CU Anschutz students set a new campus record this spring, with seven students being awarded with the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF). More than 17,000 applications were submitted for just 2,000 awards, which grants stipend support of $34,000 a year for three years in addition to $12,000 toward the cost of tuition, for first and second year graduate students.
“This award is very prestigious,” said Shawna McMahon, assistant dean of the Graduate School. “This is an incredible achievement that each one will have on their CV for years to come and is an indicator of their potential as a researcher.”
McMahon credited the record-setting number of recipients to the caliber of students, who must demonstrate their potential as researchers and a commitment to broaden participation in STEM disciplines from underrepresented groups.
In addition McMahon said that workshops held for students interested in the Graduate Research Fellowship Program and faculty review sessions may have played a role in strengthening applications.
“There are keys to success and to conveying qualifications to the review committee,” McMahon said. “The workshops and review sessions we held were done to ensure that our students would stand out.”
Looking toward next year, McMahon said the Graduate School anticipates that the number of recipients could continue to increase, especially as faculty and staff across campus begin to explore a formalized process for helping students prepare their applications. This review process would also be rolled out to CU Denver, increasing the potential number of recipients for both campuses. Between CU Denver and CU Anschutz there are currently 10 Graduate Research Fellowship recipients.
“Very much a surprise”
It was 4 a.m. when Ashley Bourke, a student in the Pharmacology Program, found out she had been awarded an NSF GRF. She knew that the announcement was supposed to be made, and checked her email immediately after she awoke. She didn’t see anything at first, and then saw the message had been sorted into her junk folder.
“I had a good feeling about it from faculty reviews and feedback I had received, but it was still very much a surprise,” said Bourke, who is studying synaptic plasticity.
Bourke took advantage of the workshops and faculty review sessions offered to students to polish her application. She was also able to boast ample outreach experience, having been president of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society at Michigan State. She has continued her STEM outreach at CU Anschutz through cofounding Women in STEM, which sees Bourke and her peers visiting schools and creating more opportunities for students interested in STEM disciplines.
While the award carries various financial benefits, the big takeaway from receiving the prestigious award is the ability to more freely pursue some of her own ideas as well as validation of her ability as a researcher.
“So many of us graduate students doubt ourselves and our capabilities,” Bourke said. “Having this recognition gives me confidence in myself as a scientist.”
Funding leads to more funding
Funding from the NSF was already a consideration for Katrina Cable, who came to CU Anschutz after completing her undergraduate degree at San Diego State University. While at San Diego State, Cable was part of a program focused on helping students start PhD programs and obtain research experience. The NSF was discussed extensively, and so when Cable started in the Cell, Stem Cell, and Development program at CU Anschutz, she knew that receiving a GRF could poise her for success.
“Being awarded with this fellowship is a huge weight off of my shoulders in terms of finding a lab home,” Cable said. “Because I come with funding, that weight of whether or not a lab can afford to have me working there is gone.”
To prepare the application, Cable attended the workshop hosted by the Graduate School, received feedback from her faculty mentor and also visited the Writing Center. By the time she had prepared her application, she felt she had strong chances of being awarded at least an honorable mention, and was thrilled when she received the news that she had been selected.
Thanks to the fellowship, Cable is able to take her time in selecting the lab on campus she will join. She is deciding between one that focuses on the development of the cerebral cortex in the mice model, and another that examines muscle development in the fly model. While the two areas may appear widely different, both focus on development, which is the area Cable is most interested in exploring.
Cable’s advice to her peers and future cohorts of students is to take advantage of the resources available through CU Anschutz to apply for the GRF. Aside from the immediate financial support, it could set a trend for future career growth.
“Funding builds on itself, so when you’re seeking future funding and you can show you are receiving funding in your first years, you have an edge,” Cable said. “It’s something I think everyone should be doing.”
Outreach is key
Christal Davis, a PhD student in the Structural Biology and Biochemistry Program, found her passion for science while studying at CU Denver. Davis, who double majored in chemistry and biology and is a LABCOATS IMSD grad, was fascinated with the structures of molecules and the way that even slight changes in molecular structure could cause drastic effects. While she knew she was laying the foundation for a career in research, she probably didn’t realize she was also laying the foundation to receive a GRF.
Davis was encouraged to apply for the fellowship by the director of her program. She analyzed the application and saw that while two pages were allotted for a research plan, three were given to share a personal statement.
“I knew they were looking for someone who will have potential as a great scientist in the future and someone who is willing to give back to the community,” Davis said.
Fortunately, Davis is that kind of person.
While at CU Denver, Davis served as president of the Chemistry Club and of the Chemistry Honors Society. Those activities gave her the opportunity to work with area schools, encouraging students’ interest in science. She also participated in The Bridge Project, teaching mathematics fundamentals and good study habits to students. In addition, she is currently on the board of the Inner City Science nonprofit, whose aim is to eradicate common misconceptions in science, and hopes to take on more outreach opportunities.
She believes that her outreach work helped her stand out among the candidates for the fellowship. She offered two pieces of advice for students who are considering applying for the fellowship program in the future: Apply and don’t neglect the personal statement.
“You are guaranteed to fail if you don’t even try,” Davis said. “Let who you are as a person shine through. They enjoyed what I wrote about the outreach work I have done, and I think that is what helped me to get selected.”
2016 NSF GRF recipients
Ashley Bourke, Pharmacology
Katrina Cable, Cells, Stem Cells & Development
Christal Davis, Structural Biology & Biochemistry
Ethan Guthman, Neuroscience
Alexandria Hughes, Neuroscience
Cayla Jewett, Molecular Biology
Amanda Richer, Biomedical Sciences Program
Previous NSF GRF recipients currently enrolled
Melissa Beauregard, Civil Engineering (Denver Campus)
Tanya Brown, Cell Biology, Stem Cells and Development
Jayne Aiken, Cell Biology, Stem Cells and Development
Harper Jocque, Integrative & Systems Biology (Denver Campus)