Posts Tagged ‘NSF’

Mohamad Abedi–NSF Winner and SOROS Fellow

Mohamad and President Obama Mohamad Abedi-Dinner with the Soros Fellows and President Barack Obama

Mohamad was born to Palestinian refugees in the United Arab Emirates. His family was under the constant threat of deportation back to the refugee camp in Lebanon where they had come from. His parents, lacking strong educations themselves, could not help Mohamad with his school work, but always served as his role models and inspiration.

Growing up, Mohamad spent his summers visiting family in the Beddawi refugee camp in Lebanon, where resources for health care were inadequate. He watched family members struggle with ailments that should have been easily curable, but instead persisted and grew worse. This experience motivated Mohamad to pursue an education in bioengineering, however he felt limited by the range of education options available to him. A world of education options opened up to him when, his senior year, after a ten-year waiting process, his family’s application to the United States was approved. Mohamad was able to pursue a degree in bioengineering at UC Irvine where President Obama distinguished him during a commencement address as someone who knows, “what it means to dream.”

At UC Irvine, he worked on building diagnostic devices for rural areas by designing computers that run on air instead of electricity. Later, he investigated the robustness of bacterial genetic circuits with respect to noise. Recently, Mohamad received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, recognizing him as one of the future leaders in his field.

Mohamad is now pursuing a PhD in bioengineering at Caltech. The long-term goal of his scientific career is to develop tools for non-invasive modulation of brain circuitry, which would allow scientists to understand and treat neurological and psychiatric diseases that involve the dysfunction of local neural circuits. Biography by Mohamad Abedi as posted in the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation’s Meet the Fellows section.

What was your major at UCI, and how did you learn about the SOROS and the NSF? 

When I first transferred from Irvine Valley College to UCI, I wasn’t really sure of what I wanted to do. I was leaning, mostly, toward medical school. But, as I took more classes, I realized I really enjoyed physics and chemistry classes, which led me to think that if I went to medical school I wouldn’t be able to focus on these topics.

I decided to come into UCI as a mechanical engineer major and transferred into that field. Then, I had another change of plans and ended up majoring in biomedical engineering. This way, I could also satisfy the part of me who wanted to be a doctor.

How did I hear about the SOROS fellowship?

When I was at UCI, I worked in a couple of labs doing research. I remember talking to professor Chang Liu and Elliot Hui about applying to graduate school and they recommended that I apply to fellowships and talk to other graduate students about options. I learned about the NSF and I also learned about the SOROS fellowship through them.

Did you visit the SOP office?

I did, when I wanted examples of NSF essays.

Tell us about the SOROS. How did you write a competitive application and sell your case?

The SOROS is a unique fellowship. I would say that they are looking for funding people as opposed to funding ideas. The NSF funds you based on an idea, mostly.

When it comes to the SOROS fellowship, you have to be an immigrant or the son or daughter of an immigrant.

However, what they really look for is more than an immigration story. They want you to show that you are a person who holds great potential to contribute to the United States as an immigrant. They also want to learn about the certain ways in which the United States helped you. In short, in the telling of this story, they want to know that the help an immigrant student received in the United States was life-changing and would not have been possible anywhere else. They also want to attract students who have a clear path to becoming future leaders in their fields.

What is your immigrant story? Where is your family from?

It’s complicated. My family and I are Palestinian refugees.I came to the U.S. as a teenager. I was 17. In the beginning, I stayed with my aunt. A bit later, my sister joined, who is younger than me. As we got more financially stable, another family member would join. My family followed me later. As a virtue of being a refugee, we lived in Lebanon and we applied to come to the US. It was a very long process and toward the end, we got accepted to emigrate here.

How did you craft your story? The SOROS looks for students who value the US Constitution and demonstrate potential for creativity and leadership. What did you tell them that you wanted to do with your life?

One major factor in my case as a refugee was that in other countries, I always felt I was a second-class citizen or even lower. In these countries, we didn’t get a lot of opportunities. This was totally different when I came to the U.S. Here, I was treated as a U.S citizen, even though I wasn’t one at that point.

I was given a lot of opportunities here to be creative and to focus on school. One of the most important benefits was that the US allowed me to be involved in research, which is an opportunity I wouldn’t have received anywhere else. The incredible opportunities I was given in the U.S. have been a major part of my story, and have influenced the path I pursued, and continue to follow today.

Mohamad and lab partners at Caltech enjoying a day off.

How did the SOROS connect with the NSF project and what did you do for the NSF?

Between applying to the SOROS and the NSF there was a year. When I applied for NSF I was still at UCI. The project that I proposed then was inspired by the research I had done as an undergraduate student. But when I started graduate school I started pursuing a different project.

The one that I proposed for the SOROS fellowship was mainly focused on engineering cells in the brain, a project that was linked to the brain initiative launched by President Obama.

Tell me about the brain initiative that President Obama proposed.

A couple of years ago, the President directed funding of a billion or more (it is roughly half a billion per year and it has been going since 2013) to research the human brain. President Obama launched this initiative referencing that we understand the galaxies around us better than we do our brains. The White House wanted to pave the way towards understanding the brain by driving research towards developing new tools to study the human brain.

What graduate school are you attending?

