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Huge congratulations to Otago graduate Isaac Heron who has been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford.

Isaac, 23, recently completed a BSc in Economics and Genetics at Otago and will also soon complete a Bachelor of Laws (Hons). At the University of Oxford, he will study a Master of Philosophy in Economics.

Isaac says he was incredibly excited, and a little surprised, to receive the Scholarship. “I was quite hopeful on one hand because I've been planning to apply for the last couple of years, but then on the other all the other candidates I met on the final interview day were very impressive so I was completely unsure what the final outcome would be. Now it's only just slowly sinking in that it's actually happened.”

Established in 1903, the Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest international scholarship programme, bringing outstanding young people together from around the world to study at Oxford.

The selection panel, which in New Zealand is chaired by Governor-General Her Excellency The Rt Hon Dame Cindy Kiro, seeks young people with proven academic excellence who also show exceptional character, leadership, and commitment to solving humanity’s challenges.

“It feels like the best recognition I could have hoped for from all the hard work I've put into the last several years, both academically and the range of community work I've done,” says Isaac. “Having come from a background in foster care I also feel quite proud to represent what I know is an underrepresented group in scholarships like this, or even just university generally.”

Isaac has consistently ranked in the top 1 per cent in all courses he’s studied and has been awarded numerous prizes and scholarships including the Erkin Bairam Memorial Prize awarded to the top male student in 300-level Economics (2022), and the Louis Olive Memorial Prize for the most outstanding student in Second Year Law (2019). Honed through his studies to date, his career aims are to address the existential risks from emerging technologies such as synthetic biology and artificial intelligence by working in science and technology policy, particularly biotechnology.

“For a while now I've had a strong interest in working in public policy, especially in relation to science and technology. I think the skillset I've gained from the three subjects I studied at Otago have set me up well for this, but I think having postgraduate level Economics or Public Policy in one of the top institutions in the world will take this much further.

“I also know there are a range of people, groups and organisations that are interested in the same policy issues in Oxford and I hope to build a range of connections with them, possibly even as I start thinking about future career opportunities.”

Isaac’s referees all comment that it is not simply his exceptional academic achievements that make him an ideal Rhodes Scholar, with one noting, “Isaac possesses a rare combination of intellectual brilliance, outstanding academic achievements, and exemplary personal qualities.”

In his community, Isaac has made an indelible impact as a member of the National Youth Council for the Voice of the Young and Care Experienced Whakarongo Mai (VWM), where he volunteers his time to advocate for improvements in the foster care system. This work is personally important to him.

“I experienced substantial instability moving between multiple homes while in foster care, but once I had more stability, I was able to slowly grow my confidence and become willing to take more risks. This was one of the things that contributed to the capabilities I have today. Further, once I saw how negative the experiences of many in care were compared to mine, I aimed to use my abilities to help improve our care system.”

At Otago, Isaac has studied a broad range of papers, and says he has enjoyed a great many of them in different ways. Ones which have helped him realise where his interests are include ECON371 Microeconomic Theory, GENE223 Developmental and Applied Genetics (especially the in-depth section on genetic engineering), LAWS412 International Law and LAWS409 Private International Law.

“Between them they made me realise that one of the things that most interests me is thinking about how we can best regulate biotechnology at the international level, which is the area where I chose to focus my Law Honours dissertation this year. I found that all three of my disciplines were very valuable and relevant here, even Economics which is maybe a little surprising!

“I also have to mention all the mentorship I've received from Murat Üngör in the Economics department, who is always very excited about helping get students into postgraduate Economics study overseas. He is very knowledgeable in this area and we've had some very in-depth conversations over the last couple of years about my future plans which have been valuable. After I had come to know him I also had him as a lecturer in ECON377 Mathematical Economics which was also a great experience.”

Deputy-Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie says, “The University of Otago is incredibly proud of Isaac’s achievement in receiving a Rhodes Scholarship. He has been an exemplary student in every subject he has studied, across multiple Divisions at Otago. His personal story and his commitment to the wider community in Aotearoa is inspirational, and we wish him all the very best in his studies at Oxford.”

Isaac plans to continue his good work improving foster care systems as a volunteer and is looking forward to meeting inspirational people while at Oxford and making the most of the challenges and opportunities available to him.

The two other Rhodes Scholarship winners for 2024 are Karan Kalsi and Frances Wright from the University of Auckland. Karan will undertake a Master of Philosophy in Politics (Comparative Government) and Frances will study a Master in History of Art and Visual Culture.

Dame Cindy congratulated the winners saying, “Isaac, Karan, and Frances' academic achievements and service to their communities have already made a deep impact on the lives of many people. I have no doubt these three extraordinary young New Zealanders will continue to make significant contributions as future leaders of our country.”

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