Number of National Science Foundation graduate research fellows at ASU growing
How science can better serve society is the focus of JP Nelson’s work as a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow at Arizona State University.
With support from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), Nelson is pursuing a doctoral degree in the human and social dimensions of science and technology.
Nelson earned a Bachelor of Science degree in innovation in society with honors from Barrett, The Honors College at ASU in 2018. As an undergraduate, he also was a noted member of the men’s track team.
“I chose ASU and the human and social dimensions of science and technology program because I’m committed to improving the public value of science — through promotion of responsibility in innovation, through improvement of the institutional structure of research organizations, and through democratization of decision-making around emerging technologies,” Nelson said.
“That’s what this program is about. That’s what this school is about. In no small part, that’s what this university is about, if you look at the charter and the design aspirations. In terms of institutional support, the work that goes on here, and the people who make up the school, I believe that School for the Future of Innovation in Society is a very unique community working to better the sciences’ ability to serve society,” he added.
Nelson said his postgraduation plans may include a career in academe as a tenure-track professor, or policy work in government or a think tank.
The GRFP funds students pursuing graduate degrees in fields supported by the National Science Foundation, including mathematical, engineering, physical, biological, behavioral and social science, as well as various interdisciplinary fields that include the history of science, the philosophy of science and research-based programs in science education.
Fellows receive three years of funding within a five-year fellowship period in the form of an annual stipend of $34,000. The ASU Graduate College administers the NSF-GRFP for ASU awardees and provides additional tuition and fees support, health insurance and a $750 allowance per year to further support research. Find out more about the NSF program on the Graduate College’s GRFP website.
Nelson is among a growing number of NSF-GRFP participants at ASU. In 2020, the number of new participants in the NSF-GRFP at the university jumped to 11, marking a significant increase from past years when there were seven annually.
Joshua Brooks, a program manager in the ASU Graduate College’s Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships and the Office of National Scholarship Advisement at Barrett, The Honors College, attributes the increase to the GRFP@ASU advising initiative.
The GRFP@ASU has more than 20 advisers, including ASU faculty who have won the GRFP in the past and current NSF graduate research fellows in residence at ASU. Advisers engage in one-on-one, in-depth advising with GRFP applicants over a period of weeks leading up the application deadline.
Brooks said he is seeking students interested in being advised through the GRFP@ASU initiative and applying for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program this year. An information session will be held online Feb. 19.
The GRFP@ASU initiative gives students a leg up when applying for the fellowship, said Kiki Jenkins, professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society who leads the human and social dimensions of science and technology PhD program.
"The NSF-GRFP has become extremely competitive and restricted to only one chance at applying. So, for ASU students to be competitive, they need not only good research ideas but coaching and support in how to convincingly present these ideas," Jenkins said.
"ASU’s NSF-GRFP advising system is a very promising and important initiative. By leveraging the experience and knowledge of successful GRFP recipients as coaches, they are giving ASU students across disciplines intensive one-on-one advising that could help diversify who receives these grants. I haven’t seen such an intensive, yet personalized program at any other university, and if successful it could be a model program," Jenkins added.
Nelson went through the NSF-GRFP@ASU advising system as an applicant and now is an adviser.
“The program helped me clarify application requirements, think about how to present myself, encouraged me to reach out to faculty mentors and put me in touch with prior (GRFP) fellows,” he said.
“When advising others, I really just try to do for my advisees what my friends, mentors and advisers did for me. I’ve mostly worked with my advisees on the (application) writing process. I try to help advisees understand the rhetorical structure of the application as a whole and the function of each part within it; as well as how they want to present their experiences, motivations and aspirations through those different parts.”
Nelson said applicants would do well to understand the application “as a model of who and what they are” and offered advice for students interested in applying for the NSF-GRFP:
1. Approach the application from several angles
“The different parts of the application — transcripts, metadata, awards, personal statement, research statement and reference letters — all portray the applicant from different angles," Nelson said. "The transcripts and awards are lists of accomplishments, so you don’t need to rehash them elsewhere. The research statement explains what you’re working on and proves that you can write a research proposal. The personal statement is your chance to explain who you are as a person — what you care about, why and what you’re planning to do about it. Your reference writers can speak to your competencies and virtues in ways that you might not even be able to see yourself, and you get three of them, so take advantage to broaden your coverage.”
2. Figure out how to stand out from the crowd
“You know, every GRFP applicant or fellow I’ve spoken to is doing interesting and valuable work, often for really compelling personal reasons that say a lot about who they are and where they’ve come from. Each one has taken a unique path to where they are right now and has unique aspirations for their future,” Nelson said.
“That’s why I find it both a little frustrating and kind of hilarious that probably 80% of personal statements I’ve read, both online and from applicants I’ve met, start with some variation of this idea: 'I’ve been fascinated by science ever since I was a child …' And it’s true! I know it’s true — totally sincere in every case. But the whole point of an application is to highlight the things about an applicant — history, skills, motivations, aspirations — that most uniquely suit them to receive the fellowship. You have to find some way to stand out from the crowd, not only in terms of accomplishments but in terms of who you are as a person.
“When I was writing my own application, I received some very valuable advice from my friend (and previous fellow) Christian Ross about how he tried to help the reviewers remember him. His research involved thinking critically about the proper course of innovation, so he started his statement talking about 'Jurassic Park' and that Jeff Goldblum line: '[Y]our scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.' He did this, he told me, because he wanted to stick in — and stick out in — the reviewers’ minds, and one of the best ways to do that was to associate himself with some particular idea, to become 'the "Jurassic Park" guy.' So I went home and read over my statement, and I asked myself, 'What guy do I want to be? What touchstone can help the reviewer remember the important things about me and my research?' I found that very useful.”
Find out more about the NSF-GRFP
An online information session for students interested in applying for the NSF-GRFP is scheduled for noon Friday, Feb. 19. Wim Vermaas, Foundation Professor in the ASU School of Life Sciences and a former reviewer of GRFP applications for the National Science Foundation, will give a presentation and answer questions about the program. Brooks will host the session and be on hand to offer more information.
According to Brooks, the NSF-GRFP application cycle at ASU will begin in early April with workshops for students interested in applying to the program. Advisers from the GRFP@ASU advising initiative will be available to help applicants work on their materials from the spring into the summer. Applications must be submitted in October.