I am pursuing a PhD in Bio-Engineering at Caltech. I didn’t go too far.  I like it here. I’m in the middle of my 3rd year.

What are you working on right now?

Recently, I published a paper that details my work and what I’ll work on in the future.

I’m working on developing proteins that respond to temperature changes. We are creating medicinal proteins intended to heal the body. Currently, people use light to communicate with brain cells, specifically, with neurons. The problem is that to get the light into your brain you have to drill a hole in your skull. The alternative is that you can use ultrasound to focus on a specific region of the brain and heat it without damaging the brain cells. But you also need a receiver that you can install in your cells so that they can respond to heat signals and that is where my work comes in. Through the use of an ultrasound, you don’t have to drill and the light reaches within the brain.

What advice would give a student considering the SOROS and the NSF?

If you are in a STEM field, participate in research. In my case, I ended up liking it so much that I changed my career to be a researcher, which was not my initial goal. Through the process of research, you start learning to be independent; you learn how to solve problems.

Then, if you decide that research is what you want to do, fellowships become important because you can otherwise be limited to work on projects that a professor is working on, especially when the funding is coming from that professor.

On the other hand, if you have a fellowship, like the NSF or the SOROS, you have more freedom of choice regarding which school, which lab and which project you want to work with. It gives you a lot of freedom to do what you care about, which is the biggest plus you get out of these scholarships. This is the case for the NSF.

What is unique about the SOROS is that they really care about people, which is not very common for other fellowships. When you become a SOROS fellow, they fly you every year, for 2 years, to New York where you get to meet with other fellows and discuss major issues with them. You meet people from a lot of different fields. I got to meet musicians, people that work in the business field, people who work in clinical medicine, and many others. It is a great opportunity to meet all these different people who come from all these different fields.

Mohamad Abadi and Soros Cohort

Mohamad Abadi and Soros Cohort

All of us have something in common. We all came to this country as immigrants, and we are all more or less on the path to help advance the field that we are in in this country, which is something really nice and I don’t think could be possible through any of the other fellowship.

How many years have you been flying to New York to meet with the SOROS team?

I’ve been a SOROS fellow for 3 years, and they pay for your expenses to go to New York and stay there for a weekend. It’s usually a combination of fun activities, skill-development, and networking. The aspect of making connections is very nice.

The year before, the U.S. Surgeon General, who is also a SOROS, sat with us and we got to discuss health issues affecting Americans. These are incredible opportunities to meet people that you would otherwise not have the opportunity to meet.  These conversations allow you to meet amazing people on a  personal level, interact, and build connections.

They book us all in one hotel; they plan every day and they have a schedule, including food, workshops, and talks.

Mohamad Abedi Soros Conference 2015

Mohamad Abedi Soros Conference 2015

How big is the group?

The way it works is that every year they invite the class that won the fellowship that year and the year before so that’s why I went last year and the year before. Next year, I won’t get a paid invitation. I will have to pay for it myself, but every 10 years or so they have a big conference where everybody is invited.

How does the SOROS conference appeal to the distinct fields? What do you have in common besides being immigrants?

What we all share in common is that regardless of your discipline, SOROS recipients are ambitious, self-driven people who are goal-oriented. They have tall plans and are working to achieve them. These traits, we all share in common, and we appreciate them in others, regardless of the field.

These are more than networking opportunities. You actually become friends. So if they are close to you, you can meet with them regularly in LA, for example, and whenever I fly somewhere, if I know there is a SOROS fellow, I email them or Facebook chat, “I’m around. Do you want to meet up?”

There is a very strong networking component to the SOROS.

Mohamad Abedi-Soros cohort meets for conference

Mohamad Abedi-Soros cohort meets for conference

What countries or world regions are represented in your class?

A big variety: Middle East, Iran, Egypt, in my case, United Arab Emirates, Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, China, Taiwan, India, South America.

What did you have to do to apply for the SOROS?

You write 2 essay. One, of your work and your plans for the future, and the other, is about your American experience, your immigration story and why U.S. values are important to you and how you have used those values and opportunities to charge ahead.

Once you send this in, if you are selected, you attend a personal interview, either in New York or LA. They fly you there, and you are interviewed by previous Soros fellows and other people.

When I interviewed, the panel had previous SOROS winners and the Mayor of L.A. was one of the people who interviewed me. From the 70 candidates, they pick 30 to win the fellowship.

What was the interview like? What questions did they ask?

You go through 2 interviews. Each interviewing committee has 4 or 5 interviewers. Questions include: which research are you working on;  what do you do in your free time; what’s important to you, other than work.

They are looking for certain type of people. They really want to find out who you are as a whole.

They tailor questions based on your background, and they are really interested in understanding your goals and they ask you lots of personal questions.

Do you remember those?

Yes. They asked, “you told us about your research, you are busy all the time, but do you have something else in your life or do you only do research?” This is the point where they look to see if you are a well-rounded person and that question surprised me.

I told them, I do spend most of my time in lab because for me the lab is  fun. It never feels like an obligation. Some people find fun in sports or movies which I do participate in. But for me, working in the lab and interacting with my colleagues is fun, and what I do for fun.

What sense did you get from the interview process? What are they looking for?

