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Student Interviews: Engineering

Hear about some of the experiences of your fellow Drexel students about their experiences applying for and undertaking fellowships.


Q&A with Sarah Gleeson on Graduate Research Fellowships

Sarah Gleeson is a PhD student in Materials Science and Engineering (PI: Li). In 2016, she was awarded both a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and a National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship (declined). Watch this video to learn more about her experience applying for these awards and hear her advice for future applicants!

Q&A with Sarah Gleeson on Taking a Year of Service

Sarah Gleeson served as an AmeriCorps volunteer for a year before coming to Drexel for graduate school. Watch this video to learn more about her experience and the importance of taking time for service!

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Video Update and Interview with Amanda Pentecost in South Korea

Interview with Boren and Whitaker Fellow, Amanda Pentecost

With the Whitaker Program coming to an end this year, we checked in with 2016-17 Whitaker Fellow, Amanda Pentecost, as she completes her fellowship in Seoul, South Korea. Along with the Whitaker Fellowship, Amanda also received the Boren Awards to conduct research with Dr. Kwangmeyung Kim at the Center for Theragnosis, housed in the Biomedical Research Institute at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) in Seoul, South Korea.

AmandaPentecostAmanda Pentecost (BS Materials Science & Engineering '13) is a dual PhD candidate in Materials Science & Engineering and MS student in Biomedical Engineering. Amanda’s dissertation research focuses on using theragnostic diamond nanoparticles to increase the effectiveness of a common anti-inflammatory drug, dexamethasone, in preventing fibrous capsule formation and isolation of an implanted biomaterial.


Drexel Fellowships Office (DFO): What motivated you to apply for Whitaker?

Amanda Pentecost (AP): Both of my PhD advisors, Dr. Yury Gogotsi (MSE, Drexel Nanomaterials Group) and Dr. Kara Spiller (BMES, Biomaterials and Regenerative Medicine Lab), are huge proponents of international collaborations, and really encourage students to pursue those experiences. In fact, Dr. Gogotsi even set up my third co-op, which allowed me to participate in Drexel's partnership with the Shanghai Advanced Research Institute in Shanghai, China. After having such an incredible experience there, I decided I wanted to go abroad again. Although I also applied both Fulbright and Boren fellowships, I was particularly motivated to apply for a Whitaker fellowship because I had several close friends who had received the award. They talked enthusiastically about their experiences, both in their abroad institutions and as members of the Whitaker community.

DFO: What are you currently working on in South Korea?

AP: I am currently working on the final aim of my PhD in which I am testing the efficacy of the nanoparticle-based drug delivery system that I designed in treating rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic inflammatory conditions. Since common anti-inflammatory drugs have side effects, such as immunosuppression, I aim to increase targeting of the drug to inflammatory cells by using nanoparticles. The Center for Theragnosis at the Korea Institute of Science &l Technology is well-known for their experience in animal studies and high-resolution live imaging techniques, which allow for real-time tracking of nanoparticles in mice.

DFO: How has the Whitaker program influenced your career path?

AP: Ever since my amazing co-op experience in Shanghai, I knew I wanted to pursue a career that combines interdisciplinary research and international engagement. Becoming a Whitaker fellow in Seoul has been instrumental in solidifying this desire, and has opened my eyes to the possibility of pursuing other international experiences post-graduation. In fact, I have already begun meeting with Ben in the Fellowships Office to discuss post-doctoral fellowship opportunities in Germany, which is where I hope my next adventure will be! In pursuing these international experiences, I hope to broaden my knowledge, not only of scientific techniques and analyses, but also of multiculturalism.

DFO: What did you learn from the application process?

