Rhodes Scholarship presents local woman ‘amazing opportunity’

‘The hope is to study something related to climate economics,’ says Maya Burhanpurkar, 23, who will study at Oxford University this fall

The Rhodes Scholarship has been awarded over the past 120 years for graduate studies at Oxford University, and among its recipients are politicians, academics, scientists, and authors — some of whom have gone on to win Nobel Prizes or become world leaders.

Add Oro-Medonte’s Maya Burhanpurkar to this impressive list.

The 23-year-old will be heading to Oxford this fall to begin an master of philosophy degree in economics, after completing a physics degree at Harvard University in 2021, where she graduated summa cum laude.

“As with most people when they apply, I absolutely was not expecting to get it,” Burhanpurkar told OrilliaMatters. “It’s a really amazing opportunity to broaden my horizons.”

Burhanpurkar said she views economics as a good area of study to tackle some of the world’s challenges. 

She has already completed a year-long course through the Harvard Business School along with her physics degree, which is designed to give STEM students an opportunity to apply their technical knowledge to real-world issues.

“I think that a lot of the challenges that the world faces at present are very scientific, but also rooted in economics and financial considerations,” she said. “I’ve spent the last few years really developing my scientific toolkit, and I think it’s a really amazing opportunity to develop my economic toolkit so that I can help play a role in some of the leadership on these challenges.”

Burhanpurkar certainly has developed a scientific toolkit over the past several years, doing work in such disparate fields as climate change research and the study of dark matter. 

She’s conducted computer science research developing algorithms to remove racial and gender bias from machine-learning algorithms, and robotics work developing self-driving wheelchairs for people with severe disabilities.

She’s even filmed a documentary — featuring Margaret Atwood and Chris Hadfield — on climate change’s impacts on Inuit communities.

The list goes on.

Burhanpurkar’s studies have carried her all over the academic map, and she chalks it up to a natural curiosity and a desire to relate her knowledge back to the world.

“I’ve always been incredibly curious, and I love to understand how things work. That’s part of why I ended up studying physics in my undergraduate degree because, truly, you get to ask some of the most fundamental questions out there,” she said.

“But, at the same time, I think it’s difficult for me to stay interested or engaged in a problem unless there’s some relevance to the world around me. There’s always some element of wanting to learn something new, wanting to push myself and challenge myself to understand something or study the world in some way, but then having that piece of relevance to society.”

Building on her wide-sweeping interests and accomplishments so far, she has left her plans for Oxford fairly open-ended.

“The hope is to study something related to climate economics, and what that will specifically be, I really don’t know,” she said. “But that’s at least the general plan for now.”

She’s hoping her time at Oxford will help her discover the best way she can contribute to solving global issues like climate change.

“We are all impacted by the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are rising and having a very material impact everywhere in the world, and one of the really pivotal experiences that I had early on was getting the opportunity to go to the Arctic and see … that the climate in the Arctic is so fragile that people who live there are really first and most dramatically impacted by these changes,” she said.

“There are these really large macro problems and … part of the challenge for people who are interested in tackling them is trying to figure out, well, what is the best sort of micro way of tackling the problem? I think part of what I’m going to spend the next couple of years doing is figuring out what I feel is the best way for me to contribute to that.”

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