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Getting the most out of life…and university

Dr Sheen Gurrib, shortlisted for the Vice Chancellor’s Social Impact Award and the Forbes 30 under 30 for Europe, on seizing every opportunity and helping inspire others to do the same

“The University of Cambridge has such a lot to offer, especially if you’re ready to grab all the opportunities that come your way.

“I am Sheen and recently completed my PhD in back pain research at the department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. Originally from Mauritius, a sunny island off the east coast of Madagascar, I am the first Mauritian woman to have attended both Oxford (where I completed my undergrad in Materials Science) and Cambridge universities.

“When I was applying to Cambridge, having been exposed to the college system before, I knew that I wanted a different vibe this time around. As a postgraduate, I wanted a mature and international college which is why I chose Hughes Hall. It was definitely the right choice. It was great to experience freshers’ week without the ‘fresh out of school freshers’ week experience! I remember meeting my corridor mates in our shared kitchen – we were from seven different countries! The diversity at Cambridge is incredible. On Matriculation day, for the photo, I was standing next to a 60-year-old who decided to go back to university to study law after retiring from a different career. And, every time I went to the Hall for dinner or to yoga every Tuesday in the College gym, the nature of conversations would vary, depending on whether I met my ‘matsci’ friends, musicians, educationalists, or health policy researchers.  

“During my undergrad, I decided to do biomaterials as my Master’s project as I was always fascinated by medical research, especially the man-made apparatuses that are used inside the human body. Having enjoyed lab work and the researcher life, I applied for a PhD in Medical Materials and joined a Cambridge lab offering project work at the intersectionality of academic research and real-life application in the healthcare system. I got to work with orthopaedic surgeons, vets, physicists, biologists, and medical instrument suppliers. Being able to approach one problem from different perspectives enabled a holistic view of back pain and the difficulties of diagnosis and treatment, which led to a very efficient PhD project. I was invited to present my research at five international conferences, including Japan and was awarded bursaries to help cover the cost of the conferences.

“Outside of my academic work, I made the best use of my time in Cambridge. I got involved with Development i-Teams and was able to assist with the go-to-market strategy of a new revolutionary wound dressing. I also joined a global health think-tank which led to the publication of a policy brief on the mental health of refugees in the UK, and even got to enter a competition with Amazon to design their next line of robots!

“I joined the global health branch of The Bridge at Hughes Hall, where we organised a series of talks and lectures, and was on the steering committee which organised the first ever Life Science symposium for the College, which was a lot of work but also a lot of fun! There are lots of opportunities to gain valuable experience but also transferrable skills, both in College and in the wider University community. This led me to co-found an educational charity, Project Access for Refugees, to mentor refugee students, and more recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have set up a pro-bono consulting company ReShape Co. for SMEs, NGOs and start-ups. We are now a team of over 230 student consultants from 30 universities and we have worked with over 40 clients from all over the world.

“I have been actively involved in open days and outreach programmes for the University such as Women in STEM, Physics at work, the Cambridge Science Festival and Making Materials Matter, which led to me being featured on the Cambridge University website as a Woman of STEM, and as part of the Wonder Woman series for Oxford University. It was great to see my efforts recognised, especially when I was invited to join the World Economic Forum Global Shapers Hub in Cambridge where I got to meet like-minded individuals and work on social impact projects such as homelessness, eco fashion and women’s representation. I’ve also been shortlisted for the Vice Chancellor’s Social Impact Award and for the Forbes 30 under 30 for Europe.

“There are so many other ways to get involved too and to help inspire others. I attended the RisingWISE (Women in Science and Engineering) programme which is organised jointly by Oxford and Cambridge to foster entrepreneurial and enterprising skills in women pursuing STEM subjects, looking to branch out of academia. I recently gave a TEDx talk on girls’ education and I have a podcast called “Dream, Girl” where I host female guests every week to discuss their journey of personal development and growth and also address important topics to do with racism, sexism, representation, mental health and much more. I have now launched a YouTube channel to carry these conversations forward, following a successful 10,000 listens of my first 20 episodes.

“My weekly blog documents my experience of writing up my PhD thesis during a global pandemic and completing my viva online. Overall, despite all the circumstances outside of our control, my time in Cambridge has been absolutely wonderful! I learnt so much, met so many interesting people, broadened my horizons and, most importantly, I had a bucket load of fun! Cambridge can get high paced and overwhelming very quickly – having a close-knit and warm environment to come back to in College is crucial.

“I’ve now been invited to join the International Group for Development committee of Hughes Hall as an alum and I am so excited to keep in touch and see all the wonderful things College will have in store for the next generation of Hughesians!”

With thanks to Sheen for taking the trouble to tell us about her time at Cambridge and helping to inspire others to fulfil their ambitions. If you would like to share your story, please email comms@hughes.cam.ac.uk.