AP: Like the NSF GRFP application process, the Whitaker application process provides excellent grant writing practice. During the process, I spent a lot of time organizing my thoughts and deciding how to best present them in a clear and effective way, such that laypeople could also understand the importance of my past and proposed research projects. Also, it challenged me to seriously reflect on my personal motivations and post-graduation plans. Often, this can be extremely overwhelming. In fact, to lessen the pressure on myself, I often joke that I don't know what to be when I grow up! However, writing personal statements has at least allowed me to identify my key passions, which I believe will lead me towards an appropriate career, be in it academia or industry.

DFO: Do you have any advice for other Drexel students to help them on their career path?

‚ÄčAP: One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give for anyone is to challenge yourself to go outside of your comfort zone. I had never lived abroad before I took the plunge and moved to Shanghai for 6 months. Not only was it an extremely rewarding experience, but it also opened up a world of other possibilities for me. If you asked me several years ago if I thought I would ever be speaking intermediate Korean and living in Korea for a year, I would've thought you were out of your mind. (I used to be scared of even taking the subway.) It's really important to take a chance and try different things, especially the things that seem the most difficult, because they can also be the most rewarding. While challenging yourself to live abroad is one example, this can also be extended to nearly any aspect of life - challenge yourself to apply for the scholarship/fellowship, even if you don't think you'll get it, to go skiing if you haven't before, or even to eat chicken feet (they're delicious!). 

About the Whitaker International Program
The Whitaker International Program sends U.S. biomedical engineering (or bioengineering) graduate students and PhDs overseas to undertake a self-designed project that will enhance their careers within the field. Along with supporting grant projects in an academic setting, the Whitaker International Program encourages grantees to engage in policy work and propose projects in an industry setting.

The Whitaker International program is closing as of December 2018. 2017 will be the last competition cycle. The Fellow and Scholar applications are due Tuesday, January 24 at 5:00pm.

About the Boren Award for International Study The Boren Awards, an initiative of the National Security Education Program (NSEP), fund undergraduate and graduate US citizens to study less commonly taught languages in world regions that are critical to U.S. strategic security interests and under-represented in study abroad.

The Boren Awards promote long term cultural and linguistic immersion in countries in Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America, and the Middle East. In exchange for funding, Boren awardees commit to working in the federal government for at least one year after graduation.

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Fellowship Graduation Awardee: Emily Buck

Emily Buck (Materials Science & Engineering, BS/MS ’14) has an outstanding track record of fellowships achievement:

She has been awarded the Goldwater Scholarship, the Whitaker Fellowship, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, and is an Alternate for the Fulbright. Impressive.

But this is not why we chose to honor Emily with our Graduation Award.

Instead, we invite you to peek behind those impressive achievements:

  • Emily applied for Goldwater, which recognized the nation’s outstanding undergraduates in STEM fields; she didn’t get it, but she was named Honorable Mention. She applied again the following year and got it!
  • Emily applied for the Fulbright to support a post-graduation research project at a lab in Switzerland, and was named an Alternate. She also applied for the Whitaker Fellowship to support that same work and got it!
  • Emily applied for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which supports three years of research-based graduate study, and she got it the first time! But because the graduate program she will be attending at McGill University is out of the US, she has to decline.

Given her track record, we are absolutely certain that she will apply for, and likely get, alternative awards to support her PhD.

And so, we give this award to Emily for her persistence and her dedication to excellence; to her high bar, and her even higher standards for herself; for her facility with seeking support and for her willingness to lend that support to others. These are the traits of outstanding Honors students and the qualities that, combined with her creative and sharp intelligence, will ensure her success in Switzerland, in Canada, and throughout her career.

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Video Interview with Mickey Whitzer (MEM, '12)

Watch this video interview with Mechanical Engineering graduate Mickey Whitzer. He talks about his experience applying for a Fulbright grant to Denmark, an American-Scandinavian Foundation (ASF) fellowship, and the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (CBYX).

He also participated in the the DAAD RISE program (Research Internships in Science and Engineering in Germany.

