Seeking a Broader Horizon

Todd Gingrich (BS ’08) was interested in a Rhodes Scholarship because the program wasn’t exclusively about the science he was hoping to pursue.

“The committee likes to select people who can make things happen out of nothing,” he says, which was a concept that intrigued him. “I like the language in the selection criteria that talks about people who are ‘not mere bookworms.’”

The Rhodes funds between one and three years of study at Oxford, where students can use the grant for a master’s degree or three years of a PhD. Students selected to receive the Rhodes Scholarship are notified in person and are required to accept or reject the opportunity on the spot. Often, students haven’t had a chance to visit Oxford first—which means that expectations sometimes need to be revised.

“I only expected to do a one-year master’s program in theoretical chemistry in what Oxford calls a ‘taught course’—meaning that you take classes, do coursework, and have heavy supervision,” says Gingrich. A few months into the program, he realized that Caltech had prepared him incredibly well. “I wanted a little more of a challenge, so I switched to do a two-year research course, which is a lot more free-form.”

Gingrich wanted a change from the “trial-and-error” experimental research he had conducted at Caltech, so he applied his broad physics background to the study of theoretical chemistry at Oxford. “My master’s degree was about computational simulation methods for trying to predict the structures that certain molecules would adopt,” he says.

Gingrich liked the field so much that he went on to do a PhD in theoretical chemistry at UC Berkeley.

“Science is a rough thing to pursue, and it’s really easy to feel overworked and underappreciated. To that end, my experience with the Rhodes was actually really comforting and encouraging,” he says. “There was a broad group of people from all sorts of disciplines— law, literature, science—who were validating what I was working towards, even when it wasn’t entirely clear what I would achieve. It’s a nice feeling and it gave me a lot of confidence heading forward in my career. When science isn’t working out and you feel self-doubt, it’s amazing to have the support of these people.”

Right now, Gingrich is still pressing strongly along the academic path as a postdoc at MIT. “Academia is a little terrifying—there’s no certainty that you will get a faculty position,” he says. “But I try to stay calm about it. My experiences with the Rhodes and at Berkeley have taught me that there’s no shortage of other interesting things in the world to do.”

Photo: Courtesy of Todd Gingrich