They really want people who are showing strong potential in whatever field they are in. They don’t really care about specific types of research. What they care about is that you are a person who in the future will make the fellowship’s name and reputation more prestigious. The more successful you become, the more prestigious the SOROS becomes. They look for the people who have the potential to become successful, to become leaders in whatever they are doing.

It’s not enough to have an immigrant story. It’s important to show how that story affected you and informed the person that you are today. And if that person shows promise, then that’s the person they want to keep as a SOROS fellow.

How has the SOROS process changed you? 

I think the biggest advantage, other than the money, is the amazing people I would have never had the chance to meet in my life. These meetings give you new perspectives. They inspire you because they show you what other people are doing with this opportunity and their personal drive. We  help each other out to reach these goals. We encourage each other to stay motivated, to stay inspired and to stay connected.

What would you tell a student who is preparing to apply for the SOROS. What should they definitely cover in their essays?

Show that being in the U.S. has helped you become the person that you are. Connect your story to how these opportunties have developed a patriotic spirit for the U.S., that you are on the path to success because of the U.S. and in turn, your success will help the U.S become a better country.

The SOROS is a patriotic fellowship that is interested in making this country better.

They want to see people who  have the potential to be successful so in the application and interview it is important to focus on the bigger picture and demonstrate that what you are working on could be useful and impactful for the country as a whole.

Show them that you have a clear path of where you want to be in the future. They don’t want people who are unsure. They want people who have a goal, are driven and know what they need to do to reach that goal.

How did you convince them that you are going to be successful? What are the values of America that you love and that push you to be the best that you can be? How will you give back and be a contributive member of U.S. society?

The first question relates to the American dream. It doesn’t matter where you come from. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you put in the effort and the work, opportunities will be open to you and you will be able to reach what you want.

In other countries, in order to be successful, you have to come from a big family name, or you have to be rich. Over here, when I came to the U.S. my name didn’t mean anything and I wasn’t financially in a good place, but because I was putting in the work and I had a vision, doors opened for me, either through fellowships, scholarships, or assistance. Doors will be open to you to reach your goal as long as you put in the work for it.

The second part, how I convinced them that my project will be impactful, it is very important to have strong letters of recommendation. I can talk all day about who I am and what I plan to do, but it is through the letters verifying that, that the committee can start to see it. When professors write letters making comments like, “I know this person; I’ve seen his work; I know that he will be x y z in the future,” this is really important.

And in my case something else that helped me during graduation from Irvine, was that president Obama during his commencement speech, one of the people he mentioned was my name, Mohammad Abedi came as a refugee and now he is working on his Ph.D. getting an endorsement from the president, saying I got here as a refugee and now he’s going to do great things, helped me a lot in my application for the SOROS.

How did President Obama learn about you?

When the president decided he was coming he had people contact UCI for recommendations. He wanted to mention names. They asked people for profiles and biographies and sent them back to the White House and the White House contacted me a day before to verify information. They said there is no guarantee that he is going to talk about me. When I went to the graduation, I wasn’t even sure. It was great when he mentioned my name.

Any other advice you’d give students thinking about fellowships?

It isn’t only about the grades. Doing research is important, learning how to be a good writer is important. Also important is to seek help, ask for  help. There are a lot of nice people who have a lot of information and are very willing to help, but you have to seek them out. Be active about the things that are important. When I wrote my application, I sent it to tons of people; whoever was willing to read my application. Many people write their applications and they are either shy or they don’t want to share it. Get as much feedback as possible.

What is next for you? What do you want to do after you get your degree?

I’m working on completing a Phd so  I can start a career as a tenure-track professor. I  would love to stay in California. I love the weather here.

Mohamad is available to answer questions about his journey, experiences and life accomplishments. He can be reached at x@caltech.edu

Follow this link to learn about his latest research. To find out more about Mohamad and his partners in Shapiro lab, click here.

PhD, Candidate at Caltech, Mohamad Abedi is an immigrant from the United Arab Emirates. The Soros Fellowship was awarded to support his work towards a PhD in Bioengineering at Caltech

President Obama mentions Mohamad’s accomplishments during his commencement speech.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nathan Gamarra–Tips from an NSF Winner

Nathan Gamarra

Nathan Gamarra graduated from UCI magna cum laude in 2013 with a B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.  At UCI he worked in the training lab of Dr. Luis Mota-Bravo identifying patterns of antibiotic resistance in bacteria isolated from local oceans and worked towards developing new assays to rapidly detect antibiotics in environmental samples.  In the summer of 2011, Nathan did research at Stanford University as part of the Amgen Scholars program.  There he studied the biochemical mechanisms of RNA enzymes in the Herschlag lab.  After returning to UCI, he joined Dr. Sheryl Tsai’s lab where he studied the molecular mechanisms of fungal enzymes that synthesize important antibiotics and toxins.  Nathan is continuing his interest in enzyme mechanism in graduate school, where he is studying the mechanics of ATP-dependent chromatin remodeling enzymes at UC San Francisco.  As an undergraduate, Nathan presented posters at several research conferences winning awards at the AAAS conference in 2011 and 2012.  In addition to an NSF graduate research fellowship, he was also the recipient of the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research and the Laurence Mehlman Memorial Scholarship.