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Eric Davis Shares Lindau Experiences

Read below as Eric Davis (CBE, PhD, ’13) shares his experience attending the Meeting of the Nobel Laureates!  Eric was able to attend after receiving the Lindau Award, which provides a unique opportunity to attend the annual meeting of the Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany. Recipients attend the one-week conference featuring lectures, small group discussion, and social events with the Laureates and top science doctoral students from around the world.


If asked to summarize my experience during Nobel Laureates week in Lindau, Germany, only one thing keeps coming to my mind, simply amazing. A weeklong immersion in science with the most brilliant minds in the physics community, held on the beautiful, historic island of Lindau on Lake Constance, it was an experience of a lifetime. The best part of my experience in Lindau was the chance to interact with Nobel Laureates and students from around the world outside of the conference setting through daily lunches and nightly dinners and cultural events. There was a good balance of science during the day and events at night to experience the food and cultures of not only Germany and Bavaria, but also other host countries such as Singapore, where the president of Singapore was present. It was a great experience to meet some of these Laureates in person and not just watch them on the stage in the Grand Hall. You can always find a scientist’s paper and read about the work that won them a Nobel Prize, but it is an entirely different opportunity to ask them first hand how they think, not just about their scientific pursuits but also about research you may be doing at the time. The conference gave us the chance to participate in smaller, classroom style question and answer sessions with the Laureates, which at times could be as small as 10 or 15 students. I also had a wonderful time at the end of the conference when all of the Laureates and students took a boat across the lake to the island of Mainau where the host family lives. The island itself is a botanical garden with many exotic flowers and great landscape views of Lake Constance and the surrounding countryside. I again come back to just simply amazing. I am very grateful for the opportunity I was given and will forever remember all of my experiences in Lindau.

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NSF Graduate Research Fellow: Kelsey Bridget Hatzell

Kelsey Bridget Hatzell (Materials Science & Engineering, PhD, ’17, advisor: Prof. Yury Gogotsi) is funded through the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). Here is what she’s been up to during this academic year:

I had the opportunity to present my research on the Electrochemical Flow Capacitor, a new technology for grid energy storage, at the latest material research society meeting in San Francisco, CA. The Drexel Nanotechnology Institute’s multifaceted research group presented on an array of topics such as carbon aerogel supercapacitors, novel two-dimensional materials for battery applications, as well as cutting edge in-situ techniques to quantitatively describe fundamental transport properties in materials. Here a group of PhD students from DNI take a break from a long day of presentations to run/walk the golden gate bridge.

I also participated in the first ever Joint US-Africa Materials Initiative in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia this past December. The program brought together 25 PhD students from across Africa and 15 PhD students from the US to attend workshops and lectures by world renowned experts on material research areas for sustainable energy. Topics covered everything from thermoelectric energy conversion to materials for batteries and supercapacitors. The range of experts and backgrounds led to some very invigorating conversations and brainstorming sessions about the opportunity for future cross-continental research collaborations.

Creating lasting relationships among the US and African students/professors, as well as cultural immersion were two priorities of the workshop. There is truly nothing like an international football (soccer) match to get everyone in good spirits! 

Here, I am with some of my ‘teammates’: GG (Graduate Student Ethiopia), Veronica (PhD candidate UCLA/Post-Doc UT Austin), Prof. Green (UMich) and Kevin (Graduate Student Kenya). Team Yellow went on to win by an overwhelming margin 4-1!


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NSF Graduate Research Fellow: Alyssa Bellingham

Alyssa Bellingham (BS/PhD Electrical Engineering ’17) is funded through the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). Here is what she was up to in Europe:

Over the past year I spent nine months in Italy at Politecnico di Milano (PoliMi) completing coursework for my Master’s degree. In addition, I spent three months at  the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) of Spain, completing research for my thesis as part of the Engineers As Global Leaders for Energy Sustainability (EAGLES) dual degree program.

