Tech Fulbrighter Wins Gates Cambridge Scholarship

Nabil Wilf is a true Renaissance man. He's a molecular biologist who studies language, religion and women's rights. He's an American citizen, but he was born overseas. A practicing Bahá'í, his dad's family is Jewish-American, his mom's family is Kuwaiti of Muslim and Zoroastrian origin. A Fulbright Fellow to Kuwait, he speaks Arabic and has traveled to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and various other countries in the region. It's safe to say that if Georgia Tech held a contest naming the most well-rounded student, it's likely Wilf would get it. Instead he'll have to settle for winning another of academe's most prestigious student honors, the Gates-Cambridge Scholarship.

Wilf received his bachelor's degrees in both biology and international affairs from Tech in the spring of 2006. Last August, he traveled to Syria on a Fulbright language grant to study Arabic. He's now in Kuwait working with a local scholar to study whether views on women's rights among the youth indicate that positive changes are likely in the future for women in the country.

"I want to know how women in Kuwait are shaping the national discourse, introducing their agenda for reform and to study how these reforms are received by the youth," he said.

Wilf became interested in the issue while studying abroad for a year in Egypt on a National Security Education Program Scholarship."In my classes, I saw how Islamic law is used to limit the rights of women in the Middle East," he said.

This fall he'll pursue a PhD in the biochemistry department at the University of Cambridge working in the lab of George Salmond.

"Cambridge is a pioneer in genetic and biochemical studies; it's where James Watson and Francis Crick proposed the double-helical structure of DNA," said Wilf.

While at Cambridge, Wilf will study the complex regulatory mechanisms involved in bacterial communication and gene expression of virulence in pathogens.

"The overly simplified view of bacteria is changing," he said. "A better understanding of bacterial communication and gene expression will lead to the development of new antibiotics and a better understanding of how infections develop."

Wilf credits the undergraduate research program at Georgia Tech for giving him the opportunity to gain valuable research experience. "The growing Biosciences sector is a real plus for Tech," he said.

Wilf worked in the molecular biology lab of Professor Roger Wartell, investigating the process by which small RNAs regulate the expression of genes in E. coli.

After Cambridge, Wilf intends to help promote and build the biotech sector in the Middle East, combining his scientific and social science interests.

"I don't want to be one of those people who goes to a country, learns the language and then comes back and forgets about it," he said. "Having this scholarship may make this a possibility."

Started with funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, the Gates Cambridge Trust chooses approximately 100 students from across the globe to study at Cambridge University in England. This year 48 students from the United States were named Gates Cambridge Scholars. The award covers the cost of tuition, airfare and a stipend.