Below, we caught up with Nathan to learn about his studies after UCI. He shared invaluable tips on good choices he made early on that helped him become a very competitive candidate for the NSF.

How did you learn about the NSF?

Two ways:  I went to an SOP information session on different scholarships.

I was also involved in a Minority Science Program (MSP) through the Ayala School of Biological Sciences at UCI. They are fantastic. This program supports students doing undergraduate research, and through them, I learned more about the NSF.

MSP Program at UCI

What role did the Minority Science Program play in applying to the NSF?

Dr. Marlene de la Cruz is the Associate Director, and Dr. Luis Mota-Bravo, is the Director of Outreach. They are the two people who run the program there, and they are funded by the National Institute of Health.

MSP Students-UCI

Their job is to get people from underrepresented backgrounds into Ph.D programs. So, the program is really geared towards getting people to that goal, and I credit them for all they’ve done to get me there.

When did you first hear about them?

They had sent me an email in my freshman year telling me that I should look into the MSP. I knew UCI was a research-focused university, so I was interested in finding out more and I went to one of their meetings. They told us about research and all the different possibilities that we could pursue. At the time, I was really interested in doing research as an undergraduate, so they set me up with a training lab, and that’s where I learned basic techniques, protocols and things like that.

From there, I worked in other research labs and expanded my experiences. Later, I applied for graduate school.

How many of your peers ended up taking advantage of the NSF or applying for it?

Very few, unfortunately. Many people are intimidated about applying to the NSF in their senior year. The problem is that the application is due at the end of October, right before graduate school applications are due in December. It is also a very competitive fellowship.

Lots of people who would have been very qualified for the NSF, did not apply because they were focused on classes and bunch of other things, but  I felt like the application was very similar to a graduate school application, and I  knew that I would be applying to graduate school so I essentially decided I was going to do it and it turned out that it worked, and it helped a lot in terms of getting to the schools that I got into.

When you started at UCI did you know that this is what you wanted to do?

No. I knew coming into UCI that I wanted to do something science-related, and I liked biology and chemistry as well. I was deciding between doing something medically-related and something more research-based.

I really liked the courses I was taking and I was interested in the academic aspect of things. Starting with the MSP research program led me down a path that ultimately worked out really well for me.

What are the steps involved in applying for the NSF?

You have your basic application, which includes, letters of rec, transcripts and you also have to write 2 statements. One is a personal one, and the other is a research proposal. The personal statement should address your background, how you got interested in doing science and research, and ultimately, it should touch on your career aspirations and what you’ve done to get there.

The other component is the research proposal. When you are applying as an undergraduate, it can be an intimidating process, but one that is worth it. You have to come up with a project proposal, explain how you would do it, address the results you expect to get, and if you don’t get what you expect, explain what you would do then. This second part is important to address.

It’s important to do as best as you can, but the people who are reviewing your research proposal, they understand that undergraduates don’t have that much experience. They are looking to see if you are actually thinking about what you are doing. The most important thing about your research at this point is that you can communicate what you intend to do. Looking back over it now, my research proposal is definitely not the ideal proposal.

Better to Apply to the NSF as an Undergraduate than as a Graduate Student

I think it is very important to apply as an undergraduate for the NSF fellowship if you are serious about going to graduate school.  Having funding early makes your life significantly easier in graduate school since you don’t have to worry about applying for fellowships when you start your program.  Applying early also helps your chances as many people don’t apply as an undergraduate.  Even if you don’t get the fellowship, it is good practice for applying for the fellowship in graduate school and, since the NSF application is very similar to the graduate school application, it will make that application process a lot easier. Also if you don’t get the fellowship, there is a good chance of getting an honorable mention which will significantly improve your chances of getting the fellowship when you apply as a graduate student.  This is really important since you have a limited amount of times you can apply as a grad student.

What graduate program did you decide on?

I am a Ph.D. student at UC San Francisco.  Here, the first thing you do as a graduate student is apply for the NSF fellowship.  This can be a very stressful process while you are taking classes and working in the lab.  For me, having the funding made my transition to graduate school much easier.

If you have any interest in applying for graduate school, you should apply right away. Also, there is a limited number of times you can apply. I think if you apply during your undergraduate program, then you get a second opportunity once you get into a graduate program. All around, I think it’s a really good move for any student going into graduate school in the sciences to apply for the NSF.

Did you look for a mentor or coach to guide the research aspect of your proposal?

Yes, the 2 people in the minority science program coached me. I was working in an undergraduate research lab, (by the way, anyone applying should have worked in, at least, one research lab), and the professor I worked under there, she helped me formulate the research, which was based on my undergraduate project.

What advice would you give a freshman contemplating the sciences and wanting to become a competitive NSF candidate? What do you wish you had known when you first started at UCI and what advice do you have to offer?

Do research early and often and through as many opportunities as you can.

The number one thing that got me the fellowship and got me into graduate school was research experience. That’s one of the great things about UCI, is that it is so welcoming to students who want to do undergraduate research.

I think the biggest barrier as a freshman is intimidation, not knowing things, worrying about not fitting into a lab culture, but you find as soon as you start doing it, that people know and understand where you are. Most people, considering how diverse UCI is, have probably been in your shoes, and so they know that you will find a good lab and good mentors by just seeking them out; there are so many opportunities at UCI, that’s the best thing.

