Following in Sir Ian McKellen’s footsteps from Bolton to Catz

Friday 10 September 2021


An undergraduate student has followed in the footsteps of Sir Ian McKellen by studying at both Bolton School and St Catharine’s. Alex Gao arrived in 2020 to study Engineering – 62 years after Sir Ian made the same journey to the College to study English. Sir Ian was subsequently elected an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s in 1982.

Alex comments, “Like many Bolton pupils, I am tremendously proud of this connection with Sir Ian and I was even able to meet him during the 80th birthday celebrations hosted by the school in May 2019. I was aware of his time at Cambridge but St Catharine’s wasn’t yet on my radar. If his visit had been a few weeks later, things would have been very different and I might have inundated him with questions about his time at the College!”

Alex Gao stands in front of a signed photo of Sir Ian Mckellen
Alex Gao stands in front of a signed photo of Sir Ian Mckellen hanging in the Hobson's hallway

Alex first fell in love with the idea of studying at Cambridge when he visited the city on a school trip in Year 7. Like many prospective students, he only started to think seriously about whether to apply to Cambridge, or indeed which College and subject to choose, when he reached sixth form.

“My main dilemma was whether to apply to study Natural Sciences or Engineering at Cambridge, which in hindsight was a fortunate position to be in. I was keen to choose a College near where my department would be but that didn’t really narrow down my options.”

The first step of Alex’s journey to St Catharine’s was when his school enrolled him for the 2019 Cambridge Chemistry Challenge Lower Sixth (C3L6). Open to students studying Chemistry in the UK in Year 12 or below, this competition aims to stretch students and encourage them to think about science in the way they would at university.

“I sat the C3L6 paper alongside my other exams in Year 12 for the experience of tackling the questions, rather than because I thought I would do well. I was honestly taken aback when I found out in June 2019 that I’d scored 60 out of a maximum of 64 marks, which secured an invitation to the summer camp held at Catz for the highest-scoring students. In fact, I was affected by Imposter Syndrome and my Chemistry teacher had to convince me to accept the invitation by offering encouragement and explaining I had nothing to lose by giving it a shot.”

Unbeknownst to Alex, only the top 0.62% of students participating in 2019 received an invitation to the summer camp, with just three students (Alex and two others) achieving a mark of 60 or more that year. The summer camp is a three-night residential course held every year (pausing in 2020 due to COVID-19) that gives budding scientists a flavour of life in the Department of Chemistry and St Catharine’s.

“The summer camp is the main reason I picked St Catharine’s when I applied to Cambridge to study Engineering later that year. I had a terrific time, with experiences that would have been unobtainable for me in Bolton: from sessions in a world-class laboratory, to my first ever Formal Hall in the SCR. I was allocated a room on the top floor of the Gostlin building and the glorious views of the College and city beyond in summer sunshine was pretty special. I’ll freely admit that it was a bit of a shock returning a few months later for my admissions interview during the depths of winter!”

By the time Alex arrived at St Catharine’s for the start of his first year in October 2020, College life had been transformed by COVID-19 restrictions.

“I was lucky to have seen glimpses of normal College life from the C3L6 summer camp and my overnight stay for my admissions interview. Now restrictions have eased, I’m looking forward to the chance to spend time with other students in College and on my course. I’m also among the second-years who will be helping to welcome our Freshers, and I’m optimistic that their early experience of Catz will be less disrupted than mine.”

Find out more about studying Engineering at St Catharine’s.