Allegheny College alumna Colleen Silky is one of only 90 students from across the world to be awarded a highly competitive 2018 Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
Silky, 29, of Pittsburgh, grew up in Syracuse, New York, and graduated from Allegheny in 2011 with a double major in neuroscience and psychology. Beginning in September, she will pursue a Ph.D. in clinical neurosciences in a three-year program at the University of Cambridge in England.
Silky will study new methods for identifying cellular irregularities in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, with the use of patient-derived cell lines. ALS was thought to be strictly a motor neuron disease, but recent advancements have shown that support cells could cause aspects of disease pathology.
“I hope that studying three-dimensional cell organoids will shine light on new therapeutic pathways for patients in need and bridge the gap between conventional two-dimensional cell cultures and clinical trials,” Silky said. “I am honored to be joining the Gates Cambridge community surrounded by diverse scholars working to make a difference around the world.”
Silky is recently married to Ben Limegrover, a 2009 Allegheny graduate. The couple will relocate to England for a semi-permanent move for the duration of the full scholarship, which also provides housing.
The Gates Cambridge Scholarship program was established in October 2000 by a $210 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the University of Cambridge — the largest single donation to a university in the United Kingdom.
The program awards scholarships to outstanding applicants from countries outside the U.K. to pursue a full-time postgraduate degree in any subject available at the University of Cambridge. The program’s goal is “to build a global network of future leaders committed to improving the lives of others,” according to its website.
For the past six years, Silky has worked as a research scientist at Cognition Therapeutics in Pittsburgh. She believes her experience in conducting clinical trials for Alzheimer’s was a major factor in her selection for the Cambridge Gates Scholarship.
Silky said her work-related experience likely gave her an advantage: Many of the candidates she met during the interview process were seniors or recent college graduates.
“We have been studying Alzheimer’s disease and discovering a small molecule to hopefully treat the cognitive problems in Alzheimer’s patients,” Silky said about her work with Cognition Therapeutics. “I didn’t want to leave the company until after we got the drug into clinical trials. Then I wanted to go after my Ph.D.”
Allegheny helped prepare Silky for her career in a number of different ways, she said, including the opportunity to conduct hands-on research and to be a student-athlete.
“I played on the lacrosse team, and I think being a student-athlete really helped me to balance a very busy schedule with high stress and still be able to learn,” Silky said.
She said the time-management skills she developed at Allegheny, along with the ability to think independently, provided the foundation for her to contribute from day one in a start-up laboratory — an environment that doesn’t necessarily have the resources to offer that kind of training for newly-hired employees.
“I wouldn’t have gotten that at a large-scale university, and it has continued to propel me forward in a lifelong passion,” Silky said. “We’re used to doing hands-on research independently, so for a small research company that was very important.”
Silky is prepared for what life has in store for her — perhaps even discovering a cure for ALS — and she continues to reflect fondly on her time at Allegheny.
“I love Allegheny and will tell that to anyone who asks,” Silky said. “I think the Allegheny rigor and the push to be an independent thinker and scientist really helped me.”