memories was pouring over ‘The Book of Life’ edited by the eminent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and, although I doubt I could read then, I understood that life on earth was somehow different over time as shown through the pictures of this book, which progressed from the era of the dinosaurs to early primate evolution,” she reflected.

“I find biology particularly exhilarating because the only rule in biology appears to be that there are none, which leaves endless possibilities for creatively manipulating how living things work and making positive change.”

“Through my reading, I’m constantly excited about the current state of biological research and particularly the advances in genetic and medical research which has inspired me to take up learning Python in my spare time, as I understand that analysing huge sets of data will be enormously important in the future of biological research,” she said.

Books also educated Sai about the Weizmann Institute of Science, so she knew a bit about it before hearing about the ISSI scholarship.

“I read a bit about Weizmann’s stem cell work in a book called ‘The Gene’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee and heard about the summer school from friends studying overseas,” she said.

“They told me what a fantastic experience it was but I hadn’t really thought I could actually go until earlier this year when the ISSI opportunity was advertised to ANU science students, so I applied.”

But like others, although Sai knew a little about Weizmann, on learning more she was surprised she was not fully aware of what they do.

“Even though I had read bits and pieces about the Institute, I was surprised I didn’t know more because it’s a very well-regarded research institution with a strong biology department, which makes me all the more excited to be visiting the Institute,” Sai said.

Through Weizmann’s ISSI, Sai said she hoped to gain a better understanding and experience of the research process, particularly technical skills which can be hard to acquire in a typical first-year university course.

“I’m extremely excited by the prospect of jumping straight into research and expect the program to be challenging, but in an intellectually stimulating way,” she said.

“I know I’ll be meeting many incredibly passionate and talented students from around the world, which can be a really humbling and eye-opening experience.  I really love meeting people from different backgrounds, with their own unique perspectives on science and the world.”

Apart from the science, exploring the terrain and environment of Israel is a big draw-card.

“I think the final part of the program, where we’ll be exploring the nearby desert, will be a great bonding experience and is something I am really looking forward to,” she said.

“Overall I’m just thrilled to be given the opportunity to work with Weizmann experts and other equally excited science students from around the world, to solve real problems and have a tangible impact. I believe that working as a part of an international team encourages a culture of creativity when approaching scientific problems.

“Last but not least, I’m extremely grateful to the Trawalla Foundation for funding my scholarship and to Weizmann Australia for selecting me to go on this very special trip. I look forward to reporting back on all I experienced,” Sai concluded.


Caleb McKenna

Supported by Judy and Sam Weiss to attend the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Dr Bessie F. Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) 2019

Caleb McKenna has a Fogarty Scholarship at the University of Western Australia (WA) where he is studying Engineering Science and Physics via the Bachelor of Philosophy (Honours) degree. The research-intensive focus of the program will help him develop skills to identify and solve complex problems, independently manage and lead projects, and communicate incisively across a range of platforms.

Caleb graduated from Warwick Senior High School, WA in 2018, where he was Dux, head boy and captained the school’s Australian Rules football senior side. He left school “with an absolute passion for the sciences and a genuine desire to extend my education in the pursuit of a deeper understanding of the concepts that I had studied.” This is why he chose his particular honours degree.

“It teaches various research methodologies and presents opportunities to explore a chosen field through research placements with experienced academics – very similar to the ISSI program, which is why it appealed to me,” said Caleb.

Whilst Caleb said he appreciates all areas of science, his greatest passion lies within the study of physics and its mathematical links.

“In physics I’m motivated to question the fundamental workings of the universe, but also have a great respect for mathematics, which I believe is the language in which physics presents these workings. I look forward to exploring these subjects further in my university studies and through other avenues, such as ISSI,” he said.

Like some previous ISSI scholars, Caleb had not heard of the Weizmann Institute of Science or the influential role Israel has in global science until he received word from an alumnus of the Fogarty scholarship who had also previously attended the ISSI (in 2014).

“The alumnus reached out to us younger scholars, advertising this amazing opportunity. I’ve always been passionate about the sciences and didn’t hesitate to seek more information,” said Caleb.

“After only a short read, there was no questioning whether or not I was applying. It seemed like such an incredible opportunity to not just develop my scientific knowledge, but to experience the Israeli culture, meet passionate science students from all over the world, and represent Australia on an international scene.”  

He expressed his surprise about not knowing about Weizmann or Israel’s contribution to science and medicine.

“I was so surprised I’d not heard of Weizmann. There isn’t a single high school leaver who hasn’t heard of the prestigious places to undertake postgraduate research, such as Harvard, Oxford and MIT, but reading further into Weizmann, it‘s clearly a leading contributor to the world of scientific research,” he said.

“I was also shocked to learn of Israel’s strong position in the scientific community and their reputation for their methodical and hardworking attitude to research endeavours.’

