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NSF Broadens Graduate Program

Agency adds new international opportunities to popular Graduate Fellowship Research Program

by Andrea Widener
December 17, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 51

Credit: Eric Keen
Eric Keen of the University of California, San Diego, won first place with his video on fin whale habitat use and vocalizations in a developing coastal corridor.

The National Science Foundation’s lauded Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) turned 60, and the agency is celebrating in a big way. The program, which has supported 46,500 students, is expanding to offer international opportunities to its fellows.

Credit: Candy Hwang
Candy Hwang of the University of Southern California won second place with her entry on uncovering the mechanism of nitrogenase in hopes of supplanting the Haber-Bosch process.
Credit: Erica Staaterman
Erica Staaterman of the University of Miami took third place with her video about the sonic landscape of coral reefs and its effect on larval fish navigation.

The new Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW) program will allow as many as 400 GRFP students each year to spend from three to 12 months doing research in one of eight countries, starting in 2014. The expansion of GRFP is part of a larger NSF push to encourage U.S. scientists to collaborate with colleagues abroad, including an international program for postdocs and early-career scientists.

Scientists today “will increasingly collaborate and compete with their peers from around the globe throughout their career,” said NSF Director Subra Suresh in announcing the program. “GROW will prepare NSF Graduate Research Fellows to engage successfully in the global research enterprise by connecting them to leading scientists and research infrastructure around the world.”

Suresh spoke at a ceremony earlier this month marking GRFP’s 60th anniversary at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Va. NSF selects outstanding graduate students for GRFP through a merit review process and funds three of their next five years of graduate studies. GRFP’s goal is to provide early support for the next generation of top scientists.

Perhaps more important, the program allows fellows to take the award with them to whichever U.S. graduate school and program of study they choose. The fellowship program, which funds some 2,000 students at $30,000 per year, is one of NSF’s fundamental programs.

NSF’s fellowship model has worked. Among GRFP recipients are 40 Nobel Prize winners and a third of the 2012 MacArthur fellows, widely referred to as “genius grant” awardees. Notable former GRFP fellows include presidential science adviser John P. Holdren, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, “Freakonomics” co-author Steven Levitt, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

“It was invaluable to me because I was able to choose an adviser whether that adviser had funding or not,” said Chu, who spoke at the anniversary celebration.

As part of the commemoration, NSF challenged current fellows to present their work in a 90-second video. Three winners were chosen, a chemist and two marine biologists, who received a plaque and monetary prize at the event.

Those graduate research fellows were also among the first to hear about the GROW opportunity to go abroad. The deadline for the first applications is Feb. 1. “Sign me up,” said first-place winner Eric Keen, a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Under the GROW program, GRFP fellows can apply to spend from three to 12 months doing research in Denmark, Finland, France, Japan, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, or South Korea.

GROW is a win-win for NSF and its partner countries, said Anne Emig, who helped craft GROW at NSF’s Office of International Science & Engineering. Scientists in partner countries get to work with some of the top science students from the U.S., and NSF fellows get exposure to international research.

The fellows who apply will have to identify the country they want to study in and a specific researcher in that country they want to work with. They will also have to propose a research project they plan to pursue in line with their graduate studies. Their adviser will also have to sign on to the project.

NSF will review the proposed projects for scientific merit and then pass selected proposals to the involved country. Officials from that country will then select which proposals to accept. Travel and relocation expenses of up to $5,000 will be funded by NSF, and in-country living expenses will be covered by the host country.

GROW is modeled on an existing program that sent GRFP fellows to just the four Nordic countries. That program is being rolled into GROW, Emig explained. NSF hopes to expand GROW to even more countries and include as many GRFP fellows as possible.

“Our hope is that eventually every NSF fellow seeks out an international experience and sees it as part of a top-quality graduate degree,” Emig said. “This program helps lower the barrier to international engagement.”



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