Graduating King’s student Cédric Blais has been awarded a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship to attend the University of Cambridge next year.
Blais received one of 80 such scholarships awarded annually to students from around the world, 25 of which are reserved for students from the United States. The aim of the Gates Cambridge program, which was established in 2000 by a $210-million (US) donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is to build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others.
Blais has an offer of admission into the MPhil (Master of Philosophy) in History and Philosophy of Science of Medicine program, and he has also been offered admission to Darwin College—the same College, he notes, where the famed philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper was once a fellow. There, Blais will continue studying the intersection between the humanities and modern scientific knowledge. He intends to examine the changes model organisms undergo as they evolve and adapt to their laboratory environments. “If the organisms we study are constantly changing, how can we secure stable knowledge?” Blais asks. “The challenge calls for insights from the humanities, as scientists wrestle with the significance of their discipline’s history.”
King’s President and Vice Chancellor, William Lahey, says the entire King’s community is immensely proud of Blais: “He embodies the best attributes of King’s and its connections to the faculties of arts and science at Dalhousie: pluralistic thinking, cross-cultural inquisitiveness and a natural inclination to bring interdisciplinary analysis to situations. He’s also demonstrated leadership qualities as a role model for his peers in our academic programs and in student life more broadly.”
Blais, who is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from King’s and Dalhousie University, transferred into the King’s History of Science and Technology (HOST) program at the end of his third year, after taking King’s Foundation Year Program and then courses in Contemporary Studies at King’s, and classics, sociology, philosophy and international development at Dalhousie. He also took biology courses at Dalhousie and worked in a lab there, amongst microscopes, centrifuges and bacteria, discovering first-hand how knowledge is created when people and things are brought together.
“Cedric’s success demonstrates what King’s and Dalhousie offer to students who aspire to combine the arts and sciences,” says Frank Harvey, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Dalhousie. “He is the kind of student for whom our two universities have just created a new certificate program in medical humanities, to give King’s and Dalhousie students further opportunities to learn at the boundaries of these two different but fundamentally interconnected ways of understanding our world.”
“Intercultural biology raises interesting questions for the humanities. The history of science becomes very relevant to lab work. It’s a wonderful crossroads between biology, humanities and intercultural knowledge.”—Cédric Blais, Gates Cambridge Scholar
Blais’s capstone project at King’s examined lateral gene transfer, which he describes as a “fascinating phenomenon where organisms might transfer genes to organisms they’re not related to. Like, if I gave you a high five and transferred some of my genes to you. It’s not happening in humans, but it happens in microorganisms.”
The lab, says Blais, taught him that knowledge and science are bound-up in human relations. “They cannot be exempt from the hard questions of political life: how can we co-exist in spite of our disagreements?” he asks.
Blais says his deep need to explore this question with his peers led him to resurrect the King’s History of Science and Technology Society last year. “The society’s 2019 conference on ‘Alternative Histories of Science‘ was the culmination of these efforts. As a community, we asked how Indigenous and Western knowledge could come together to face environmental destruction in Nova Scotia,” he says. Previously, Blais played a leading role in rejuvenating the King’s Day Students’ Society, which represents and promotes community among King’s students who live off campus.
King’s Director of the HOST program, Dr. Gordon McOuat, praises Blais’s work on the experimental study of evolution and lateral gene transfer in situ, calling it, “Path-breaking study of cutting-edge science. His honours thesis, which he has just submitted in final draft, is itself a substantial accomplishment and is ready for publication. Cédric has presented his work at several international conferences and has shown himself as equal to anyone in the field. He has shown the relevance of the kind of work we are doing here at King’s and its place on the world stage.”
At Cambridge, Blais says he hopes to continue working in biology labs and studying lateral gene transfer, but he also wants to apply his knowledge outside of the lab. “[It] opens the doors to intercultural and interdisciplinary approaches which I think are very exciting. Different people react to different environments differently. Intercultural biology raises interesting questions for the humanities. The history of science becomes very relevant to lab work. It’s a wonderful crossroads between biology, humanities and intercultural knowledge.”
Blais learned a few weeks ago he’d been short-listed for the Gates Cambridge scholarship, but his in-person interview on March 24 was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was unsure what would happen next, but says he figured he’d probably not be awarded one of the highly competitive scholarships. “Then several days ago I got an email confirming [I’d won]. It was completely out of the blue and incredibly exciting!”
“Cédric’s career is only beginning, and we imagine that he will emerge at the forefront of a new generation of scholars exploring the intimate relationships between humanities and the sciences in our world,” says McOuat.
Lahey also notes the significance of Blais winning the Gates in the same year his classmate, Bachelor of Science student Isabelle Roach, was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. Like the Gates, the Rhodes is for students who have combined academic excellence, outstanding leadership qualities and dedication to the service of others.
“I believe it speaks to the quality of an education that combines the strengths of King’s and Dalhousie in the arts and sciences that we are in the same year graduating a Gates Scholar headed to Cambridge and a Rhodes Scholar headed to Oxford in a graduating class of 171 students, both of whom have excelled in the humanities and in science and as change-makers,” Lahey says. “We know they will both make a difference in our world.”