Funding An International Education In Science: Tips From NSF and Fulbright Fellow Julian Reyes

Oct 03, 2012

During our presentation at Washington State University (WSU), we had the pleasure of meeting Julian Reyes, a Ph.D. student in WSU’s Civil and Environmental Engineering program. Julian has applied to ten fellowships as a student, winning six of them including Fulbright, DAAD and NSF fellowships. Julian has used fellowships to gain vital international experience and fund his education and research. In this article Julian shares insights and tips for applying to fellowships.

Julian Reyes, 2012-13 NSF IGERT NSPIRE Fellow, WSU
Julian Reyes, 2012-13 NSF IGERT NSPIRE Fellow, WSU

I grew up in the Seattle area and trekked over the Cascades to attend WSU in Pullman because it was literally the furthest I could get away from home, but still in state. But really, WSU offered me a full-ride scholarship I could not pass down. If I didn’t make that jump from western WA to eastern WA, I wouldn’t be where I am today. During my undergraduate years, I participated in the Honors College, Honors Student Advisory Council, played in the Cougar Marching Band (alto sax), and tutored at the Multicultural Student Services. I graduated with my B.S. in Civil Engineering in May 2010. From August 2011 to July 2012, I was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Bonn in Germany. It was an experience of a lifetime. I was able to combine research and travel. I believe it was more important for me to visit new places, meet new people, and experience new cultures to broaden my mind. Because of this, the Fulbright experience has greatly changed how I see the world and has given me a fresh new perspective on life.

1. What inspired you to apply to multiple science and engineering fellowships and what did you learn from the process?

When I first started graduate school, I was offered funding from a source other than a specific project of my advisor. Therefore, I was not necessarily bound to do research for a specific project, but instead was encouraged to work on something related or something that would help a particular project. During my first year as a graduate student, I learned of the many fellowship opportunities to fund research. Most of these required a research proposal, personal statement, and previous research experience statement. I applied to multiple science/engineering fellowships for three reasons: to (1) gain funding from a source independent of my advisor’s funding so that I could develop a project that was related to my own interests, (2) gain experience writing a research proposal, which is quite challenging, and develop my own research interests and plans, and (3) understand the process of applying to these fellowships so that I could assist the next generation of aspiring graduate students with the application process and encourage them to start their applications as a senior in college (rather than in the first year of a grad program). I was inspired to develop a research plan for my Ph.D., using the fellowship process as an instigator, while also gaining application experience that I could pass along to future grad students who may not be informed about these fellowships as I was.

Throughout the countless revisions to my essays and web-form filling process, I learned a variety of things. Most importantly, I learned the importance of following directions and writing to the guidelines. Similar to applying to a real National Science Foundation (NSF) request for proposal, you need to develop your research plan based on what is being requested. For example, you wouldn’t write an environmental research proposal under an NSF request in sociology. Essentially, I learned to shape my proposals and plans using a structure that was conveniently accessible to reviewers. If reviewers can easily read through essays following the different judging criteria, it makes their lives easier, since they are literally reading hundreds, maybe thousands, of essays.

Secondly, I learned that the fellowship awarding process is very subjective. Comparing my reviews between my first and second tries (first being unsuccessful and second being successful for NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), the quality and content of the reviews were very different and inconsistent across the board.

Third, I learned that most of these fellowships seek to fund the researcher, not the research. This means that they are looking for capable scientists who can write well, formulate a research plan, think critically, and communicate ideas in an accessible, concise and clear fashion.

2. Why did you add an international element to your education?

I added an international element to my education to give my degree another dimension. The WSU Honors College requires undergraduate students to take two years of a foreign language. I started out in 2nd year Spanish and found it too difficult and started in German 101. At first, I was overwhelmed by being immersed in a completely foreign language, but I later learned that this is the best way to learn a language. Stepping foot in that German 101 class was probably the most important point in my entire college career, since it has opened so many doors for me. Many of the topics covered in my Honors courses were framed within a global context. This made me think about my own education. Not only did I want to expand my academic horizons, but I wanted to expand my cultural ones as well. By going abroad and learning about how others live, work, communicate with each other, one can really think about his or her impact, not just locally, but regionally and globally. While English is becoming a dominant world language, I believe learning a 2nd language is critical in a more globalized economy.

As a graduate student, I’ve realized how important international collaboration and cross-cultural communication are. My research involves modeling of nitrogen in the environment. While applying for my Fulbright, I realized that nitrogen just doesn’t just affect me, my city, my state or my country; it is a global problem. While nitrogen is an abundant element in the atmosphere as an inert compound, humans have industrially fixed this nitrogen to a form more useful for fertilizer, which has helped sustain and feed a growing population. However, excess nitrogen has a variety of negative environmental impacts, such as acid rain, and poses a threat to our agricultural health and sustainability. As nitrogen is a global problem, a global solution is needed.

My research spans a variety of disciplines and has no political or cultural boundaries. Throughout my undergraduate education, I took courses that required me to think critically about problems and place them in a global or broad context. With this background, I traveled to Germany between my sophomore and junior years to combine a study abroad and research experience as an undergrad. I applied to the Fulbright program to conduct research abroad and work with other scientists to gain a broader, global perspective of my research. I hope that these experiences will help me continue evolving as a global-thinking researcher, trained to reach across disciplinary or social boundaries and stimulate interdisciplinary collaboration.

3. What tips would you give others seeking funding for graduate studies in science and engineering?

I would suggest that you start the fellowship search early and gain research experience as an undergrad, if graduate school is a goal.  For example, the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program is a great way to see if research and graduate level study  are right for you. In addition, working with a professor in his or her lab is a great way to get your feet wet in research. Once you’ve accomplished these things, you will have a good foundation for developing a research plan and getting a great letter of recommendation for these fellowships. It is important to note that you are not required to do what you propose in your research plan. Things happen – things change. As I mentioned, NSF and other funding agencies want to see that the people they are funding have the potential to be great scientists and leaders in their field. These types of people are usually able to communicate their research to a broad audience, as well as to their own in their field, as well as conduct sound research.

In addition to being a ProFellow, Julian is an avid runner. He started running while in graduate school in 2010 and completed his first marathon in April 2012 in Bonn, Germany, finishing in just 3 hours and 10 minutes. His other hobbies include baking delicious sweets and breads and eating chocolate. He considers himself a “Naschkatze” and has a love for Haribo and RitterSport Chocolates. To learn more about Julian and his research interests please visit his website. Julian also manages a resources page for graduate school applications and fellowships, which you can check out here.

© Victoria Johnson 2012, all rights reserved.