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One-person office becomes largest NSF-GRFP advising program in academia

Editor's Note: This is the first of a three-part series on ASU’s new universitywide NSF-GRFP tracking and advising initiative — GRFP@ASU. This first article will focus on advising, another article will focus on tracking and a third article will profile an applicant who moves through the advising system, achieves the award and eventually becomes an adviser within the initiative.

Arizona State University's Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships has developed, piloted and implemented the most extensive one-on-one advising system among its peers for the U.S. government’s flagship STEM fellowship — the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF-GRFP).

"I had a great experience advising NSF-GRFP hopefuls as they submitted their applications. I think this mentoring program is a great resource, and something I wish I had when I applied for the award in grad school," said Suren Jayasuriya, faculty GRFP@ASU adviser and assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, and the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering.

The National Science Foundation is a United States government agency that supports fundamental research and education in all nonmedical STEM fields. It is a leading U.S. government funder of basic research in science and engineering at U.S. colleges and universities. 

ASU’s ties to the NSF are strong. Recently, the NSF ranked ASU at No. 7 (out of 760) for research expenditures for universities without a medical school. In September 2018, ASU received a $2.9 million grant from NSF’s ADVANCE Institutional Transformation award to support the development of pathways to leadership for STEM academics, particularly women and under-represented minorities. 

In December 2019, an ASU-led project was granted $3.5 million by the NSF to create platforms for the development of infrastructure systems for urban resilience. ASU’s head of research and innovation, Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, was also nominated by the president of the United States to lead the NSF.

ASU continues to strengthen its ties with the NSF through its new centralized Graduate Research Fellowship Program advising initiative and tracking system. Both were developed by Joshua Brooks who heads ASU’s Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships — jointly housed in the Graduate College and Barrett’s Office of National Scholarship Advisement.

The GRFP is the oldest fellowship program directly supporting graduate students in STEM fields. It provides an award of $138,000 over the course of a three-year period, in a combination of student stipend payments and Cost of Education allowance that is administered by ASU’s Graduate College. In addition, ASU’s Graduate College provides additional tuition and fees support, health insurance and a $750 annual allowance to further support the student’s research. Past fellows include Karen Uhlenbeck, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for math, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin and National Medal of Science winner Sandra Faber.

Historically, a disproportionate number of the GRFP’s recipients have been concentrated among a few elite institutions. According to some analyses of 2019’s recipients, the 10 schools with the most graduate student awardees amassed 31% of the available awards. Fourteen percent of awardees were concentrated among only three of those ten schools. Eight-six percent of awards were concentrated among R1 (very high research activity) institutions. 

“My thought was that Arizona State University is an R1 institution that already has strong ties to the NSF, so it’s well situated to attempt to make the GRFP academically more inclusive by systematically engaging in efforts to increase the representation of ASU students among GRFP recipients,” Brooks said. 

There are two significant hurdles to systematically increasing ASU’s representation within the GRFP: 

Logistics:  The ASU Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships is a one-person office. Yet, it’s responsible for advising the entirety of the largest U.S. R1 research university’s graduate student population for several prestigious fellowships, including the NSF-GRFP. Any solutions would have to work within existing budgetary and staffing constraints.  

Tracking: If a university cannot discern who or how many are applying, it cannot assess the ongoing effectiveness of any advising initiative that it might develop. However, the GRFP is so difficult to track that, except for universities who require all their STEM graduate students to apply (e.g., Stanford), no institution has been able to track which of their unawarded students actually applied in a given year — that is until this academic year. The Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships has developed and piloted a system to track ASU’s GRFP applicants — awarded and unawarded alike — for the most recent application cycle and will have that information complete by the end of the spring 2020 semester.  

Josh Brooks (head of the Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships) having lunch

Josh Brooks (left) heads the Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships.

In solving the logistical problem, Brooks developed the GRFP@ASU advising initiative. 

According to Brooks, “this operates like a well-tuned community-organizing movement that stretches across ASU’s STEM community.”

GRFP@ASU now has 20 official one-on-one GRFP advisers who themselves have won the GRFP in the past. The advisers are made up of both faculty at ASU who are GRFP alums and current NSF Graduate Research Fellows in attendance at ASU.