At UPM, I characterized a nanohole grating imprinted on a thin aluminum film as a refractive index biosensor. To the left is an image of me and Victor, one of the other graduate students. We are wearing our bunny suits in the clean room as we waited for our samples to finish drying.

During my year abroad, I got to travel all around Europe. I journeyed from Turkey to France, England, Belgium, and Germany. I took hundreds of pictures but one of my all-time favorites was the picture below which was taken in the garden at the Palace of Versailles located outside of Paris, France. I had such a great time during my study abroad experience whether I was working, studying or traveling.


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Justin Mathew: DAAD RISE Pro in Germany

Justin is a PhD student conducting diabetes related bio-mechanical research in Drexel’s vascular kinetics laboratory. Last summer, Justin spent six months in Freiburg, Germany through the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Research Internships for Science & Engineering (RISE) Program. He worked at ProQinase, a leading research facility in cancer research. There he learned in-depth about isolating protein cascade pathways that are involved in cancer.

Read more about Justin’s experience in Germany here.




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Bethany Shumaker: CBYX in Germany

Bethany Shumaker (Civil Engineering, BS’ 12) is spending a year in Germany through the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX). Here are some of the experiences she’s had:

The CBYX Program has allowed me to participate in both a study abroad and a co-op abroad experience over the course of the year. Additionally, CBYX includes some formal language training to help make an easy transition into day-to-day life in a new language.

I was placed in Dresden, Germany, a city of stunning baroque architecture with many national parks in the surrounding area. The most famous of which is the region known as the Saxon Switzerland, which crosses the border into the Czech Republic. I found myself there frequently on the weekends, and always at a new location. The land bridge in this photo is the largest natural sandstone arch in Europe, and was only an hour away from the city of Dresden.

In February I began my internship at Dr. Dittrich & Partner Hydro-Consult. This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have had the opportunity to work, in German, on many projects concerning hydrology, environmental protection, and water rights. While working in various wetland regions I have had the opportunity to see much of the German landscape that most tourists miss, such as the beautiful forests and mires of Pressel, where we were restoring drained wetlands through the construction of small dams and the removal of drainage ditches. In these photos, I am checking in on the construction of one of these dams, and measuring ground water levels.

CBYX has provided me with an opportunity not only to work and learn abroad, but to be fully immersed in the German culture and create relationships that will last a lifetime.





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Will Hilton: NSF East-Asia Pacific Summer Institute (EAPSI)

Will Hilton (Electrical and Computer Engineering) is spending the summer at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He is funded by the NSF East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes (EAPSI).

At Drexel, Will is a grad student in the Music Entertainment Technology lab (PI: Dr. Youngmoo Kim). His primary research interests are human-robot interaction and social telepresence. He worked with wheeled robots as an undergrad, but prefers the challenge of working with the bipedal Hubo robot at Drexel.

You can read about and see photos from his time in South Korea here!

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Fulbright Update from Korea: Nathan Taylor

Nathan is a Drexel PhD candidate in Mechanical Engineering and a 2014-2015 Fulbright scholar.  He proposes to use electrical plasma discharge to treat water contaminated with pollution from fuel extraction in conjunction with Kwangwoon University. He hopes to expand his expertise on water treatment techniques by utilizing Kwangwoon’s plasma science knowledge. Recently he sent us an update about his Fulbright experience. 

I arrived in Korea in the middle of October to start my 10 month research fellowship. Before applying to Fulbright, I had never been in Asia before which is in part what made it so exciting because there is almost unlimited things to learn and experience here.

My first impressions were primarily what you would expect when arriving in a place where you don’t speak the language but my host, Kwangwoon University, has provided me with wonderful support and been extremely welcoming. Every day, I work in the lab with the students here and have lunch and dinner with them in Korean restaurants. In case you were wondering, yes, I am now a chopsticks master. I took an intensive Korean language course for 2 months after arrival and now am pretty much only able to order in restaurants, but I consider this a small victory and slowly progress every day.

