Published March 24, 2021 by Tom Porter

Zoe Dietrich ’21 to Become Bowdoin’s First Churchill Scholar

Zoe Dietrich ’21 likes to travel: She recently spent a year in New Zealand and has also done research in the Gulf of Mexico, analyzing the chemistry and microbiology of undersea caverns. Later this year she’ll be packing her bags and heading to the UK as Bowdoin's first Churchill Scholar.

dietrich in NZ
Dietrich collecting sediment in New Zealand

Dietrich, who is double majoring in biochemistry and earth and oceanographic science, will be spending the 2021–2022 academic year at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, as part of a transatlantic scholarship program set up nearly sixty years ago to encourage STEM students from the US to study at one of Britain’s premier institutions.

“I’ll be pursuing an MPhil by thesis in earth sciences, which is kind of a unique degree,” she said. “It’s basically the equivalent of a master’s in the US, except there are no classes. It is purely research-based.” Dietrich’s thesis, which she proposed as part of her application to the program, will take her to a body of water called the Medway, an estuary about ninety miles south of Cambridge, near London, to study the impact of climate change on the environment.

Dietrich, who last year received a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, will be studying sedimentary samples from the marine to the freshwater end of the estuary, trying to figure out how methane emissions might change with sea level rise (methane is a potent greenhouse gas). “These near-shore ecosystems are big reservoirs of carbon,” she explained, “and one fear is that this carbon might be released from the sediment, where it is currently stored, into the atmosphere in the form of methane as the sea level rises. I’ll be taking geochemical and isotopic measurements to ‘teach’ models how to estimate methane production based on environmental parameters, like temperature and salinity. Based on global distributions of those parameters, I’ll aim to produce a global estimate of how methane production may change as sea levels rise." 

Although she won’t be attending lectures or tutorials while at Cambridge, Dietrich will not be existing in a silo. She expects to have ample opportunity to meet other students and enjoy living and studying in such a prestigious and historic seat of learning. “I’ve heard it’s a really collaborative and fun community, where students get together every day for meals and afternoon tea and chat. I’ll also be connected to this network of Churchill scholars in different STEM departments across Churchill College, so I’m looking forward to learning about what they’re up to as well.”

Dietrich plans to head to Britain in mid-September, by which time she hopes the pandemic-induced restrictions on movement and travel within the country will have been eased. “I love hiking and backpacking and hope to explore the country a little before school starts in October.”

“Among the most competitive of all graduate fellowships, the Churchill Scholarship is awarded to just a small number of young scholars who have achieved a near perfect GPA and conducted extensive and innovative STEM research,” said Janice Jaffe, acting director of Bowdoin’s Office of Fellowships and Research.

“A generous scholar and natural teacher with infectious enthusiasm for the most challenging research questions, Zoe exemplifies the best of Bowdoin and of what the Churchill represents. We could not be prouder that she will be Bowdoin’s first Churchill Scholar."

The Churchill Scholarship program was established in the early 1960s at the request of Britain’s wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill, as part of the founding of Churchill College, Cambridge. It fulfils his vision of deepening the US–UK partnership with the goal of “advancing science and technology on both sides of the Atlantic, ensuring our future prosperity and security."