Jennifer Palmer has immersed herself in campus life after winning the Cambridge-Rutherford Memorial PhD Scholarship in 2020. Photo: Rebecca Thomas

When Jennifer Palmer was growing up, her nickname was Chatterbox. “I’d always be saying, ‘Why? But why?’ I was that really annoying little kid.” Or, more diplomatically, that really curious kid, who has become a really curious adult. “The only difference is that now I have to answer the questions myself.”

Palmer, who joined the Pinnacle Programme in 2015, has been studying at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom for just over a year after winning the Cambridge-Rutherford Memorial PhD Scholarship in 2020. She’s looking into a group of brain diseases – including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s – that are all slightly different, but all associated with a gradual decline in the brain’s functions. “I work on trying to understand what’s going wrong and what we can do about it,” she says. Her focus is how cells deal with waste products and how that might relate to the diseases.

* Part one: Depth of focus

Palmer’s interest in the topic was sparked when her grandmother was diagnosed with vascular dementia, which is similar to Alzheimer’s. “I was 10, so I was right at the age where science was really cool. I thought, ‘We send people to the moon, we’re trying to go to Mars, we can replace hearts, but we can’t do anything about this?’ I felt personally outraged. But the scientist in me was really curious about why we couldn’t solve it.”

Her school subjects were broader than science, however. She did whatever interested her – music, geography, geology – so her path to Cambridge has been a fairly wiggly line. “I didn’t really settle on this area until I got to uni,” she says. Cambridge allows her to specialise in her field but also facilitates interactions between disciplines. “It’s a really cool place to research. My field is quite small in New Zealand and we have so many seminars here that wouldn’t happen back home because of the sheer number of people. It’s quite nice to be exposed to that. Also, in the college system, PhD students will live with other PhD students from completely different fields, so I get to hear about some amazing research.”

The Pinnacle Programme is similar in that participants get the chance to learn about themselves while collaborating with people from different backgrounds. “One of my favourite parts of Stage 3 was Kai Waho. We headed to rural Taupō and spent three nights there with people who were very different to me,” she recalls. “And at Outward Bound, it’s all go, go, go, go and then suddenly you get dropped into solo, and you have three to four days with nothing except a pen and paper and a bit of scroggin.”

With a nickname like Chatterbox, it’s not surprising that Palmer isn’t your silent-retreat type. “Having to sit and not be busy and just appreciate being present was probably my biggest challenge.” But in the end, it was one of the more rewarding. “We had to write down our values during solo, and for most people it’s about family and friends. I looked at the way I was spending my time and I realised it wasn’t matching up. I saw that I wasn’t prioritising the right things,” she says. That realisation prompted her to reconnect with a bunch of people. Not only has it improved those relationships, it’s “made everything else better, too”, because she has found a better balance.

While she’s always enjoyed setting goals, Palmer admits she was never good at being open about them. That’s changed now. “Not owning those goals is partly a fear of failure,” she says. “Pre-Pinnacle, I wouldn’t have said, ‘One day I want to have my own research lab.’ There’s no way in hell you would have gotten me to say that. It’s too big and scary.” But now, at age 24, that’s what she’s working towards.

Another perk of the programme has been the friendships she’s forged. “When I’m stuck and wondering what I want to do, it’s really helpful,” she says. “I had a moment deciding whether to come over here to Cambridge, so it was good to get some advice.” Now, as an alumna of the programme, she’s on call to offer advice herself. While she isn’t on any selection panels, as a talented flautist and saxophonist she has helped panellists judge the musical talents of applicants.

Palmer expects to spend another three years at Cambridge. So, will she be heading back to New Zealand after that? “We’ll see,” she says. “It depends who will take me.” With that curious mind and a strong desire to inspire more curiosity in the younger generation, there are bound to be plenty of options.

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