The Caribbean PhD student getting to grips with protein folding

Jerelle Joseph wasn’t sure she wanted to leave Dominica to take a PhD in computational chemistry in chilly Cambridge. Now she runs a mentoring scheme to encourage others from the Caribbean to pursue their ambitions. Always sporty, she makes the most of her college gym.

Jerelle Joseph in the gym at Churchill College (Nick Saffell)

The village where I grew up, in the north of Dominica, is called Vieille Case. In 2005, it was famous as the place where they filmed part of the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie. My friends and I hid in the bushes to watch the actors and we got to meet Johnny Depp.

My dad was a fisherman and a teacher — and also involved in politics. He was a jack of all trades, but instead of being master of none, he was good at everything he did. My mum was a nurse who trained to be a midwife. She was my inspiration when I was growing up. I could see how much she sacrificed for me and my two sisters — and I wanted to make her proud.

Cold and dark — these were my first impressions of the UK. I arrived to start my PhD in computational chemistry in October 2014. I concentrated on my work and spent a lot of time in my room at Churchill College. I didn’t know how to dress warmly — and I didn’t realise that eventually summer would arrive with long sunny evenings. I missed my sisters and my fiancé (now husband).

“You need to make a life for yourself in Cambridge.” That’s what my family told me when I went home for Christmas. I’d always loved sport and had been captain of Dominica’s under-16 netball team. A few days after flying back to Cambridge, I tried out for the university’s third netball team and broke my Achilles tendon. I made the team but never played. It was a full rupture and I needed four different casts.

It was months before I could walk properly. Everyone was so nice to me — especially at my college — they really made me feel that I mattered. I began enjoying Cambridge. Soon my colleagues at the Department of Chemistry seemed like family. My supervisor invited us all to his house and we went on trips as a group, punting on the river and picnicking in the meadows.

I’ve given up on netball for now, but I still love sport. I spend a lot of time in the gym at Churchill and I love being outdoors too. It’s important for me to be physically fit and I’ve learnt that you need to have quite different clothes for summer and winter. When we had a brief heat wave in Cambridge, I even heard myself complaining that it was too hot.

My first degree was in chemistry and maths. I went to the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Barbados. After graduating, I enrolled for an MPhil in chemistry at the UWI and my supervisor was Professor Sean McDowell. He’d done his PhD at Cambridge in the 1990s and suggested that I consider applying to Cambridge. I ignored him.

One day an application form appeared in front of me. Professor McDowell told me to fill it in. Before long I got accepted to Cambridge, and was later awarded a Cambridge Commonwealth Trust scholarship. I still hadn’t told anyone. But once I had an interview lined up for a Gates scholarship, a scheme that funds graduate students from all over world, I had to discuss it with friends and family.

Leaving the Caribbean was a difficult decision. I was very hesitant about being separated from the people and places I loved. Both my parents passed away when I was an undergraduate. My sisters and I are really close, and I wasn’t fond of being so far away from them.

Professor McDowell was right: Cambridge is a wonderful experience. Being among so many bright people is incredibly stimulating — and I’ve had brilliant support. A few months ago, I set up a mentoring scheme called CariScholar to help aspiring scholars from the Caribbean reach their potential. So far, we’ve matched about 40 people with mentors — all from the Caribbean.

Being a Gates scholar means being part of an amazing community. You have a network that puts you in touch with passionate, interesting individuals from all over the world. The Gates council hosts numerous social and academic events throughout the year, and scholars spend a lot of time together. Some of my closest friends are Gates scholars.

My PhD project looks at folding in proteins on a microscopic level. I study how and why proteins take on different structures to fulfil different functions. It’s fundamental science. I’m making just a small contribution to our understanding of what happens when folding goes wrong, which is one of the underlying causes of devastating conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

To research protein folding, you need a grasp of biology, chemistry, computer science and maths. I often remember Mrs Richards and Mr Wilson, my chemistry teachers at the Dominica State College. They helped us to see the connections between the various branches of chemistry. We learnt that if you understood something there was no need to memorise it.

Before I went to university, I spent a year teaching science. I was only 19 so it was a real challenge to be in front of a class of 15-year-olds at Portsmouth Secondary School — my alma mater. Someone told me that if you know your subject thoroughly, your students will respect you. It turned out to be true and I didn’t have problems with keeping the class on task. I didn’t want to be strict and I didn’t need to be.

Unlike others I meet, I’ve never had a clear five-year plan. Last year people started asking me what I’d be doing once I’d finished my PhD — and it made me anxious. I sat myself down in a café and told myself firmly that it’s fine to take things step by step. I’m going to wait and see what happens. But I do know that I want to return to the Caribbean at some point.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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