Guowei Qi becomes fifth Churchill Scholar from UI

After four years at the University of Iowa, Guowei Qi will attend the University of Cambridge in October to conduct research as one of 17 Churchill Scholars in the nation.


Brianna Brown

Guowei Qi, a senior studying biochemistry, math, and computer science at UI, is seen in front of the Old Capital on Thursday, April 8, 2021. Qui is one of 17 Churchill Scholars in the U.S.

Eleanor Hildebrandt, News Reporter

When Guowei Qi came to the University of Iowa in 2017, he hit the ground running.

From earning the Goldwater Scholarship in 2019 and receiving funding from the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates to looking for research opportunities across the UI, Qi has put research at the forefront of his education.

Qi received the 2021 Churchill Scholarship and is one of 17 scholars in the country. He is the fifth Hawkeye to receive the award. The scholar’s program was created in 1963 and funds one year of study at Churchill College in the University of Cambridge, including full tuition, a stipend, travel costs, and the chance to apply for a $2,000 research grant.

Qi started research his freshman year, focusing on computational biophysics, a field that has not been significantly impacted by COVID-19. He said instead of going into a building on campus, he is able to conduct his research from home.

“Using a combination of math and computer algorithms, I can model proteins and their motions and functions or malfunctions,” he said. “Through high performance computing and simulating the motions of proteins on a computer, we get lots of insights into their structure and function.”

Since Qi has been stuck doing his research remotely because of the pandemic, he said he is excited to move back in person and continue his research in the U.K.

“The [Cambridge] lab is working entirely remotely right now,” he said. “…I’m hoping things get better so I can live on campus at Cambridge, and we can go into the lab in some capacity, and I will get to meet all my lab mates and my professor to enrich the experience.”

Mike Schnieders, Qi’s mentor and associate professor of biochemistry, said Qi was unique from the beginning when he asked to be a part of Schnieders’ lab.

“He was interested in research opportunities and he took the initiative to reach out to me and ask about my lab,” he said. “Over the last four years, he has been a wonderful member of our team and has collaborated on a number of our published research projects, including a recent paper as co-first author with Rae Corrigan. It’s natural for undergrads to explore working in different labs, but Guowei found a good fit right away, which in my view led to a level of intellectual depth usually not achieved until graduate school.”

Qi has continued to work in Schnieders’ lab throughout his education at the UI. Qi will graduate with degrees in biochemistry, computer science, and mathematics in May 2021.

Qi plans to move to England and conduct research at the University of Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry. He leaves in October, he said, and hopes the majority of his research will be in-person.

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Looking back at his time at the UI, Qi said the university provided immense support to him and has given him the opportunity to thrive.

“Being a Churchill Scholar is a huge honor,” he said. “I’m very thankful and I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the support of my mentors and my great support system…I’m really excited to, hopefully, see more Churchill Scholars from the University of Iowa and I want to be able to help with that process the same way past scholars have helped me.”

When he moves to Cambridge, Qi said he will continue his research with Professor David Wales and his lab. Qi said their research will focus on computational and protein chemistry.

Qi was driven and efficient from the start, said Mallory Tollefson, a Ph.D. candidate studying biomedical engineering who is a graduate student mentor to Qi.

“Guowei was very bright from the start,” she said. “I met him during his freshman year and his first project was to write a software algorithm that would minimize the time-consuming manual labor of submitting simulations and collect data from those simulations…He had an entire summer to finish the project and completed it within a few weeks.”

For the Churchill Scholarship, Qi worked with the Director of Scholar Development for the UI Honors Program, Kelly Thornburg. Thornburg said she initially brought up the possibility of Qi applying for the grant when he was a sophomore.

The pandemic didn’t stop him from striving for several opportunities for his post-graduation plans, she said.

“Guowei and I started working on the application last spring, in May, and then throughout the summer,” she said. “We met regularly, and we would talk everything out. He completed 20 countable drafts alongside brainstorming and getting recommendations. We worked over Zoom, and it was clear he is self-directed and driven.”

Thornburg said she missed being able to celebrate with Qi in person, but she cannot wait to see what he accomplishes at the University of Cambridge in the 12-month program as well as his future work.

Qi tentatively accepted an offer to attend Stanford University’s Biophysics Ph.D. program. He said he is not sure if he will attend Stanford directly after completing his master’s degree, or if he will work for some time in between the programs.

As Tollefson prepares for Qi to leave the UI, she said she is proud of all of his research. She said she can’t wait to see what he does and where he goes after he graduates this spring.

“Guowei’s career is going to be fun to watch in the future,” she said. “We have been so lucky to have him at the UI. People should have their eyes out and watch what he’s doing because I think wherever he lands, Guowei is going to something really impactful in this world.”