Jeffrey Lackmann, an MS student in Environmental and Conservation Sciences (ECS), started this academic year as a graduate research fellow for the National Science Foundation. The agency’s highly competitive Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) awards $34,000 for each of three years of graduate studies to about 2,500 outstanding U.S. students who show promise of becoming leaders in STEM and STEM education research. For winners like Jeffrey, this fellowship is often just the first in a line of distinguished accomplishments; in fact, 42 GRFP fellows have gone on to win Nobel Prizes and over 450 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, Jeffrey’s proposed research was top-notch and innovative; his personal statement traced his path through an English Literature BA degree and entomology labs to his master's program in ECS here at NDSU. Throughout the application process, Jeffrey worked closely with his advisor and took an 8-week Center for Writers course that helps students prepare their statements (see sidebar).
We briefly interviewed Jeffrey to hear in his own words about the experience winning this prestigious NSF fellowship.
1. How did you feel winning a GRFP fellowship?
More than anything else, it is validating. It’s someone looking at me and saying, "keep going, you’re on a good path." In that way, it makes me feel more at home in this community and more confident that I belong.
2. What does it mean for your future?
It has completely changed my trajectory. Prior to getting the award, I wasn’t sure if I would continue in school after my master’s. When I received it, the decision was made for me. I will continue not just because I am funded but because I feel more confident now that I am on a path that I want to be on.
3. What research did you propose?
I wanted to look at the microbiome inside of trees, specifically in the galleries, or living quarters, of a caterpillar that feeds on the heartwood of trees. The idea is that these caterpillars might be introducing microbes to the living tree that might not get there otherwise. Broadly speaking, knowing this would better help to understand the decay process of that tree once it dies and if this microbial community inside the tree impacts the way the tree decays. Specifically, within the field of ecology, the way in which wood decays and the many factors that go into that process are still being understood. This piece of research is just one more component of a larger understanding of what’s going on at a very small level that may have large impacts when extrapolated to scale.
4. What was the hardest part about writing the application?
Writing it was very isolating. You sit in your apartment and try to pull together all of the parts of yourself and tell yourself that you can win, all the while not knowing who else is working, applying, what stage they are at, how they are feeling about it, and so on. So many people apply, so many people go through the same process; yet, it is still somehow isolating. That is one of the challenges of writing. No one can do it but you, and in that way, it can be lonely. However, it is through this writing process that I was able to explore myself. When I came out on the other side of the process, I was a better person, a better writer, and a more grounded individual.
5. What value did my class and the CFW provide?
The class held me accountable and prepared me in terms of highlighting things I needed to do, boxes I needed to check off, and timelines I needed to stick to. It made all those particulars of the application feel less nebulous and vague. It also cut through some of the isolation and pushed me to write things to be read, critiqued, edited, and refined. Most of all, it made me follow through with the application and not give up when I felt daunted, which happened a lot
6. What else do you want to say about your application or winning the award?
There is a lot of luck involved in this process, and as easy as it is to sit back now and say, yeah I did this and that and earned it, I have to admit that in addition to the work I put in, I was lucky, very lucky. I am grateful for that fortune, but I also want to point out that there is so much value in doing a project like this aside from getting the award. It develops skills and habits, and it connects you with other people. I had completely forgotten about this application until someone emailed me and told me to check the list of winners. But even so, with or without the award, I was a more confident student and more grounded researcher after applying. I think it’s well worth it to apply, award or not.
Jeffrey started his second year of master's studies as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow.
Jeffrey 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.
Jeffrey’s advisor, Dr. Laura Aldrich-Wolfe, provided extensive feedback to ensure that his 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. Like all students in the class, Jeffrey met weekly with a CFW writing consultant, who encouraged revisions and provided honest feedback, helping shape a compelling story that convinced reviewers they were reading the application of a future leader in research.
In recent years, seven students who took the GRFP course won awards, and six won honorable mentions. At the end of October 2021, eight more students completed the 8-week course and submitted their applications to the National Science Foundation; we look forward to seeing more winners in the future!