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March 07, 2010 | Michael Smart
Story Highlights
  • Only 29 winners - out of 800 applicants - earned the prestigious scholarships, which pay all expenses for a Cambridge University graduate degree.
  • This is BYU's fourth winner since 2004
  • BYU is 14th in the nation in winners over that span

Bill Gates is sending another BYU grad to study at Cambridge.

Trevor Ellison is the university’s fourth winner of the prestigious Gates Scholarship since 2004.

That means BYU is tied with Brown and other schools for 14th in the country over that span, in front of Duke and Georgia Tech, which each had three winners.

The scholarship was established by the Gates Foundation to cover a Cambridge master’s degree for students who demonstrate “intellectual ability, leadership capacity and desire to use their knowledge to contribute to society throughout the world." It is patterned after the Rhodes scholarship, which sends winners to Oxford.

Ellison graduated cum laude with university honors in biology from BYU and has since earned an M.D. from Johns Hopkins. He is jointly pursuing his surgical residency and a Ph.D. in economic evaluation and policy, both at Hopkins, and will interrupt those programs to tackle an MBA at Cambridge.

“I think about all those diplomas I’ll have in their frames when I’m finished,” Ellison says. “Even though all of them are important, if someone asked me which one I’ll cherish the most, it would definitely be my BYU degree.”

Ellison, who was also accepted to Stanford and Cornell while in high school near Buffalo, N.Y., said the depth of the university’s interest in students’ personal growth is the reason why.

“Not just spiritually, although certainly that was such a huge part of it, but also academically there are tons of opportunities there if you want them,” Ellison said. “There are brilliant people there who are phenomenal in their own rights, people who are academically rigorous in their professions, getting students excited about their disciplines.”

He cited biochemistry professor Daniel Simmons and microbiology professor Laura Bridgewater as examples. Under Bridgewater’s mentorship, he studied the genetics of joint tissues during his final two years at BYU.

“I got into research in her lab, and that definitely was a launching pad into medical school,” said Ellison.

Bridgewater is thrilled by Ellison’s success and remembers his focus and motivation in the lab.

“He is also a friendly, kind, and all-around decent human being,” she said. “The best part about teaching at BYU is that I get to work with young people like Trevor, who have so much ability and potential, and help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to go forth and make the world a better place.”

Making the world a better place is what the Gates selection committee looks for, and Ellison hopes to deliver. His dream is to apply his Cambridge MBA to establish a permanent surgical relief program in developing nations. Current programs send skilled surgeons on service missions for a few weeks at a time. They do much good, but can’t stay to handle complications or follow-ups. Ellison’s vision would have top surgery residency programs include temporary service overseas as part of their programs. He anticipates that many residents will want to return and serve again later in their careers.

As one of 29 American winners out of more than 800 applicants, he’ll be joined in England by his wife Sarah, also a BYU alum, and their infant son Gardner.

Summing up his BYU experience, Ellison recalled many interviews for graduate school and scholarships when his BYU education came up in conversation. “That let me explain my love of the school. I’ve never felt like somebody did not want to take me because of BYU, but rather that it set me apart as a reflection on BYU’s national reputation.”

Here’s an update on BYU’s previous Gates Scholars:

2008 winner Tara Jane Westover is pursuing a Ph.D. in history and is an officer on the Gates program’s student council.

2007 winner Timothy O’Connor will complete his Cambridge Ph.D. in zoology this summer and plans a postdoctoral fellowship in human population genomics.

2004 winner Ryan Keller completed a master’s in international relations at Cambridge. He’s now alternating years between Cambridge and Yale Law, pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience and a juris doctorate.