AMHERST, Mass. – University of Massachusetts Amherst senior Edridge D’Souza is one of 15 undergraduates nationwide to earn a prestigious 2019 Churchill Scholarship for a year of post-graduate study in genetics at the University of Cambridge in England.
The international scholarship targets bright young minds with the potential to advance knowledge and discovery in science, math and engineering. D’Souza, 21, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, math minor and member of the Commonwealth Honors College from Shrewsbury, became the second Churchill Scholar from UMass Amherst, which awards more undergraduate STEM degrees than any other college or university in the Commonwealth.
“At UMass, I’ve had the good luck to have amazing opportunities and mentorship, which I believe is a major reason why I was able to win the Churchill award,” D’Souza says. Working in research labs, he notes, “gave me the opportunity to learn how to ask the right questions and propose the right experiments, which I believe is an invaluable skill when it comes to professional science.”
Like other high-achieving UMass Amherst students who earn national and international academic awards, D’Souza was encouraged to apply for the highly competitive scholarship by the UMass Amherst Office of National Scholarship Advisement (ONSA). Last spring, championed by Assistant Prof. Michele Markstein, in whose cancer stem cell lab he works, D’Souza received an acclaimed Goldwater Scholarship that supports promising undergraduates doing STEM research.
“Edridge represents the very best of the undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who have a bright future in research and are highly deserving of prestigious awards, such as the Churchill Scholarship,” says Madalina Akli, ONSA’s director. “The research environment and the abundant learning resources at Cambridge will allow him to study science through international immersion and collaboration.”
ONSA identifies, supports and sponsors students who are qualified to pursue some of the world’s top academic scholarships. In 2018, UMass Amherst had 14 Fulbright Scholars, including students and alumni. “We encourage faculty to send promising students to ONSA, and students to see themselves as potential scholars,” says Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, dean of the Honors College.
Valued at about $60,000, the Churchill Scholarship covers tuition, travel and a stipend. D’Souza, who proposed to study two developmental genes that regulate the nervous system, will earn a Master of Philosophy in Genetics. “I’m interested in integrating traditional biology with next-generation computational techniques,” says D’Souza, a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society who has maintained a perfect 4.0 GPA.
D’Souza’s passion for scientific research originated in high school at the Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science, where he got some “real-life experience” in a UMass Medical School lab in Worcester, and was enhanced at UMass Amherst. “Learning something about something no one else possibly knows—I found that exciting,” D’Souza says.
Throughout his time at UMass Amherst, he has worked in Markstein’s lab, presenting his research at such conferences as the 2018 Boston Area Drosophila Meeting. “Dr. Markstein taught me how to think like a geneticist and showed me that there is a certain mathematical elegance of a well-designed experiment,” D’Souza says.
In an effort to improve the effectiveness of targeted cancer drugs, the Markstein lab studies how fruit fly stem cells respond to their chemical environment. Among his achievements, D’Souza wrote free, open-source software to make reproducible research and data analysis more accessible to lab scientists.
Markstein says, “Edridge holds the distinction of contributing to every project in the lab—from stem cell drug resistance and new ways of rearing our model organism Drosophila melanogaster, to his own project exploring gene regulation using bioinformatics. In fact, I developed this project specifically for Edridge because he needed a good challenge. In my lab, I treat my undergraduates like graduate students.”
As a summer research intern, D’Souza has worked in two UMass Medical School labs: the RNA Therapeutics Institute lab of Distinguished Professor Craig Mello, a co-winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine; and the biochemistry and molecular pharmacology lab of Prof. Nicholas Rhind.
In addition to carrying a rigorous academic schedule, D’Souza finds time for extracurricular activities that reflect a spirit of “giving back.” He serves as a peer mentor for first-year students on campus and is developing the UMass Genetics Club to increase genetics literacy among students. He also is a state-certified rape crisis counselor/advocate at the Hampshire County Center for Women and Community and writes an op-ed column for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian.
D’Souza plans to attend graduate school after his year at Cambridge, possibly researching the role of noncoding RNA, DNA and epigenetic elements. “We’ve learned a little about the genome so far,” he says, “and I want to discover more of the latent patterns that are essentially hiding in plain sight.”