The University of Arizona

Top Students in STEM Earn National Fellowships

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Relations - Communications | April 24, 2014
Fellows also have numerous opportunities for international research and professional development while advancing their own research. "The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program continues to be a critical part of NSF's overall strategy in developing the globally-engaged workforce necessary to ensure the nation's leadership in advancing science and engineering research and innovation," the National Science Foundation noted in a prepared statement. (Photo credit: University of Arizona RedBar)
Fellows also have numerous opportunities for international research and professional development while advancing their own research. "The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program continues to be a critical part of NSF's overall strategy in developing the globally-engaged workforce necessary to ensure the nation's leadership in advancing science and engineering research and innovation," the National Science Foundation noted in a prepared statement. (Photo credit: University of Arizona RedBar)

Nearly two dozen UA students have earned funding through the prestigious federally-funded Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

Because they are considered to be among the nation's top students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM fields – 22 University of Arizona students and alumni have been selected to receive funding through a highly competitive National Science Foundation fellowship program.

Nationwide, 2,000 students earned awards under the NSF's Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the largest graduate fellowship program of its kind in the nation. Currently, the UA has 50 fellows, the largest number in its history.

The fellowship is an important, highly competitive grant program for advanced students in STEM fields, providing an annual stipend of $32,000 and a $12,000 allowance to fund tuition and fees for graduate education and research over a three-year period. The UA Graduate College provides additional funding to cover the balance of tuition, fees, student health insurance and a UA travel grant.

"NSF fellows are anticipated to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching and innovations in science and engineering," the NSF noted in a prepared statement. "These individuals are crucial to maintaining and advancing the nation's technological infrastructure and national security as well as contributing to the economic wellbeing of society at large."

Past recipients of the fellowship program include Nobel Prize winners, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Google co-founder Sergey Brin.  Benjamin Blonder, who just finished his doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology at the UA and founded the UA Sky School, was a recipient in 2010. In March, the White House named Blonder a Champion of Change.

"This isn't just for people who will be really good bench scientists," said Georgia Ehlers, fellowships and community engagement director in the UA Graduate College. "Students who have volunteer experience and bring their science to the community do especially well applying for this program."

The UA has a strong support system to help students through the application process, Ehlers said.

"To me, that is a point of attraction for students. Also, you see many of the same faculty and advisers mentoring students," she said, noting that the majority of recipients receive support through the Graduate College's structured programs for foundation fellowship applicants.

Of the 22 recipients, the 11 current students are:

  • Benjamin Rackham, astronomy graduate student
  • Richard Lee Johnson, geography graduate student
  • Molly Bloom, linguistic anthropology graduate student
  • Nicole Fischer, animal behavior graduate student
  • Casey David Mackin, a computational science and engineering undergraduate
  • Diana Knyazeva, chemistry graduate student
  • Margaret Landis, planetary sciences graduate student
  • Jose Miguel Rodas, family studies and human development graduate student
  • Joshua Scholl, ecology and environmental biology graduate student
  • Andrea Stevens, geosciences graduate student
  • Jessica Doehrmann, optical sciences graduate student

The number of UA students in the program is expected to grow in the coming months, as recipients select the schools where they will pursue graduate studies.

Rodas spent more than three months working on his application. "Receiving this fellowship means a lot to me. It means that my work is worthy of being recognized and implemented for further study."

His research focuses on ways cultural and societal influences shape family dynamics. In particular, he is working to understand how the the college environment shifts family dynamics for Hispanic students.

"It gives me a great satisfaction knowing that the foundation recognizes that this is an issue that is affecting our society," he said.

Johnson, a master's student in the School of Geography and Development, said the fellowship serves as validation of his work.

"It's the holy grail of graduate student funding. It offers extraordinary support to pursue our research interests and goals," Johnson said.

Johnson, a former Peace Corps volunteer and current Coverdell Peace Corps Fellow, investigates land dispossession in rural Guatemala resulting from migrant deportation and debt, especially as families increasingly take out risky, high interest loans to fund the move from Guatemala to the U.S.

"Land and houses are commonly used for loan collateral. So, when recent arrivals are detained and deported, or perish in the desert, they leave their families with astronomical debts and the very real threat of collateral seizure in places with extremely limited economic opportunities," Johnson said.

"Unsurprisingly, many of those who are deported to Guatemala with debts have no other recourse but to try to make it to the U.S. again, where they will be able to earn enough to pay off their initial loan," he said. "My research indicates that, contrary to their supposed objectives, border security and deportation policy and practice in some instances may actually drive migration. They aggravate a situation they allegedly seek to resolve."

Landis is a UA doctoral student studying planetary science with a research focus on impact cratering, especially on Mars. Ultimately, she plans to continue her research while also engaging in public outreach and education.

"Answering questions about Mars helps us to have a better understanding of how terrestrial planets can vary and change with time, which of course will lead to insights about the Earth," Landis said.

Landis said the fellowship will serve as both a positive affirmation and a window for new opportunities. 

"Having this experience early in my graduate career is very useful," she said. "On a more personal level, I've gotten confirmation that my ideas as a scientist make sense and can be articulated well, and that the NSF is behind me and my future science."

Contacts

Georgia Ehlers

UA Graduate College

520-621-9103

gehlers@grad.arizona.edu