The specific research area does not matter that much. The most important thing is experiencing the lab culture and developing your network of people and research. Through that, you can start finding out if science is what you want to do.

How did you get involved with your first research project? Where did you look for opportunities?

I was super lucky. The MSP was really helpful in terms of helping me through that first barrier, which is getting a lab. The way that they do it is that they have their own training lab where they teach you to do very basic things and get you comfortable, and then after that, you can ask the professor to work in their lab and that’s what I ended up doing.

In addition to the MSP is there another program on campus that can help students prepare for research?

In addition to MSP, there is also, Camp at UCI, which is the California Alliance for Minority Participation. The three-week CAMP Summer Science Academy (CSSA) is a residential program that prepares incoming freshmen for the transition from high school to UCI. To learn more about this program click here.

 

CAMP-California Alliance for Minority Participation

CAMP is based out of engineering school and they support students across science disciplines. They also help you find people who can help you get into a research lab.

Advice to Freshmen going into the Sciences

I would suggest for the first quarter focus on your classes and on doing well.

The first quarter is a hard transition,  but after a quarter or two, once you are comfortable with the academics, just find whatever way you can to get involved with research.

Go to these programs, which were, for me, super helpful. Work with the SOP program. Even if you don’t participate in MSP or CAMP, when you take classes that interest you, talk to professors and ask them if you can work with them. Most professors will be more than happy to help and have you in their lab. Or if they can’t,  they may know of other labs that can hook you up with.

Other students found research tips by going online and googling a particular professor.

I didn’t participate in UROP, but lots of my friends did, and it is another great resource.

The Number One thing is Research-Use the Summers to Get Involved

Another thing I credit with my success is my summer research project in the biological sciences. Pretty much every university has an undergraduate research program that you can apply to, and they will pay for you to come out and do research in their lab for the summer.

It’s a really great experience to do research that is normally outside of what you do and most importantly, it is a great opportunity to get a letter of recommendation from someone outside of your university, which I think was a huge deal for me.

I did my undergraduate research program at Stanford for a summer.

It was a great experience. But, like the stress associated with applying to the NSF, some people stress out about applying to summer research programs, but if you get a chance to participate, you will learn invaluable training and you will build a network.

In my case, my Stanford experience got me a letter of recommendation from a professor at Stanford.

Prospective graduate programs definitely noticed. Whenever I interviewed for a graduate school, they asked about my time at Stanford and there were several people knew the professor and commented on the letter he wrote for me. The told me, good job! So it’s a huge plus to do that as well.

How competitive are summer research opportunities?

They can be competitive, but most summer research programs are really interested in supporting people who may not come from perfect backgrounds. They are really committed to increasing diversity and bringing underrepresented students into research and graduate programs.

I encourage everyone to apply.

The other great thing is that those summer research applications are really simple, one or two letters of recommendation and a short personal statement.

Do you pay out of pocket to fly?

The program I applied to paid for everything. The vast majority of programs do. If you apply to the bigger schools most will cover that. In short, this is a huge plus to your CV and applications.

What would you say to a student worried about maintaining a good GPA, and juggling lab, and research work? How to do all the extras and stay a strong student?

I mean, it’s super tough. It won’t be easy the first year.

As far as prioritizing, grades should come first.

I think you want to get things done in research but if you don’t have the grades, research will not matter. It is important, but you need the best grades you can get to get access to good things. Good grades will open more opportunities than maybe extra hours doing a small amount of research.

I would say grades first, but research is also very important.

During the quarters when I took really tough classes, I would come in at least 3 hours less per week because I knew I needed to work on my assignments. Most mentors will understand that your number one priority is classes at that point.

If you can get a project done and publish that would be amazing.

I didn’t do that but I know several people did and that counted for so much for them. However, if your priority is to get into graduate school and fellowships, having the best grades possible is the most important first step.

How did you decide on San Francisco?

It was a tough choice. I applied to many different schools and got into all of them.  All the places that I applied to were equally strong in my research field, which made it very difficult to decide. I’d say a very big part in my decision was the location. San Francisco is a cool place to live. I think a big part of your decision should include considering where you see yourself enjoying your life. Having a place that you enjoy living is irreplaceable. It’s the whole experience.  Equally important is the atmosphere of the graduate program and how well they support their students.  UCSF is an incredibly collaborative and supportive place to work.  You get a good feel for this when you interview at different Schools. Graduate school takes a long time to complete, so if you are going to spend 5 years living somewhere, it might as well be a place that you like.

If you would like to contact Nathan for any information on his experiences, please email him at: Nathan.gamarra@ucsf.edu

 

John Naviaux-Fulbright Scholar in Norway and NSF Research Fellow

Myself suited up in a drysuit before taking the boat out to collect glacial runoff samples (again near Ny-Ålesund, Norway) in summer

Myself suited up in a drysuit before taking the boat out to collect glacial runoff samples (near Ny-Ålesund, Norway) in summer

John Naviaux graduated with the Chancellor’s Award of Distinction from UC Irvine in 2012 after receiving a B.S in Environmental Science and a B.A in Business Economics. He worked on a variety of projects while at Irvine that included the economics of urban bus pollution, the study of graviton decay at the Large Hadron Collider, and the optimization of electrode design in microbial fuel cells. After graduating, John spent a year abroad in Norway as a Fulbright Scholar studying mercury pollution in the Arctic. He received a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship upon returning and is currently in Caltech’s environmental engineering PhD program working on the chemistry of storing CO2 in the ocean as a means to combat climate change. In the future, John hopes to continue his research and work in environmental policy.