As for the trip to Israel, he has many expectations but has an open mind.

“I have many expectations of the trip, however suspect that none will prepare me for what truly awaits!” he said.

“First of all, I expect to learn – not only from Weizmann academics but from the many bright, incredible students I will be surrounded by and look forward to finishing days with my capacity for knowledge reached, and possibly a headache!

“Secondly, I expect to be exposed to incredible cultures and lifestyles I have not previously experienced. I look forward to meeting fellow science lovers from various backgrounds, nationalities and cultures that will hopefully present to me a broader perspective on my own lifestyle and culture,” said Caleb.

Ultimately Caleb expects to be inspired.

“I think it’s an inevitable outcome that I’ll arrive back in Perth, not just exhausted, but with new grand ideas and with a newfound desire to explore and achieve,” he said.

“Being part of what I believe will be an incredible group of students will have a positive impact, not only on my scientific ambitions, but also my personal development.”

In concluding Caleb expressed his great thanks at being given the chance to go on this international adventure.

“I’ve only been out of the country once before (to Thailand) and am so grateful for the generosity of Judy and Sam Weiss who have given me the opportunity to attend the ISSI, which is a once in a lifetime experience; one that is unmatched by any other,” he said.


Julian van Gerwen

Supported by the Garvan-Weizmann Partnership to attend the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Dr Bessie F. Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) 2019

Julian van Gerwen is studying a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Advanced Studies at the University of Sydney, majoring in mathematics, and genetics and genomics.

He graduated as dux and valedictorian from the esteemed selective Sydney school, Fort Street High in 2018.  In 2017 he came first in NSW in HSC Mathematics and Mathematics Extension 1, and in 2018 was fourteenth in NSW in HSC Biology, achieving an ATAR of 99.95.

He is deeply passionate about science and plans to be a career research scientist.

“I am fascinated by many fields of Science, including chemistry, molecular biology, genetics, and applied mathematics and love learning about complex systems and the reasons behind scientific phenomenon, and I believe these motivations would make me a successful researcher,” he said in his scholarship application.

As for the ISSI, he heard a little about it when a friend attended in 2017 and she told him about her experience. Then as luck would have it, the University of Sydney’s science faculty sent an email to all advanced science students encouraging them to attend, where the program Julian said “grabbed my attention right away”.

When asked about the Weizmann Institute of Science, Julian said he was surprised by the commitment to school science education.

“Many universities have only a small or non-existent focus on supporting science education in primary and secondary schools. Weizmann, on the other hand, has an entire institute dedicated to science education,” he said.

“I believe that nourishing a love for science in future generations is just as important as advancing scientific knowledge in the present day, and so I was pleased to discover Weizmann’s involvement in the teaching of science.”

As for the Summer Institute itself, Julian said he expects to be challenged while forging strong bonds with others.

“An entire month of research is a big ask for a group of high school graduates, and based on the academic selectivity of the program, I do not expect that the Weizmann institute will make things easy,” he said.

“Though I am perhaps slightly scared about the difficulty of the program, my fear is overwhelmed by excitement – I think the challenge will be an incredible opportunity for me to learn and develop as a scientist.

“Also despite any cultural differences, all of the applicants will be united by their love for science, so during the month at Weizmann, I expect to forge strong friendships through discussing, debating, and researching our common passion.”

As well as science, Julian is passionate about orchestral music, playing the French Horn for six years in numerous school and community orchestras, and currently in the Sydney University Symphony Orchestra.  His music has also taken him travelling around the globe, so this trip to Israel will not be his first overseas.

“I have travelled overseas before on several music tours with school and community orchestras, however most notably, in 2016 I spent two months on exchange in France. So, having lived overseas, away from my friends and family and confronted by culture shock, I believe I am prepared for the ISSI,” he said.

Julian also has a deep interest in languages and as well as studying French is learning Mandarin.

“My experiences on music tours and exchanges have made me a passionate traveller and a humble explorer of new cultures. Now and in my future career I will take every opportunity to collaborate across nations and strengthen the global scientific community,” said Julian.

His former Deputy Principal, Catriona Arcamone, had nothing but praise for Julian:

“Despite his many achievements, and extraordinary ambition to achieve great things, Julian is a young man of modesty demonstrating respect and understanding for peers and teachers; he also has demonstrated real empathy and compassion for those from diverse backgrounds. He is a young man with real integrity who believes in fair play, he is able to advocate for others with discretion and respect; he is a young man of great intelligence who carries his erudition lightly.”

 As for Julian’s gratitude for being selected, that was second to none.

“I‘m so grateful to Weizmann Australia and the Garvan-Weizmann partnership for selecting me to attend the Summer School, this is a fantastic opportunity for me and one which I will relish for many years to come,” he concluded.


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