I am working at the Plasma Bioscience Research Center with a mix of Korean and some other international students from around Asia, as well as some visiting research students from Germany and Thailand that have come and gone. Before coming to Korea I had been conducting research at the Drexel Plasma Institute in the area of electric plasma in water. In Korea, I have been researching electric plasma discharge and its interaction with living cells – the specialty of the lab here. In February, I attended the Korean Vacuum Society Conference outside of Seoul and plan to attend the International Conference on Plasma Medicine in Japan in May.

With 6 months left, I plan to make more connections with Korean research labs and the scientific community, and continue to explore Seoul and other areas of the country. This includes potentially a bicycle ride from Seoul to Busan which is from one corner of the country to the other (it’s not a very big country).

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Video Interview and Fulbright Update from South Korea

Matt (Mechanical Engineering & Mechanics, BS’ 14, Honors) has been offered a study/research grant by the prestigious Fulbright US Student Program and was awarded the Critical Language Scholarship; both will take him to South Korea.

We sat down with him to chat about his Fulbright application experience, and you can watch his video below:

Matt will be joining the mission efforts of KAUSAT-5, a small spacecraft being designed and developed by the Space Systems Research Laboratory of Korea Aerospace University with the goal of mapping the Earth in the infrared spectrum.  Matt studied abroad in Denmark during his junior year, where he got a taste for international experience, and was also involved in the early development of Drexel’s first satellite, DragonSat-1, launched in November of 2013 under the mentorship of Dr. Jin Kang.

Earlier this week, the Fellowships Office called up Matt D’Arcy to find out how he’s doing as a Fulbright Student Scholar in South Korea. Prior to starting the Fulbright grant, Matt had spent a few months there as a Critical Language Scholar (CLS). And a good thing too: with his prior preparation plus the few months of immersion, he is able to get around easily, although he is continuing to learn and expand his vocabulary.

Currently, Matt is living in Seoul, where he shares an apartment with a housemate. It takes him about 10 minutes by train or walking to get to the Fulbright offices, popular nightlife areas, as well as the Space Systems Research Laboratory of Korea Aerospace University where he is conducting his Fulbright project. “The public transportation system is extremely efficient throughout the country,” he says, noting that Korea has designed smart phone apps specifically to sync with public transit activity, which is further aided by fast Wifi on-board (and dotted all over the country) that comes with monthly cell phone plans. This makes for a very technologically savvy population.

“You can literally press a button on your home screen and know exactly how long you have before the bus comes, which is great when it’s raining because you won’t have to wait around and get wet.” Due to the reliability of transportation, Matt has traveled quite a bit. Recently, he went on a farming trip to help some members of the Korean Peasants Association harvest their crops, and attended a conference in Jeju Island which he describes as, “Mountains, volcanoes, beautiful forests, and black-rock formations all over.”

These excursions provide welcome reprieves from the demanding, but exciting work, at the lab. Over the past few months, Matt’s been hunkering down and learning a lot of new things, for instance, “software for satellite simulations and math analysis, computer programming, and micro-controllers.” He was also part of the lab team that went to a facility at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) to test the behavior of a satellite when it is subjected to different vibrations, as would happen during a rocket launch.

Matt admits that, even as a Drexel alum, he struggled at first to adjust to the work culture at the lab. “Most of my colleagues live in the lab during the week, and the graduate students there often put in 18 hour days. I put my mattress pad there and if I stay late for a lab dinner, soccer, or crunch time for a project, I will stay put,” he tells us. Not surprisingly, it has been very important for him to establish a good balance between work and personal/social life – after all, he is also there as a cultural ambassador! Many colleagues have now become friends, and while lab work continues to be demanding, he stays on his gym routine, sets aside time to travel and explore, and hangs out with his Fulbright community regularly.