Recently, we caught up with John Naviaux to ask him about his experiences after winning both the Fulbright in Norway, and the NSF. Below, are his thoughts, experiences and tips on how to apply and how to enjoy these unique experiences. He hopes that those contemplating either a Fulbright in research or the NSF will find his story helpful. He is also available to answer questions regarding his experiences. Please see below.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your experiences with SOP.

Of course. Anything for UCI and the SOP office.

 What Scholarships Did you Win? How did you Learn About Them?

 Fulbright and NSF. Both, with the help of the SOP office. I learned about them because the scholarship office was sending out targeted emails. I was also part of the UCI CHP Honors Program, and they were also sending out emails telling us we should apply for these scholarships, and reminding us that we had a valuable resource in SOP.

How did you Work Together with SOP to figure Out Which Fellowships you Should Pursue?   

I was contacted by someone in SOP who told  me, “with your GPA and your honors background, you should apply to these opportunities.” I went in, and talked to them and they said they had a number of scholarships. We went over a few. The Rhodes scholarship, for example; I didn’t apply to that one. Rhodes requires 6-8 letters of recommendation, and I only really had personal relationships with 3-4 professors who would be able to write strong letters.

Then, there was the Fulbright and the NSF. Talking with SOP, we discussed what I had the best shot of winning. We went over my goals, and how my resume backed those up.

After going back and forth, SOP recommended the Fulbright and the NSF. Along the way, I figured out that a lot of the scholarships have similar requirements. So, while I was initially interested in the Fulbright, I realized that I could write about my research experience and propose projects and future goals that would work well if I decided to apply for the NSF.

So I decided to pursue both. I went to the SOP office and we started working on my personal statement. I ended writing almost the same personal statement for the NSF. With SOP’s suggestions and the work I had invested in the Fulbright application, I was able to adjust my applications, and incorporate tips that would be better for each.

So, Did you Apply at the Same Time?

I applied to both during the same year. That was part of the pitch that the scholarship office had: that all these things require similar applications, but not exactly the same, so I ended up working with one of my professors to have a different proposed project for the NSF than the one for the Fulbright, but the statement of purpose was very similar, with a similar research background and so I was able to change small things to apply for both.

Were you a Junior or a Senior at the Time of Application?

I was a senior when I applied. Part of the reason I applied then was that I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do after graduating. I thought grad school was a possibility, and this is what I’m doing now, but I wasn’t sure at the time and I wanted to apply to a lot of different opportunities and see what would work out. The SOP office pointed out that I could use my application to apply for graduate school, which was great, too.

SOP’s advice was invaluable in telling me, this works for this, this doesn’t for this one, and reiterating by going back and forth what would make for the strongest application and how. They suggested to me, change this, change that. It was worth it. I was able to adjust my statements to write winning applications.

How Did you Juggle the Fulbright and the NSF? Was there a Conflict of Timing? 

Yes, but it ended up not being a problem. I found out about Fulbright, NSF and grad school all within a week of each other. They all want you to commit, so I talked with the different schools and the NSF director at each school along with the acceptance committee at each school and told them:

Look, I have all these things. I really want to do the Fulbright abroad in Norway. What can I do about this?

None of these schools had a problem at all. They said, not a problem we will just defer your admittance until you get back. The NSF is a 5-year scholarship, but only 3 of the years are paid and 2 of the years are for deferring, so it worked out because I was able to defer for the first year because of the Fulbright. I also accepted the NSF, and accepted Caltech as my graduate school of choice. They fund you the first year there so I was able to defer again and once the school funding ran out, I was able to start the NSF funding.

I was surprised by how easy the transitions were, and it really was because all these different academic communities are very supportive of these scholarships, and they want the students to have these things, so they were willing to work with me a lot in order for me to participate in all these different opportunities that did conflict in time, but worked out in the end.

Every school told me, yes, please go on your Fulbright. Come back. We will have a spot waiting for you. There was really no issue at all, especially for graduate school. They value their students having these experiences.

So, What did you do for your Fulbright? Where did you go? What was your experience like, and for how long? 

My Fulbright was 10 months long, and I went to Norway. I stayed in the middle section of Norway working with a professor who was studying the presence of mercury in the environment, which worked well because I was interested in the Arctic environment. One of the things that was intimidating to me was that you are supposed to come up with a research project. Other Fulbrighters that I knew did have specific research projects. But for me, I was an economics undergrad who later added an earth science focus, so I knew I wanted to do earth science-related things. To get started, I looked at countries that I was interested in, and one of them was Norway. I looked at what the faculty were doing there, and found this professor and started thinking of a project that would be suitable to my interests.  I learned he was researching mercury pollution in the environment. I thought, this is perfect. I thought of Norway, specifically, because it is in the Arctic. I would have easy access to the Arctic and that was what I was interested in. I was able to work with this professor and come up with an idea as opposed to coming in with a project that I wanted to do from the very beginning.

