Physics Student Wins Prestigious Fellowship

Left to right: Dr. Claudia Tomany (Graduate School Dean), Brianna Santangelo (GRFP Winner), and Enrico Sassi (Center for Writers Director)


Brianna Santangelo, a PhD student in Physics, started this academic year as a graduate research fellow of the National Science Foundation. The agency’s highly competitive Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) awards $102,000  to about 1,600 outstanding U.S. students who show promise of becoming leaders in STEM and STEM education research. For winners like Brianna, this fellowship is often just the first in a line of distinguished accomplishments: in fact, about 1 in 14 Nobel Prize winners in the sciences have been GRFP fellows, and over 450 fellows have become members of the National Academy of Sciences.

To win this fellowship, early-career graduate students or undergraduate seniors must submit an application that includes a 2-page research proposal and a 3-page personal statement. Like all winners, Brianna’s proposed research was top-notch and innovative; likewise, her personal statement presented a passionate, dedicated researcher who will benefit her discipline and bring value to society. To help her through the application process, Brianna worked closely with her advisor and took an 8-week Center for Writers course that helps students prepare their statements (see sidebar).

Brianna’s research is in physics education: She applies cognitive psychology to student reasoning and is investigating Dual Process Theory, which posits that humans respond to problems in two ways. The first is an automatic, unconscious process, like a “gut reaction.” The second is a slow, deliberate process, involving critical examination. When confronted with a problem, students respond intuitively using Process 1; only afterwards does the analytical Process 2 have a chance to intervene, though it does not always do so. Two forces battle for Process 2’s engagement: the Feeling of Rightness the student has about their gut reaction and Cognitive Reflection, a critical skill that overrides intuition.

“I’m hoping to prove that the higher [the Feeling of Rightness], the less likely Process 2 is to engage,” says Brianna. In addition, she predicts that “students with higher [Cognitive Reflection] skills will be more likely to recognize intuitive thoughts and to engage Process 2 productively.” Her research proposal sets forth a sequence of cognitive and physics tests to test the above hypotheses. Ultimately, knowing how to engage analytical Process 2 will decrease the number of unexamined responses and assure better learning.

Center for Writers GRFP Course

Brianna took a 1-credit, 8-week course taught by CFW director, Enrico Sassi. The course helps NDSU seniors and early graduate students with their GRFP applications: Enrico coordinates visits from past winners, organizes a Q&A panel with NDSU faculty who have reviewed past GRFP applications, provides practice in analyzing past personal and research statements, and sets up mock external reviews that provide a comprehensive review of the draft applications.

Brianna’s advisor, Dr. Mila Kryjevskaia, provided a sounding board to help ensure Brianna’s research proposal was both sound and innovative—a critical requirement for winning the fellowship. Perhaps harder to write for most budding scientists, though, is the personal statement, and Brianna says that working with a CFW writing consultant was particularly helpful. “She helped getting it all together,” says Brianna about her consultant, who helped her prioritize and connect her key life experiences into a compelling story that convinced reviewers they were reading the application of a future leader in research.

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