Fulbright offices vary widely from country to country, but the one in South Korea seems especially proactive about making sure the Scholars feel connected. A couple of weeks ago, they organized what Matt calls “a legit Thanksgiving” – turkey and all, which we imagined must have made him homesick. But Matt is loving it in Korea. He feels safe there, where people seem to look out for each other, and is especially enthusiastic about the food. Meals are quite inexpensive and healthy at his university, averaging about $1.50-$3.00 per meal, not to mention, “I’ve gotten so used to rice, if I don’t have rice in the morning it doesn’t feel right. These days, a meal without rice is a day without sunshine,” he grins.

So is there anything he does miss in the US? “Aside from family and friends of course...Reese’s peanut butter cups.”


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Fulbright Update from Chile: Sarah Lightfoot Vidal

Sarah graduated from Drexel University with a Bachelors and Masters degree in Materials Science and Engineering in 2013. Bringing together her love for Spanish-speaking countries and her focus in biomaterials and bio/synthetic, biomimetric polymer systems, she decided to apply for a Fulbright scholarship and is now carrying out her Fulbright grant in Chile to understand the applications of science and engineering in her host country.

Here in Concepción, Chile, my research is still centered on polymers with biological applications.  I work in the Centro de Investigación de Polímeros Avanzados (Center for Advanced Polymers Research) in collaboration with the Department of Chemistry here in the Universidad de Concepción.  My project, like science is oft to do, changed a bit upon arrival.  My presentation in Santiago to the Fulbright Commission was entitled “Utilizing bacteria to produce biological, environmentally-friendly polymers for medical applications”, wherein I discussed the development and use of polyhydroxyalkanoate-based systems for wound healings.  Now, I am using polyhydroxybutyrate (a class of polyhydroxyalkanoate, with possibilities for increasing chain flexibility depending on its chemistry) to create biodegradable nanoparticles which encapsulate natural polyphenols.

On a personal level, I have been deeply enjoying my experience here.  Working and living speaking another language has been an exciting, humbling, and at times frustrating experience for me.  Although it may seem trivial to some, developing a daily routine has been the most meaningful to my sense of independence.  I joined a gym for my health but also to meet new people and it has been a very welcome addition to my days.  (Zumba in South America is definitely something!)  My main advice to other students interested in applying to an international fellowship, is put your health first.

The picture on the left is of a visit to Lota, a former coal-mining town on the sea.  Part of the mine, named Chiflón del Diablo (The Devil’s Whistle), is underwater—at that point I was crawling through the tunnels.  Afterwards we went to Parque Isidora Cousiño (Parque de Lota), a very beautiful park full of indigenous Chilean flora overlooking the sea.  The next picture is of me in Cerro Santa Lucía, located in the center of Santiago de Chile.  Pedro de Valdivia, a Spanish conquistador, took the hill on December 13, 1541.  Now, it is full of lookouts, monuments, and unbelievable architecture.

The collage is of a few buildings I loved in Santiago (including the main fountain on Cerro Santa Lucía).  Finally, I recommend to any tourist of the city to visit el Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Museum of Memory and Human Rights).  It is incredibly emotional and educational and pays tribute to the victims of human rights violations during the Pinochet era.

I am incredibly proud to be representing Drexel during this journey of mine and hope to send a new update soon.  As always, I am happy to advise any student interested in pursuing their own adventure, just let me know.



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NSF GRFP Reflections with Adams Rackes

Adams Rackes (Architectural Engineering, BS/PhD, Honors) is 2014 recipient of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP) and a Fulbright Student Scholarship to Brazil. An Engineer-in-Training, his current research focuses on using machine learning and optimization techniques to improve the control of ventilation in commercial buildings, in order to both save energy and improve indoor air quality. Adams also holds a BA in History and Literature from Harvard University.

The NSF GRFP is one of the most prestigious fellowships in the US for STEM students. The program recently opened a new round of applications, with national deadlines from October 29 – November 4 depending on your field, and an optional campus deadline for faculty review arranged by the DFO, on October 16.

