When Katherine E. Warren and Elizabeth H. Byrne learned Saturday that both will be Rhodes Scholars, the friends were overjoyed.
“It was amazing when we heard the news,” Warren said by phone Sunday. “We were standing right next to each other and hugged each other for a full minute before we did anything else.”
Warren and Byrne were among six Harvard University students selected as Rhodes Scholars for 2014, the Rhodes Trust announced Sunday.
The scholarships fund two to four years’ study at the University of Oxford in England and are awarded based on rigorous criteria set by Cecil Rhodes, a philanthropist and British colonizer of Africa, in his 1902 will.
Byrne, 22 and a senior at Harvard, said she met Warren, 23, on move-in day of Byrne’s freshman year at the university, where Warren’s younger sister Sylvia has been her roommate since the beginning.
“She’s someone who I’ve always sort of looked up to and admired,” Byrne said of Warren.
But because Warren graduated in May and moved to Washington, D.C., to work as an Albright Fellow at the US Department of Health and Human Services, each moved through the scholarship application process separately.
“I didn’t even know she was applying,” Byrne said in a phone interview Sunday. “It was just sort of fortuitous, I guess. It was a really amazing moment to hear that we had been selected.”
Next October the women will share another move-in day, this time at Oxford, where each will pursue studies in public health issues with plans to later attend medical school.
Warren, who was born in Boston but moved at 4 to Kitsap County, Wash., will pursue a master’s degree in global health science, continuing to focus on issues in indigenous populations, especially mental illness, addiction, and how those challenges can lead to suicide.
She discovered this passion the summer after her freshman year, while living in Gallup, N.M., with an uncle who cared for residents at a Navajo reservation as a doctor for the federal Indian Health Service.
“He was an incredible inspiration, as are my parents, in providing care to those who have been left behind by any forms of traditional health care outreach,” said Warren, whose father is an oncologist and whose mother is a pediatrician.
Byrne, a Cambridge native, will study applied statistics, with an eye toward bridging the gap between hands-on work with patients and statistical analysis that can uncover broader truths about how disease attacks the human body and how the immune system responds.
She has a particular interest in understanding the HIV virus and preventing its transmission.
“What really brought it home to me was going to South Africa and seeing what a huge impact the HIV epidemic has there,” Byrne said, “especially seeing that young women exactly my age were most at risk.”
Among the 32 Rhodes Scholars from the United States who will begin their studies at Oxford next fall, at least seven more have New England ties.
They include Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate John Mikhael of Dallas; Williams College senior Brian W. McGrail of Arlington, Va.; Clarke Knight of Henderson, Nev., the first Smith College student to be awarded the honor; Villanova University graduate Jessica Wamala of Milford, N.H.; and Yale University seniors Isabel E.E. Beshar of Rye, N.Y.; Vinay Nayak, of Oak Brook, Ill.; and Suzanna M. Fritzberg of Lake Forest Park, Wash.
The other Harvard students receiving scholarships are Paolo P. Singer of the Bronx, N.Y.; Andrew S. Lea of Richland, Wash.; Aurora C. Griffin of Westlake Village, Calif.; and Alexander J. Diaz of North Bergen, N.J.
Diaz, 21, is a psychology major studying under Professor Mahzarin R. Banaji, a specialist in the study of unconscious biases and how they affect behavior.
Diaz said in a phone interview Sunday that he plans to study law and hopes eventually to eliminate disparities in how the US legal system treats people from different ethnic backgrounds.
He is currently preparing a proposal for US Attorney Carmen Ortiz,he said, that will recommend to Attorney General Eric Holder that the nation’s court system implement a bias test to help potential jurors understand their own prejudices, he said.
“I think the first step to remove the effects of the biases is to make them aware,” Diaz said.