​STEM Graduate Awarded Prestigious NSF Fellowship

April 15, 2019

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Vanessa Espinoza ’17 now joins Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, Google founder, Sergey Brin, and “Freakonomics” co-author, Steven Levitt as a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship. This program is the country’s oldest fellowship that directly supports graduate students in various STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.

She is one of two physics students at Rice University, and one of just 26 in the nation, to be awarded the fellowship for Physics & Astronomy – Condensed Matter Physics. As a Ph.D. candidate, the fellowship will allow Espinoza to focus on her work as a physical chemist to combine spectroscopy and single-walled carbon nanotubes under the direction of Chemistry Professor Dr. Bruce Weisman.

According to the NSF GRFP website, fellows share in the prestige and opportunities that become available when they are selected, including a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, opportunities for international research and professional development, and the freedom to conduct their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.

The fellowship is a highly sought-after award that has close to 20,000 applicants each year.

“I was one of the two students awarded this in the chemistry department at Rice,” Espinoza said. “For this fellowship, the NSF is looking to support students pursuing research-based masters and doctoral degrees. There are two components: broader impact and intellectual merit. This means that the reviewers care about the research you are proposing and your contributions to society, whether that be through research, outreach, or a combination of the two.”

With aspirations to one day teach at the university level, Espinoza saw the fellowship as a way to not only support her research, but as an important opportunity to learn how to convey her science effectively to a broader audience. The double physics and chemistry major wants to be a mentor to her future students and support them the way she was supported at TLU and now Rice.

“TLU prepared me in a number of ways for graduate school,” she said. “My initial opportunity to perform summer research as a first-year student was crucial in my development. This helped jump start all of the research opportunities that followed and helped me develop different skills that would allow me to convey science better in presentations and papers. Another huge component to this fellowship was the broader impacts section and it was at TLU and with Dr. Sauncy that I was able to learn about the importance of working with the community and the youth to help spread the beauty that is STEM. My time at TLU really solidified my desire to go to graduate school and my bigger plan of pursuing a professorship at a primarily undergraduate university following the completion of my Ph.D.”

TLU Physics Department Chair Dr. Toni Sauncy said this award is not only prestigious, but that it’s one of the most competitive funding sources available to graduate students in STEM fields.

“The competition in physics is especially rigorous,” Dr. Sauncy said. “This fellowship provides funding for nearly all expenses associated with graduate work, including stipend, so that the researchers do not have to teach for subsistence and can focus on their work. This fellowship is a full proposal that is rigorously reviewed and must be submitted within the first year and a half of graduate work. That means a student must be planning on writing this proposal during their very first semester of graduate school.”

Sauncy, a 1994 recipient of the award, said most students write a proposal in the hopes of just getting an honorable mention since that in itself is something one would include on a resume.

“Because this is an award that is submitted right after the baccalaureate preparation, the NSF makes a point in acknowledging the baccalaureate institution of every fellow on the awards page,” she said “TLU will always be noted as the place that Ms. Espinoza got her start as a scientist and this is something the university should be very proud of. This puts her on a list of very important people in science, including most of the American science Nobel Prize winners.”

About the NSF GRFP

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) helps ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions.

As the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the GRFP has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. The reputation of the GRFP follows recipients and often helps them become life-long leaders that contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching


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