Senior Bianca Lepe, a bioengineering major from Granada Hills, California, has been named a Marshall Scholar, winning one of the most coveted fellowships for study in the U.K. The Marshall Scholarship is widely considered one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. Approximately 1,000 Americans, mostly graduating seniors, apply for, at most, 40 fellowships awarded each year. The Marshall Scholarship provides funding for two years of post-bachelor's degree study at any university in the United Kingdom. The Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission, which oversees the fellowship, provides many cultural opportunities for Marshall Scholars during their tenure as scholars.
Lepe will spend the 2016–2017 academic year at the University of Edinburgh studying for a master's degree in synthetic biology and the following year at Imperial College London, completing a master's degree in science communication.
The Marshall Scholarship was founded by a 1953 Act of Parliament and named in honor of U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall. The scholarships "commemorate the humane ideals of the Marshall Plan and the fellowships express the continuing gratitude of the British people to their American counterparts."
The British Marshall Commission website says, "As future leaders, with a lasting understanding of British society, Marshall Scholars strengthen the enduring relationship between the British and American peoples, their governments and their institutions. Marshall Scholars are talented, independent and wide-ranging, and their time as Scholars enhances their intellectual and personal growth. Their direct engagement with Britain through its best academic programmes contributes to their ultimate personal success."
At Caltech, Lepe has participated in research with the Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor and Professor of Chemistry James Heath, developing a diagnostic tool to detect a specific protein that causes malaria, and with President Emeritus and the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology David Baltimore, studying RNA and immunology. In 2014, Lepe was a member of the Caltech's undergraduate iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) team, which participated in an international competition to create artificial biological systems from a kit of standard biological parts. "Our project's goal was to implement a nonnative gene circuit system in E. coli to manufacture a biological compound and regulate its concentration outside the cell," Lepe says. "We had the chance to attend the iGEM Jamboree to present our research, for which we received a bronze medal."
Lepe's experiences on the iGEM team spurred her interest in synthetic biology, which she will pursue at the University of Edinburgh during the first year of her Marshall Scholarship. "Edinburgh is unique because it has a research center, called SynthSys, which specializes in translating research into commercial applications—a skill I hope to gain while there," she says.
During the second year of her fellowship, Lepe will delve into the art of communicating science to the public. "When I study science communication at Imperial College, it will be beyond the traditional forms of communication into broader mediums and topics, such as television, ethics, and science policy. The skill sets I will gain at these universities will enable me to be an effective communicator and scientist as I pursue a career in synthetic biology."
"Bianca Lepe has excelled in many areas at Caltech: classes, research, leadership, student government. She has reinvigorated the Caltech Latino Association of Students in Engineering and Sciences, and she chairs the undergraduate student advisory board for Title IX efforts," says Lauren Stolper, director of fellowships advising and study abroad and the Career Development Center. "Bianca's two years in the U.K. will surely be a formative experience as a scientist and as a leader in communicating science to the public. Her Marshall Scholar win is well deserved, and Bianca will take full advantage of the experience."
In May 2015, Lepe received the Caltech Deans' Cup—an award presented to undergraduates "whose concern for their fellow students has been demonstrated by their persistent efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate life and by effective communication with members of the faculty and administration."
"Bianca has been a great student, a real leader with strong values and a wonderful friend to her peers," says Barbara Green, the Interim Dean of Undergraduate Students. "I delighted that she won the Marshall and will miss her next year."
International travel will not be too "foreign" for Lepe—in the autumn of 2014, she studied abroad at University College London. Additionally, she has traveled to India as a part of the Caltech Y's India-Ki-Khoj program in 2013.
Previous Caltech Marshall Scholars include current Marshall Scholar Adam Jermyn (BS '15) now studying for a PhD in astronomy at the University of Cambridge, Emma Schmidgall (BS '07), Wei Lien Stephen Dang (BS '05), Vikram Mittal (BS '03), and Eric Tuttle (BS '01). Other former Marshall Scholars in the Caltech community include Sterl Phinney (BS '80), professor of theoretical astrophysics; Thomas Everhart, President Emeritus; Edward Stolper, the Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair and William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology; Jonas Peters, the Bren Professor of Chemistry and director of the Resnick Institute; and Thomas Miller, professor of chemistry.