Trondheim church (called Nidarosdomen) in winter

Where Did you Stay? Did you have any Language Barriers?

This question relates to why I decided on Norway. When it comes to the Fulbright, there are tons of countries you can apply to that  have language requirements and others don’t. For me, I only speak English so that really cut out a bunch of countries. Like Germany and France, where you have to be fluent in those languages. Of English-speaking countries or with no language requirements there were: the UK, Australia, New Zealand and some Scandinavian countries. Editor’s Note: SOP maintains a list of countries with no language requirements that include other geographical regions.

When it came to choosing, I was systematic about the countries that I applied to. In terms of the UK, I looked at the number of applicants that applied vs the number of spots available, and for the UK there is something like 10 spots for 300 plus applicants. I also wasn’t interested in Australia or New Zealand. I looked at Scandinavian countries and they had a much smaller applicant pool per number of spots.  The idea of going there, and the best odds for actually getting the scholarship influenced my decision.

I went back to Ny-Ålesund later in the year and this time needed to cross-country ski around to collect water samples. The scenery was gorgeous!

They didn’t have a language requirement and as it turns out, once I knew that I had the Fulbright, I contacted the university and they were able to get me international student housing.

Did you have enough money from the award to pay for everything that you needed?

I did. It varies based on the country so my stipend was probably not as generous in terms of cost of living that perhaps helps students in South American countries, but I did not have a problem and neither did the other Fulbrighters in the area. We had food and housing and transportation was all paid for, and the only times I spent any of my own money was doing extra trips. Even then, it was easy to budget without spending my own money.

 Some of my research in Norway was conducted in the research town of Ny-Ålesund on the island of Svalbard. They had polar bear warning signs posted around the town.

How long did it take you to adjust to Norway? Did you make friends right away? What was it like to adapt to a new society?

It was not difficult for me to adapt, partly because the Fulbright office is big on connecting you with other Fulbrighters, so the student body, and the location are two things to consider when applying and choosing a Fulbright location. I was in one of the universities where there were plenty of people who were my age and shared similar interests. And I was connected to the Fulbright organization and I learned there were 2 other Fulbrighters in my city. I got there and had an automatic network of Fulbrighters, and we did Fulbright events there. I’m still really good friends with them. I went to one of their weddings recently.

Meeting local students was also easy because I was in a university area. A contrasting story to mine: there was an English-teaching Fulbrighter who stayed in a really small town of like 200 people and it was harder to acclimate and get around. Someone’s experience will definitely be based on where they are in a certain country. When people ask me, what I should consider? I tell them:

You should consider what you want to do research-wise, but you should also consider the experience of the area that you are going to be in.

What was expected of you in terms of hours of work, and research projects, were you supposed to come up with something material by the time you concluded? Was a final presentation expected?

The Fulbright is very much a cultural exchange (in addition to the English-teaching or research exchange), so I am not sure how it is for other countries, but for the Norwegian experience, we had to write a mid-term report after 5 months. This was a 1-page statement saying, this is what we’ve done, and this is how we are adjusting. They had no pressure on having any set work done, or any kind of deliverable. With that said, conferences were encouraged and some were exclusive to Fulbright students. At the end of the year, all Fulbrighters get together and get to present on what they‘ve been up to. These presentations could be travel, cultural, or research-based. So it was not stressful to get these extras done.

 

Now for my PhD, here I am presenting for a field course at Caltech on glacial moraines at Convict Lake

Do you feel that you became a better researcher or gained more depth with your topic? Were you taught well by your mentors there?

Yes, I would say it was an incredibly valuable experience. I learned a lot about the specific topic of mercury in the Arctic. I also found it valuable to conduct research outside of the U.S. It was interesting to learn how different cultures deal with research and how they present in different research styles. It was also valuable trying to translate myself into another language because as a primary English speaker I had not done that before.

 

Myself overlooking norway Trollstigen road

What did you notice as the biggest difference between research in Norway and research in the US?

To be honest the biggest difference was work/life balance. It’s kind of common in the US to have a 60 plus hour week. The stipend for similar work in Norway is not $30,000.

In Norway a graduate student is treated as a regular full-time researcher holding a 9-5 type job and the stipend is around $80,000. There are costs of living adjustments but research is treated as a full-time job and they are paid much more. I did not make that salary when I was in Norway. I got the US stipend.

It was interesting to see that the quality of research is very high, outputting a lot, while working significantly less. They really value productivity while you are at work, and once you are not, you no longer need to be at work.

Norway, City of Trondheim

I was also exposed to different styles of presenting. In the US when you present your research it is very much a pitch: this is why your findings are great and amazing. In Norway the style is more, here are the facts. How effective you think my facts are is up to the audience. Just being exposed to all of this was very interesting.

When you wrapped up the Fulbright you moved into the NSF opportunity. How did the transition take place?

I accepted the NSF at the same time I accepted the Fulbright. I was able to postpone it until grad school. It was really easy. Every year, they send you a message: please update your NSF status, so when I started grad school at Caltech I filled out the update and pressed the button to activate my status. And that was it.

