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NSF Research Fellowship Encourages Applications for Mathematics Research

This article is an online extra from the October/November issue of MAA FOCUS.

Many students getting ready to graduate with their baccalaureate degrees contemplate graduate studies or are planning to continue their education. One of the major obstacles can be funding: Students who have just finished their undergraduate education may not want to add more tuition bills to the pile. If only there was a way to help them continue their education and execute some of the research that they wish to do. Ah, but there is: the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

One of the most valuable funding mechanisms for mathematics and statistics graduate students is the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The director of the Division of Mathematical Sciences at NSF, Sastry Pantula, says, “The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (or an Honorable Mention in the competition) is certainly a feather in any future scientist’s cap! There are many well-qualified mathematics and statistics students in this country, and I would love to see many, many more of them take advantage of this excellent opportunity.”

In 2012, the GRFP awarded 2,000 fellowships, and only 75 of those were to students in mathematics and statistics (3.75 percent; visit GRFP Awardee and Honorable Mention list).

The fellowship is a five-year award worth $126,000. The NSF graduate fellow receives three years of support (usable over five years). For each of these three years, the fellow receives a $30,000 stipend and the graduate institution receives a $12,000 educational allowance to cover tuition and all required fees. The fellow also has access to international research opportunities and to supercomputing resources.

Eligible applicants must be a U.S. citizen, national, or permanent resident, as well as an early-career graduate student pursuing a research-based master’s or doctoral degree in an NSF-supported field. In mathematical and statistical sciences, that means algebra, number theory, and combinatorics; analysis; applied mathematics; biostatistics; computational and data-enabled science; computational mathematics; computational statistics; geometric analysis; logic or foundations of mathematics; mathematical biology; probability; statistics; topology; or other (related fields not included in the list).

Applicants must be planning to enroll in an accredited institution in the United States by the fall following announcement of the award. Anyone who has already received a graduate degree is not eligible.

Current NSF graduate fellows Nicholas Brubaker and Gina-Maria Pomann have some advice for students interested in applying.

“Apply as many times as you can! If you don’t get it the first time, don’t get discouraged,” says Brubaker, who is on track to graduate with his Ph.D. in applied mathematics in 2013 from the University of Delaware. His research focuses on modeling soap films interacting with electric, magnetic, and gravitational fields. Brubaker attended Millersville University in Pennsylvania, where he received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics with a focus on applied mathematics.

In addition to giving him time to do his research, the GRF has also given Brubaker the opportunity to publish two papers and to have another two manuscripts in review. He says that even if students don’t receive the GRF, the application process is still helpful in developing your plan for a graduate career.

Pomann is pursuing her Ph.D. in statistics at North Carolina State University. Her research interests are functional data analysis with applications to magnetic resonance imaging and dynamic treatment regimens. She feels that the GRF, in combination with her AT&T Labs fellowship, has allowed her to work on an array of projects as well as with different mentors.

Pomann started out earning an A.S. degree from Middlesex County College and then transferred to the College of New Jersey, where she earned her bachelor’s in mathematics with a minor in statistics. She learned about graduate school and the GRF at the Mathematical Science Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP).

MSRI-UP also took Pomann and her fellow participants to a Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) conference where the students were further informed about the GRF as well as other opportunities. Her advice to students seeking a GRF is, “Get as much undergraduate research experience as possible!” She says her early research experiences helped her focus her research interests and helped her to write her GRF application.

To enter the competition, you need to submit a complete application via NSF FastLane. The application consists of a personal statement, description of previous research experience, proposed plan of research, and transcripts. Three letters of reference need to be submitted separately via FastLane by the reference writers.

Reviewers evaluate the applications on the basis of two National Science Board criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts.

For intellectual merit, you will need to demonstrate your academic capability and other conventional requisites for scholarly, scientific study. Details such as the ability to plan and conduct research, work in a team as well as independently, and interpret and communicate research are useful.

To demonstrate “broader impacts,” convey how your research will contribute on a larger scale to society and the breadth of its audience. Will it encourage diversity, broaden opportunities, and allow participation of all citizens in science and research? If so, this should be evident to the reviewer. Examples of broader impacts activities may be accessed here (pdf).

When looking at life after graduation, an NSF fellowship is an option more mathematics and statistics students should try for.

NSF Research Fellowship Websites

For the official NSF solicitation, visit the Division of Graduate Education website for announcement of the new 2012 Solicitation. For more information, and tips from awardees and reviewers, go to the GRFP website or contact: 866-NSF-GRFP (673-4737), email: info@nsfgradfellows.org. For access to the online applications, user guides, and other official announcements, log on to the FastLane website.

Don't Be Shy

Be clear and specific so that the reviewer doesn't struggle as he or she is reading the document. Describe experiences-whether personal, professional, or educational-that have been factors in your preparation and that have driven you to pursue graduate study. Be detailed about your involvement in scientific research and what you learned from those experiences. If you haven't been involved with any direct research, describe activities that you believe have prepared you to start research.

Also, describe your leadership potential directly, rather than hoping the reviewer will glean from the facts that you could be a leader. How do you see yourself contributing to research, education, and innovation? Detail your career aspirations and specific goals. You need to sell yourself in your application. —Meredith Berthelson


Meredith Berthelson is a mathematics faculty member at Blackfeet Community College and a Ph.D. student at the University of Montana, where she is on leave to spend six months at the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a Quality Education for Minorities (QEM)/NSF Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP) Faculty Fellow.

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