Back to top

Exceptional minds, exceptional futures - 2024 Woolf Fisher Scholarship recipients announced

11 October 2023 | media

Fundamental questions of memory, existence, and reality feature in the research interests of this year’s Woolf Fisher Scholarship recipients.

Worth approximately $70,000 a year for up to four years, a Woolf Fisher Scholarship is one of the most prestigious and generous scholarships available to New Zealand students, supporting recipients aged under 30 years old to undertake a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

Recipients are chosen for their outstanding academic ability, integrity, leadership and boldness of vision, their exceptional zeal, keenness and capacity for work, and their commitment to New Zealand.


Harry Gardner completed his undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Otago and will shortly begin a PhD at the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.

Harry says, “I am interested in the neural mechanisms of memory with a focus on synaptic plasticity. Synaptic plasticity is the ability of neurons to change the strength of their connections (synapses) and is a strong candidate for the process underlying memory encoding and storage. I will investigate the neuromodulation of synaptic plasticity to progress a more computationally accurate model of memory processing and storage.”

Harry’s research focus will be to understand the mechanisms of memory particularly in relation to disorders and dementias associated with memory loss and cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s Disease.  

“Through my research, I aim to contribute to this essential area of study and ultimately help provide solutions that can alleviate the societal and economic impact of memory and cognitive decline-related disorders in New Zealand.”

Outside of his studies, Harry has held several leadership roles; from arts captain at his boarding house in Nelson, to class representative, and captain of his cricket team. In his Honours year Harry mentored several third-year students in the laboratory. He also helped establish Second Helpings, a student-led initiative aimed at addressing the disproportionate impact of the cost-of-living crisis on food accessibility for students.

Harry is passionate about deepening our understanding of memory mechanisms. On receiving the Woolf Fisher scholarship, Harry says, “I feel confident this will help me make a meaningful impact on my country's research landscape, healthcare system, and technological advancements while addressing broader global challenges.”


Sophia Geris is currently studying a Masters in Physics at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, and will undertake a PhD in Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

The focus of Sophia’s thesis will be advancing Bayesian Inference for efficient processing of astrophysical data.

Sophia says, “Because calculation of the likelihood function in Bayesian inference becomes increasingly complex as more data is analysed, the research will investigate altering the Bayesian approach so it becomes scalable with increasing data volumes.”

While the subject of Sophia’s research may be complex, she is excited about the opportunity to share her work more widely.

“In addition to science, I’m passionate about English and achieved New Zealand scholarship awards in both Physics and English in 2018. I’ve married these two interests through science communication because it’s essential to make science accessible to lay audiences to increase the overall impact of research.”

Mentoring is another area where Sophia finds inspiration and she has enjoyed mentoring first year students in Victoria University’s Space Science degree this year.

Sophia is passionate about the representation of women in science both nationally and internationally, and this has given her extra impetus to want to pursue post-graduate studies overseas.

Ultimately Sophia’s research will allow her to make a significant contribution to the lives of New Zealanders by opening pathways to better understand some weighty existential questions.

“Astrophysics provides an avenue to answers about our existence, providing information about how and why the universe began, reasons for human existence, and what our future holds.”


Samuel Thompson will graduate this year from the University of Auckland with a Bachelor of Advanced Science (Honours) majoring in Computer Science and will begin a PhD in the Computer Science Department at the University of Cambridge.

Sam will study the effects of virtual reality on individuals. “I am particularly interested in the self-conforming behavioral effects of differing self-representations, known as the Proteus Effect.”

“I believe this effect will become a significant part of our interconnected world as immersive technologies such as Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality become more accessible. This sense of self-expression is unlike anything previously experienced by humanity and is a powerful new frontier. While this has fantastic potential, its effects are not yet well understood, and research is needed to examine the global impact of VR-enhanced self-expression to ensure that the correct privacy and security legislation is in place.”

Sam’s mentors describe him as having an “unwavering commitment to excellence” who is “highly motivated as well as kind and thoughtful”.

Alongside his research pursuits, Sam has run workshops for younger students, is the president of the University of Auckland’s Virtual Reality Club and is director and co-founder of a game development company. He is also a keen guitarist and footballer, enjoying the chance to play both whenever he can.  

Sam is excited about the opportunities presented by Augmented Reality and VR and hopes to be a leading voice in Aotearoa in VR technologies, whether in academia or industry.

“Before beginning university, I did not even consider studying towards a PhD to be a possibility, but as I have completed my studies, I’ve found myself falling further in love with research. Due to this, I want to pursue a career that allows me to contribute to positive change in the same way that research does.”

Commenting on this year’s scholarship recipients, Mark Robinson, Deputy Chair of the Woolf Fisher Trust and the scholarship selection committee, says, “The Woolf Fisher trustees were delighted with the calibre of the three scholars selected from a group of eight outstanding applicants who presented for interview in Auckland for the 2024 Woolf Fisher Scholarships at Cambridge. Their doctoral studies will bring them to the cutting edge of research in their disciplines, with long-term benefits to New Zealand.”

Sir Woolf Fisher (1912–75) was co-founder of Fisher and Paykel and set up the trust in 1960 to recognise and reward excellence in education.

Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara administers the Woolf Fisher Scholarship along with around 40 others.

The opening date for the next round of applications is 1 April 2024 and the closing date is 1 August 2024. Details are available on the scholarship’s page on the Universities New Zealand website.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Communications Manager Therese Lloyd,  +64 27 636 5050.