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MIT is the leader in NSF graduate grants

MIT graduate students have topped the nation in National Science Foundation research fellowships for 1999-2000, garnering 117 of 900 grants. The fellowship announcement was made earlier this month by the independent government agency, headquartered in Arlington, VA.

MIT students will receive $1.75 million in NSF grants over the coming academic year and a total of $5.26 million in the next five years. Trailing MIT in the number of grants were the University of California at Berkeley with 85, followed by Stanford with 83 and Harvard with 78.

"MIT, Stanford and Berkeley students have traditionally led the list," said Senior Associate Dean of Graduate Education Isaac M. Colbert. However, he added that in recent years, MIT students have been increasing their lead over traditional rivals.

The grants provide $15,000 a year for three years, and must be used within five years. During a so-called "reserve" year when the NSF fellow receives no stipend from the agency, he or she may be granted a paid assistantship in research or teaching or seek underwriting from other sources. Of MIT's 5,500 graduate students, about half are research associates, while an additional 700 have teaching assistantships, according to Dean Colbert.

"They're like a national championship," said graduate student Rich Carilli, an NSF research fellow. "It's one of the few fellowships I consistently see listed on professors' curricula vitae." What he likes best about the grants is that they go to the student, not the institution. That's why, as a senior at Cheyney (PA) University, he was able to "completely shift gears" from biology and medical school to engineering and MIT.

"The NSF fellowship allowed me to come into MIT with no background in electrical engineering and gave me the funding so I could catch up," Mr. Carilli said. "I still like biology and I like engineering. I hope that I can combine the two eventually." A third-year graduate student now, he is working on sensory payloads for robotic submarines at Parsons Laboratory.

To Kathleen Sienko, her 1998-99 NSF research fellowship means the chance of a lifetime to work with Russian cosmonauts. Ms. Sienko, a first-year graduate student in aeronautics and astronautics, was "ecstatic" when she got the NSF grant, because it also offers a travel stipend -- and that meant she could say yes to an invitation from Moscow's Institute of Biomedical Problems to continue her work there with the cosmonauts. She's investigating the human neurovestibular system (which affects balance and stability). The grant, she said, "was a real enabler."

The NSF graduate fellowship program has its roots in the NSF's 1950 charter. "Fellows are promising young mathematicians, scientists and engineers," said Susan Duby, NSF's graduate education division director. Eighteen former fellows have won Nobel Prizes, according to the NSF, and four of those have an MIT connection. They include two former MIT professors: Robert C. Merton (PhD 1970 and a faculty member from 1970-88), who was at Harvard when he won the Nobel prize in economics in 1997; and Dr. Steven Weinberg (Nobel in physics, 1979), who began his prize-winning work while at MIT from 1967-73 and continued it at Harvard. He is now at the University of Texas. An alumnus, Dr. Burton Richter (SB 1952, PhD), who shared the Nobel in physics in 1976, is now at Stanford. Thomas Cech, now at the University of Colorado, did postdoctoral work at MIT from 1975-78 and shared the 1989 Nobel prize in chemistry.

The five-year NSF grants are made directly to students on the basis of research proposals. At any point during graduate studies, a recipient can transfer to another institution and take the grant money along. However, "that does not happen very often with MIT recipients," Dean Colbert said.

For each NSF recipient, MIT and other institutions receive an annual cost-of-education allowance of $10,500 in lieu of all tuition and required fees. In 1999-2000 that will amount to $1.2 million a year for MIT. For the nation as a whole, the National Science Foundation invests about $3.3 billion a year in research and education in science and engineering through grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements with more than 2,000 US institutions.

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 28).

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