Eight UO students receive prestigious NSF graduate fellowship

Eight current Ducks have received 2020 graduate research fellowships from the National Science Foundation. 

The award recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

An additional 10 UO students received honorable mentions in chemistry, computer science, neuroscience, physics and psychology. 

“This is the NSF’s most prestigious student award,” said David Conover, vice president for research and innovation. “We are tremendously proud of this year’s recipients and of the talent they bring to their fields.”

Graduate research fellowships support students for three years of graduate study. Students receive a living stipend, tuition waivers and travel funds. The fellowship is highly competitive, with only 2,000 being awarded each year to graduate students across the U.S.

Recipients Alison Chang, Marc Foster, Khoa Le and James May are all current, second-year graduate students in chemistry; Makenna Pennel and Madi Scott are undergraduate chemistry students. Pennel will be attending Stanford University to pursue her doctorate in chemistry next fall, and Scott plans to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall.

Kayla Evens, a graduate student in Institute of Ecology and Evolution, and Cecelia Staggs, a graduate student in linguistics, also received awards.

Six of this year’s awardees are from the UO’s chemistry program, where associate professors Shannon Boettcher and Mike Pluth collaborate to run the program and develop students’ skills so they are competitive for NSF fellowships. When Boettcher arrived at the UO as an assistant professor in 2010, a chemistry doctoral student at the UO had not won an NSF fellowship for nearly a decade.

He knew that the issue wasn’t a lack of talented students, but he noticed that few were applying. He and Pluth, along with other dedicated faculty members, focused on mentoring students so they were prepared for the rigorous application process.

“We empower and support our students in developing, implementing and disseminating the results of broader impacts activities that creatively leverage their unique personal background, scientific interests, and career goals,” Boettcher said. “These activities are valuable to the graduate students who lead them and the communities they serve.”

Students also write an independent research proposal and receive feedback on writing clarity while participating in monthly peer review workshops during the summer. He said a lot of mentorship comes down to building students’ confidence.

“In a nutshell, we work with the students to help them excel in graduate school, positively impact their community and elevate their career prospects, all factors that also help them beat out the competition for well-deserved NSF fellowships,” Boettcher said.

The extra attention has paid off. In the last five years, 14 NSF graduate research fellowships have been awarded to UO chemistry graduate students, more than all other departments on campus combined, according to Boettcher. 

Alison Chang, who works with assistant professor Amanda Cook in the field of organometallic chemistry, is one of the students who benefited from mentorship. Chang said she was shocked, surprised and overwhelmed all at the same time when she find out she had been awarded a fellowship.

“I admittedly cried tears of mixed emotions,” Chang said.

Confidence was the major hurdle for Chang to overcome on her path to studying chemistry. At the UO, Chang found a supportive community that stressed strong values around work ethic and motivation. She called her chemistry professors her role models. 

“I could set up a meeting with any professor that I wanted to in order to help achieve my goals, answer research-related questions or for emotional support and they would do it in an instant,” Chang said. “The department sincerely makes an effort to provide a welcoming yet motivating environment to build up our knowledge and self-perception.”

Chang said she hopes the fellowship will help her pursue her goal of becoming a researcher at a primarily undergraduate university to  focus on teaching, running a lab, and mentoring and inspiring students.

Like Chang, Marc Foster is a second-year chemistry graduate student who felt validated when he learned that he was receiving a fellowship.

“I did not think I could pursue chemistry when I first got to college because I thought I was not smart enough,” Foster said.

Also like Chang, Foster wants to pass it forward.

“To be in a position where I can receive a national fellowship really makes me feel like I made the right decision to follow my interests,” he said, “and it makes me want to encourage others to do the same.”

By Denise Silfee, Research and Innovation