As someone who recently went through the process, we thought we’d check in with Adams to find out what it was like for him, and glean any insights he might have for this year’s applicants.

DFO: You have an interesting story because you didn’t start out in STEM. What was the path that led you to a BS/PhD in Architectural Engineering and eventually the NSF GRFP?
After my first undergraduate degree, I wanted to work with my hands. I became a welder and also bought and renovated a house that had essentially collapsed. Through these experiences I became interested in the elements of buildings, their design and operation, what makes them work well. I decided to pursue these interests full time as a career. I only intended to get my BS when I returned [to school] and then planned to become a practicing design engineer.

DFO: In your view, what makes for a competitive applicant to the NSF GRFP?
Good grades and good recommendations are necessary but not sufficient. The student also has to have a coherent project that seems achievable in three years, and she or he has to be able to sufficiently demonstrate why the project is important in a world of projects competing for funding. This big picture view is important.

The applicant also has to be able to explain his or her own trajectory in a way that is compelling and makes the proposed project seem like the logical, inevitable next step. Most likely the reviewers will not be experts in your field, but they will be scientists or researchers who know enough about science and engineering that they will be able to pick out aspects of the proposal that are underdeveloped.

Broader impacts are also extremely important. I would say you have to have done some type of science-related volunteering or mentoring. You might get through without having done so (or by really exaggerating whatever you have done), but not having any check in that box makes it very easy to throw your application out.

DFO: What advice would you give to fellow students applying for the NSF GRFP in terms of creating that coherent application?
You need to show that you will be a future leader, and that means being a future teacher and an engaged participant in your field. You have to have something in that Broader Impacts category, like a science-related volunteering activity, and use your personal statement to link it with your research into a coherent, whole portrait of a candidate who is totally committed to furthering her or his field through personal achievement, as well helping others and disseminating findings to peers and the general public.

DFO: How did the DFO work with you through the application process?
The DFO was very helpful in facilitating review by professors, whose comments were valuable. Rona [DFO Director] and Cindy [former Assistant Director] also offered very useful comments. The Drexel Writing Center helped me organize and focus my essays. Since this is a more technical application, though, it is probably most important to work closely with your faculty advisor.

DFO: Any other insight or encouragement you want to add that you think would be helpful for current applicants?
Give yourself time to write essays and plan on a lot of drafts. I would say I had at least ten drafts of each essay. Get as many reads as you can and incorporate all the advice you feel is worthwhile. Remember, you will have at least two and maybe up to four reviewers and all those people might have different hobby horses; the more people who read your essays in advance, the more likely you will be to cover all those angles.

If you don’t succeed, apply again, and take reviewers’ comments seriously. In the NSF world, most proposals do not get funded the first time, but many more do upon resubmission. Your GRFP application is no different. If you listen and respond to reviewers’ comments, there will be that many fewer reasons why a reviewer might rate you poorly when you apply the next year.

For more info on the NSF GRFP and a full schedule of events designed to help applicants, visit our website. Also see other Drexel students who’ve received the NSF GRFP.

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Getting to the "Best of You":

Interview with NSF Graduate Research Fellow, Paco Sangaiah

Karthik “Paco” Sangaiah, is a first year PhD student in Computer Engineering and a recent recipient of the three-year NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. His goal as a researcher is to develop cutting edge network-on-a-chip (NoC) designs that will cater to future exascale computing workloads in industry and the research community. In addition, Paco is a teaching assistant and mentor to undergraduate students.

DFO: What motivated you to apply for the NSF GRFP?
I saw that many influential scientists started out with NSF awards. Leaders in my field, or scientists I’d see on TV, I’d look through their CVs and find that for many of them, the NSF GRFP seemed to be the first major step that really kicked off their careers.

