While there were many USF applicants before him, Michael Calzadilla is the first student from a Florida university to win the Gates Cambridge International Scholarship and one of 40 annually selected in the U.S.
The Gates Cambridge International Scholarship, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, funds graduate work and study abroad programs at the University of Cambridge in England.
Scholarship winners are both academically exceptional and have the potential to make a large impact in their field of study.
Calzadilla, a senior double majoring in math and physics with a minor in astronomy, holds a 3.98 GPA and is a part of the USF Honors College. He will study astrophysics at Cambridge.
“Many great minds have walked along the steps of Cambridge, and I’m excited to walk where they have walked,” he said.
The first in his family to attend college, Calzadilla was not always bound for a successful future in higher education — even attending college was an uncertainty.
“Out of high school, there was a certain pressure to help out at home and get a job, so coming to college wasn’t a popular idea,” he said. “I had to find a lot of mentors because this is uncharted territory being the first one in my family to go to college.”
Calzadilla learned of the Gates Cambridge scholarship his freshman year after visiting USF’s Office of National Scholarships.
At the time, Calzadilla said the Gates Cambridge scholarship was a long-term aspiration, and he would need other scholarships before applying for it.
“They always said to me, ‘Nobody’s ever won (the Gates Cambridge); we’ve never even gotten an interview before at this school.’ The chances, I thought, were pretty low,” he said. “It always seemed like something very far off.”
Calzadilla did end up winning other scholarships however, becoming a 2014 recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater scholarship, a prestigious undergraduate scholarships for science research.
The Gates Cambridge scholarship is even more difficult to win. Only a limited number of scholarships are awarded and students need to first be accepted to Cambridge. The scholarship is aimed at students who have strong leadership qualities, can make an impact in their field and can improve the lives of others.
To have a chance of winning the scholarship, he needed to build up his application throughout his time at USF.
Calzadilla completed research in astrophysics and astronomy at MIT and Harvard, received funding from USF to build an astronomy telescope on campus and revived student involvement in Sigma Pi Sigma, one of USF’s major physics clubs.
The project to build an astronomy telescope on campus is still in its beginning stages, and he said he was inspired by his experience at MIT to come up with the idea.
Calzadilla said the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Eric Eisenberg, liked the idea of an astronomy program and was happy to allocate $10,000 to build the telescope.
“The purpose of the telescope is to cap off my astronomy education to show what I’ve learned,” Calzadilla said. “Also so other students in the future don’t have to go off campus to do astronomy research.”
Calzadilla said his interest in math, physics and astronomy began when he was young and in awe of space documentaries. He also said the ability of critical thinking in humans is a gift and that it is our duty to learn more about the functions of space.
“It’s the language of the universe. It’s just really beautiful to see the laws of nature being condensed into one or two equations,” he said. “We have this gift of critical thinking, and we can use it to figure something out about the universe itself.”
Calzadilla’s academic track is rigorous, and he said that he studies about six to eight hours a day on average and about 18 hours a day before exams.
Though he still enjoys a number of hobbies such as playing violin, boxing, running and traveling, Calzadilla said his alternate dream job would be to become a concert violinist.
“I would see these performances online on YouTube or go to the Florida Orchestra and see these great performances,” he said. “I would see these people being the best at what they do. Getting the full potential that you can get out of this instrument, the virtuosity, the technicality of some of these pieces is what I want to strive for.”
Calzadilla said he will attend Cambridge in October, where he will obtain his one-year master’s degree, before returning to the U.S. to earn a doctorate in astrophysics.
In the future, he said he would like to become a professor in astrophysics and get involved with public outreach programs to promote scientific learning.
“I would like to be able to do what public figures like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson did for me when I was younger,” he said. “Too many Einsteins lived a life doing things in which their best abilities weren’t put to use.”