Rainbow over Norwegian area of Valldal

So once the NSF gives you the funding for graduate school, are there specific research expectations due to them?

No. It is pretty much a blank check. When completing their application, you have to come up with a research project and plan. It does not have to be related at all with what you will end up doing. When I applied to the NSF, I was working in a microbial cell lab at UCI.

So my project/pitch was based on doing more research in this area. What I’m doing is important. What I plan to do in the future is this. But, once I got to Caltech I decided, okay, I’m not planning on that anymore but NSF does not care about that. Once you have proven that you are capable of thinking of a strong research idea and writing out a plan for it, once you get the award, they trust you will continue coming up with new research ideas that are not necessarily the same as the one you originally proposed.

Each year I write a quick paragraph or so updating the NSF on what I’ve done in the previous year. For my first year in Caltech, I wasn’t doing much research so for my update I told them I’ve been taking classes and started new projects. So now that I’m doing more research my updates are more research related. I’m working on ocean chemistry now. I’m still getting paid by the NSF, but it’s not related to my application at all. There is no expectation that it has to be.

What do you want to do with your degree?

For graduate school, I chose the California Institute of Technology. I’m getting my Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Engineering. I had several ideas that potentially interest me. Part of my research is doing ocean chemistry for CO2 capture. The idea is coming up with a way to take out CO2 out of the environment to combat global warming.

We are trying to start up a company based on the work we‘ve done to capture CO2 and put it into the ocean and store it there without changing the ocean chemistry. We are setting this up. We are exploring the possibility of a start-up company that works on this topic, which is a popular thing to do. There is also another possibility of working for government research labs or major companies. My approach so far is to see what opportunities come up.

How influential would you say that the Fulbright and the NSF have been to your development?  

The NSF is invaluable. If you are a student and you have an NSF you can work pretty much at any university. Any university would want you as a student and any professor will work with you because you are free. As soon as you say that you have an NSF in your application all doors are open to you and you can do whatever you want with whoever you want. There are different professors who might turn away a student because the reality of funding in the academic world. “I’d like to work with you but, I can’t pay you.” But with the NSF you are paid for 3 years, so if you have your own research ideas a professor would support you because you are free or you’ll hop onto their project and they’ll love that because you are free. So, the NSF allowed me to switch between professors without any problems at all.

The Fulbright was also valuable in making your application stand out more. I would consider the Fulbright as an invaluable life experience. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That was one of the best 10 months of my life. It was probably not a huge research contributor because I’m doing different research. But, it reinforced the idea that this was the field of study that I was interested in. I was developing my interests in environmental health safety kind of research.

What Tips would you share with a Student Contemplating the Fulbright or the NSF?

Go for it. It may be intimidating to apply to multiple scholarships, but with a small amount of extra work I was able to apply to multiple opportunities. You don’t have anything to lose by applying. The worst thing that can happen is that you write your strongest application yet. You can always use it to apply for other opportunities, including graduate school. If you get it, then you’ll have an amazing experience living and studying in another country. Also, with the NSF you can do whatever you want, research-wise. Some Fulbrighters don’t go to graduate school, so it is not a requirement. Still, being paid to live and work in another country can be an incredible experience.

What Tips can you Offer for the Application Process?

Regarding the personal statement, I would listen to you guys in the scholarship office. I struggle a lot with personal statements. I had to rewrite mine like 10 times. Writing personal statements is a different experience for me. It is not how I write.

The other parts of the process depend on the student. I was pragmatic about the whole thing. For example, I can only speak English; I want to research in environmental science; I want the best options to get in.  I looked at acceptance ratios and studied my chances to get in. I struggled between Norway and Sweden because both had interesting environmental programs, but I went with Norway because my chances to gain acceptance were higher. I knew that if I applied to Sweden and I didn’t get it, I would have kicked myself for missing a study abroad opportunity. If I didn’t go with the option that gave me the best chance, I would be very sad. Not everyone wants to be that pragmatic, though.  Some people have a dream: I want to go to place x, and this is why. To them I would say, go for your dream. My goal was to study abroad in an environmental field. I looked at Norway’s universities and the faculty there and looked for what was most interesting to me.

What about Professor’s Letters?

Plan ahead! Once I knew I wanted to pursue this, I started cultivating relations with professors more intentionally. Since I was working with professors doing research already, that was one letter. A summer before I had worked with another so that was another letter. For my third, I started going to my organic chemistry professor’s office hours. Talking to her more about what I wanted to do and explaining my back story. I told  her, I’m interested in doing this would you be willing to write a letter if we get to know each other and she agreed.

Thanks, SOP!

SOP’s help worked very nicely for me and my application process. Once I knew I wanted to apply it got easier. But it was intimidating to think about starting some of these applications because you always think you are not the best and you probably won’t get it so, why bother. I’m not sure how you overcome that hurdle. But I’m glad I did.

 

An exact copy of the rover currently on Mars is housed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL, associated with Caltech). We got a tour of the facilities and saw the rover as part of our program at Caltech.

If you would like to contact John for advice on completing a Fulbright in Norway or the NSF process, he can be reached by email: jnaviaux@caltech.edu