Those advisers engage in an in-depth, one-on-one advising process with student applicants over a period of weeks leading up the GRFP deadlines. This advising system can sustain up to 60 NSF-GRFP applicants currently, making it the largest in-depth GRFP advising system in the academe. 

"The NSF-GRFP has become extremely competitive and restricted to only one chance at applying, so for ASU students to be competitive. They need not only good research ideas but coaching and support in how to convincingly present these ideas," said KiKi Jenkins, professor in the School for the Future of Innovation. "ASU’s new NSF-GRFP advising system is a very promising and important initiative. By leveraging the experience and knowledge of successful GRFP recipients as coaches, they are giving ASU students across disciplines intensive one-on-one advising that could help diversify who receives these grants. I haven’t seen such an intensive, yet personalized program at any other university and if successful it could be a model program."

Prior to the establishment of the distinguished graduate fellowships program at the Graduate College, GRFP preparation was handled on an ad-hoc basis with no central point of contact for collaboration. One-on-one advising for the GRFP was handled primarily by the individual units.  Each unit alone can sustain relatively few GRFP applicants if they are going to provide in-depth quality advising. However, when faculty, fellows and applicants from all the STEM units combine and organize into a larger whole, they are able to sustain the entirety of ASU’s GRFP applicant population with in-depth, quality advising.

This ability to organize and mobilize both faculty and students across units into sustainable innovative initiatives is the core of Brooks’ success. He's reproducing this model with other large fellowship programs as well.

One of the faculty advisers in this new initiative is Suren Jayasuriya, NSF-GRFP alumnus and assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, and School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering.

"For many students, this is their first real experience where they aren't given a class assignment, aren't told what to work on under an external research, but instead are given the trust and confidence to be asked from the NSF, 'What is the most important research you want to do? How will it impact people and society? How will you enhance access to public research, and allow for new diverse perspectives and inclusion into the process?'" Jayasuriya said.

"I think it's the first time these students are asked these questions from something as abstract as a National Science Foundation," Jayasuriya continued. "I personally was a NSF-GRFP awardee ... the NSF-GRFP allowed me the courage to try something new and answer (these questions) in my own unique way. … The three students I met with were bright, motivated and above all else, had fresh ideas and diverse perspectives to add to the national conversation. Most of the time, my job was to show them how they knew the answers to the questions posed by the NSF-GRFP all along, and it was my job to just help them hone the communication of their message, their story. I think this advising program is a great addition to ASU since it doubles down on what the NSF is already realizing: You invest in students not necessarily because of what they have achieved, but because young minds are the best hope for our nation's scientific and technological progress."

In addition to faculty GRFP advisers like Jayasuriya, Brooks’ office also has Graduate Research Fellows presently on tenure at ASU who advise for the initiative. One of those advisers is NSF Gradate Research Fellow J.P. Nelson. Nelson won the award in 2019 after going through Brooks’ early-stage advising system — what would later become GRFP@ASU

"In large part, I really just try to do for my advisees what my friends, mentors and advisers did for me," Nelson said. "Josh (Brooks) particularly stressed statement writing when he first contacted me about the new program, and I’ve mostly worked with my three advisees for this cycle on that writing process — in terms of content, structure and style. I’ve tried to give them a sense of how I understand the rhetorical structure of an application, and the personal and research statements’ places therein; and to help them think through how they want to present their experiences, motivations, and aspirations through those statements.

"More prosaically, I also just read through drafts and give feedback," he continued. "Most of all, though, I try to present myself as a resource for those applicants — for whatever I’m worth. I have some understanding of the application process and some particular ideas about how to go about it, and I offer those up front. But I try to make clear that the ideas I emphasize derive from my own, individual experience — and, to some extent, from those who helped and informed me — and I encourage my advisees to focus our time together around their most pressing questions or concerns."

NSF-GRFP hopefuls can begin entering the GRFP@ASU initiative on a rolling basis starting in early summer 2020 and may continue to enroll through early October 2020.

ASU’s student applicants and potential GRFP advisers can participate in the GRFP@ASU advising system by contacting Joshua Brooks in the Office of Distinguished Graduate Fellowships.