At first I was discouraged when I didn’t see many computer engineers win. This is a really dry field for people don’t understand it, but I thought I had a chance when I figured out how to match each of my experiences to a greater objective. My field is not curing cancer, or fusion energy, or creating next gen space rockets, which are really hot topics, but it makes those other fields work better. When the broad impact became clear – if it got read the way I was thinking it, I felt that I had a chance.

DFO: What was the application process like?
It was hell. Can I say that? First of all, you don’t realize how much work it takes when you first get into it. A few weeks into it you realize, “Wait, how do I write this personal statement?” especially after reading the essays of previous recipients, and you see how spot-on they are about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. It’s very hard to conceive how a handful of ideas can go into a “best-of-you” version on paper in that short amount of time, and to have those ideas so well formulated that someone who’s an expert in the field will agree with you.

I’d say the first two weeks are the worst though – creating a draft from nothing – that’s pretty hard. By the end of it, I had 10 drafts of the Personal Statement, and 13 of the Research Statement.

DFO: You were successful, but did you find that applying benefited you in other ways?
Having a polished research statement at the start of my graduate program really helped me define the objectives I wanted to accomplish toward my greater goals, and what those goals are. I find a lot of graduate students get into stuck in the mental limbo in the beginning – what to do, what profs to work with – so having all of that figured out was a great bonus.

When I was prepping to do one of the info sessions [with the DFO], I had just worked through a bunch of deadlines and finished doing a lot of nitty gritty stuff. Reading my personal statement reminded me why I’m pursuing what I’m pursuing, why I’m working so hard and am willing to make sacrifices more than perhaps some of my friends. To reflect back on your experiences, your goals, and trajectory forward, and knowing you’ve defined this for yourself, that’s really rewarding. And I felt that way even before I got accepted.

DFO: Did it help you to share your application with other people?
When I first started the process, I didn’t open up to anyone. The personal statement is so well, personal, and it’s essentially a boast about yourself, the best qualities that you have relative to everyone else, so you don’t really want to open yourself up to criticism.

You’re afraid that people will say, “That’s not a good idea,” or, “You shouldn’t write about that.” So I really had to get over that fear, which is what happens when you go to a workshop, because you get put on the spot. Then you realize, everyone’s in the same position!

Once you share your drafts with a couple of people, it really does become easier. The process becomes much more of a discussion, and you find that people you didn’t expect can help you figure out what you should include. For me one of those people was an old roommate – I happened to tell him about the essays and he reminded me about being a leader at Tau Beta Phi. I ended up writing about that role because it really connected all my experiences.

DFO: Who were your key supports during the application process?
My advisor, Dr. Baris Taskin, was super helpful throughout the entire process, though lots of people contributed different parts to how I crafted my essays. But he really gave me the space to focus on my application, and every day he’d ask me, “Ok, what do you have? I’ve got 20 minutes to look at it.” And he would read it and let me know what he liked, what wasn’t working, he’d suggest new ideas, or remind of experiences that I should include.

DFO: Now that you have the NSF GRFP, what is it like? What does it enable you to do that you couldn’t have done otherwise?

I have more time, flexibility, financial freedom, which is a real luxury for grad students. And that opens up more international opportunities, like the NSF GROW program, which I’ve been looking into.

I also have special access to certain resources, like the XSEDE Super Computing Cluster – which is a bunch of super computers based at different universities that are networked to each other. This is very useful for our field because we are always running tons of computations, hundreds of them at a time, as a matter of fact. You usually have to pay to use it, but I have free access, which I’m pretty excited about.

DFO: What’s your advice for this year’s applicants?
The number one thing: go bug the DFO folks. They’re much better than many fellowships offices, and everyone there really wants to help you. Also, use the Writing Center! They helped me cut down unnecessary details, which is hard because you value everything you’ve written so much and you don’t want to trim things. The DWC is really helpful for this, and they can also be a great sanity check in the process.

At the end of the reading your essays, a reader should know who you are, why you deserve this, what you’re working on and what’s your motivation – that’s what really matters.

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