by Michael Still
The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) was started in 1952 to ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States. Today, this program continues to recognize and support outstanding graduates in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.
Iowa State University students Riley Brien, a senior in electrical engineering, and Stephen March, a recent graduate of the same program have both been selected to join this prestigious program. Joshua Straquadine, senior in electrical engineering, was given an honorable mention.
For these three students, the application began relatively the same way. Whether or not they had previously considered applying, they all mentioned that Sumit Chaudhary, Director of Student Professional Development and associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was a guiding force through the process.
“My adviser mentioned the fellowship program, but said it may be difficult to win without any journal publications,” said Brien. “Dr. Chaudhary really encouraged and inspired me to apply regardless.”
Applications open in the early fall and close in November, giving applicants plenty of time to prepare their materials while also battling the pressures of a new semester. In addition to the general application form, students are asked to submit a personal statement, a research proposal, and three letters of recommendation.
“I spent a majority of my time on the personal statement and research proposal,” said March. “The personal statement is difficult to write, because each applicant must summarize their background, reasons for pursuing grad school, and how grad school will allow the applicant to have a broader impact on the community.”
The research proposal component can be difficult and take some time, because each applicant must come up with an original research project that is reasonably tied to their background. For this reason, applicants who have a balanced, well rounded background tend to be selected into the program. In fact, there is an entire “broader impacts” section of the application that asks how you can use your education to benefit society.
“The NSF fellowship is not for students who spend their existence in a research lab or in a classroom getting a 4.0,” said March. “Candidates need both scholarship and philanthropy in their background to be serious contenders for this award.”
Brien, March, and Straquadine credit the opportunities and experiences offered at Iowa State University in helping to develop that well-balanced background.
“While at Iowa State, I’ve had loads of opportunities to get involved in activities, such as marching band, engineering clubs, and honors societies,” said Straquadine. “These opportunities all helped me become a much more well-rounded person and helped tremendously in the “broader impacts” section of my application.
In addition to generous research funding and financial assistance for graduate school, students involved in the Graduate Research Fellowship Program have many advantages when looking toward the future.
“The GRFP is one of the most prestigious and competitive funding opportunities available for graduate students,” said Straquadine. “Under these fellowships, you basically bring your own funding with you wherever you go, so it really opens doors for you at grad school.”