LAWRENCE — In the lab, Alex Kong fights infectious diseases. In his community, he volunteers for the Lawrence Community Shelter. And in his spare time, he sings in the University of Kansas’ Genuine Imitation a cappella group.
And now, he is KU’s third recipient of a prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholarship, one of only 35 American students to earn the honor this year, along with 55 students from the rest of the world.
Kong, who will complete his bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical studies this spring, is the son of Man and Sue Kong of Lawrence and is a graduate of Free State High School.
The scholarship provides funds for postgraduate study at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom for the duration of the degree, in addition to a maintenance allowance. There, Kong plans to continue his studies involving pharmaceutical science and infectious diseases, with a focus on specific causes of antibiotic resistance.
“This scholarship is one of the most competitive awards for undergraduate students,” said Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. “I am delighted that Alex has earned this award with the support of many others here at KU. He has already made great contributions to his field of study, and I know that he is destined for great things in the future.”
Scholarships are awarded based on intellectual ability, leadership potential and a commitment to improving the lives of others. The program was established in 2000 with a $210 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Those who work closely with Kong describe him as a person with a great sense of humor who cares about his fellow students and helping them get involved.
“Alex is exceedingly bright and talented in so many areas. The Gates Cambridge award is a validation of his exceptional contributions to medicinal research, to KU and the Lawrence community,” said Bryan Young, director of the University Honors Program, which helped Kong with the application and interview preparation.
Ever since he was young, Kong said, he had an interest in tinkering with various objects. As a child, he would take apart a small appliance like a hair dryer and was pleased when he could reassemble it in working condition.
“I think it was an interest in how things actually worked,” Kong said. “Today, I feel similarly about bacteria and viruses. They’re like little biological machines, and I enjoy finding out how they work.”
After taking a seminar course focusing on undergraduate research through the University Honors Program, Kong was matched with the lab of Jeff Krise, associate professor of pharmaceutical chemistry.
There, he began to research issues relating to a specific class of drugs and how those drugs relate to various diseases when the drugs become trapped inside cells in the body. Kong said he always had an interest in fighting diseases. He has received three co-author credits on peer-reviewed manuscripts in Krise’s lab.
“I was very proud, but not surprised, to hear that Alex received this scholarship,” Krise said. “He has contributed greatly to our achievements in a short period of time. He is bright and determined and is on a steep upward trajectory toward a successful career in the biomedical sciences.”
His interests go well beyond the sciences. In addition to singing, Kong nurtured an interest in writing into a creative writing minor. His parents came to the United States from small villages in Hong Kong, and he knew little about his family history. Working with his instructors, he interviewed his parents for creative and nonfiction writing projects, learning about Asian culture and how it occasionally conflicts with what he has experienced in the United States.
He hopes to pursue a research career in pharmaceutical science, teach at the university level, and become an advocate for global scientific literacy and health equity.
“Going through this experience, it has been incredible to meet other students and see what they’re doing,” Kong said. “I’ve learned that it’s really about finding who you are, instead of trying to fit a mold.”