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Stanford Graduate Fellowships' first year: Recruiting the best

Jeffrey Koseff got on the phone as soon as he got the word: The department of civil and environmental engineering had won approval to offer the new Stanford Graduate Fellowships to seven of its top prospective doctoral students. As department chair, Koseff wanted to make sure they hadn't chosen another school. By nightfall, he had six under his wing.

At the same time last spring, over in electrical engineering, admissions committee chair Antony Fraser-Smith scored 21 fellows. He says they are "among the very best EE students in the world."

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You'd think it would be like rolling downhill for these Stanford departments to recruit the best. Ranked in the stratosphere for quality, they compete only with MIT, Caltech, Berkeley and a handful of other august peaks of excellence. But Koseff and Fraser-Smith say that until last year, the competition had been luring away top graduate student prospects with sweeter packages, more long-term support.

This year, they say, President Gerhard Casper's new Stanford Graduate Fellowships have trumped them all. Gradfellows.GIF

Jeffrey Koseff, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering, was able to offer new Stanford Graduate Fellowships to many of the department's top prospects. Among the students who received Stanford Graduate Fellowships and/or joint National Science Foundation/SGF awards are, from left, Jerome Lynch, Michael MacWilliams, Anna Michalak, Matt Brennan, Katherine Fetterer and Matthew Reidenbach. Campuswide, 122 fellows work in 29 fields.

"This program has given the biggest boost in morale to the faculty in the 25 years I've been here," said Robert Simoni, professor of biological sciences and co-chair of the committee on graduate admissions for the biological sciences and the medical school.

Why all the excitement?

Officially launched last April, the program will offer full support 100-plus doctoral students each year, 300 at a time when it is fully operational. Each will receive three years of tuition plus an annual stipend of $16,000, with no strings attached, no requirement that the student teach to earn a living or choose a professor as mentor based on the availability of grant money. Unique for an individual institution, Stanford's program is the nation's largest in science and engineering that does not depend on federal funds.

It is reportedly being closely watched by competing universities, not only because its frank aim is to attract the very best doctoral students to Stanford. Casper chose graduate student support as the best way to tackle the problem of uncertain government support for research. The grants will aid not only these 300 fellows, but the professors and research groups with whom they work.

Enthusiastic observers like Nobel Laureate Steve Chu say that the fellowships will boost the type of research most endangered in uncertain times -- inventive, interdisciplinary, inspired by the creative thinking of the students as well as their professors.

It was that potential that had Simoni grinning last week as he submitted nominations for the 1998-99 fellows. "This is the first truly tangible support for graduate education in many years," Simoni said. "What more could you ask than real money to support an enterprise that is central to our mission?"

With the first group of Stanford Graduate Fellows still working through their first-year classes, it is too soon to assess their progress. It already is clear, however, that the program will have an impact at Stanford, with variations among the participating departments and schools. Some of the effects will take years to play out, and not all are necessarily positive; some faculty are quietly on the lookout for signs that the fellows may need a little extra guidance to cope with the freedom that the grants provide. But the boost to students may turn out to be an even bigger boost to their mentors -- especially to young faculty.

How to stretch $410 million

Overall, 122 graduate students in science, engineering and the social sciences began their fellowships in the 1997-98 academic year. In addition, the program raises the stipend of students who come to Stanford with three-year National Science Foundation or similar grants -- nearly 100 this year. Of the students chosen as Stanford Graduate Fellows, 24 also earned national grants and are honored as joint fellows -- among them two of the civil engineers who received those calls from Koseff, so that his department gained eight fellows in all. The majority of the fellows are new recruits, but 28 are second-year graduate students recognized for their exceptional promise.

In the School of Engineering alone, this raises the number of students with three-year support from a handful to almost one-third of an average class of Ph.D.s.

It all began with a conversation between Casper and former Secretary of State George Shultz, about how vulnerable universities are to the vagaries of federal funding. At Shultz's urging, Casper began to envision a capital campaign to reduce some of that uncertainty. But raising a practical amount of money -- say, $200 million -- would create only enough endowment to yield $10 million a year, a drop in the bucket for a university that takes in $390 million a year in federal research grants. Casper turned to faculty and deans, who persuaded him that the biggest bang for that 10 million bucks would come from spending it on graduate students.

Why does support for students resonate so well with the faculty?

"This is an educational institution," explained Dean of Research Charles Kruger, who took charge of architecture for the fellowship program once the president and provost had launched the campaign to support it. "Funding graduate students puts our priorities exactly where they ought to be."

Engineering Dean John Hennessy said, "The best graduate students bring in the best faculty. Graduate students are the key to creativity. If you look at our 25 top admits, each one has the potential to hit the ball out of the park. You want those people to be Stanford alumni. You want to add to their value. And without the fun of working with them, some of my faculty would just go to industry."

Ripple effect for research

Support for a graduate student frees research grant money for other purposes. There's the hope that it also will allow the fellows, their mentors and their lab-mates to produce better, more boundary-pushing research.

Benjamin Vakoc, a second-year doctoral student in applied physics, is working with Professor Emeritus Gordon Kino on an underwater fiber-optic acoustic sensor. Vakoc said his fellowship grant means the Kino lab has some money for other purposes, perhaps to buy some extra experimental equipment or to support another student. That support in turn allows the lab to go beyond the specific needs of the company that funded the original research grant. "We have a little more freedom in the direction we choose for the research. It allows us to feel more comfortable when we go out on a limb," Vakoc said.

"For young faculty, the benefit of these grants is extraordinary," Simoni said. "They come here knowing we have very good students, but the students have to be supported from research grants at the time [the faculty members] are struggling to get a program going." A fellowship may allow a professor to take on extra students, to speed up the research that will earn the next round of grants. "Since our collective futures are in the hands of our young colleagues, I think the benefits to all of us from helping them are disproportionate," Simoni said.

For many faculty, the best part of the fellowship program is that it supports some of the most vulnerable aspects of research funding. "We don't have to worry so much about keeping body and soul together for a graduate student every year," said Gail Mahood, chair of geological and environmental sciences.

Tom Wasow, associate dean of research for graduate policy, noted that most doctoral students take four years or more to complete their degree, longer than the time scale for shifts in the federal budget. Many grants now are renewed every year or two. The fellowships mean that mentors and departments don't have to patch together jobs and other sources of funding to support a student until his or her research project is well established.

The burden of student support is heavier this year because of a federal ruling on tuition remission that requires faculty to pay more of their students' tuition out of their research grants. "The fellowships are not the only response we have to make to take care of the problem of tuition remission," Wasow said. "But the ruling brought home how vulnerable we are to changes in federal policy. It was clear that over the long haul, we were going to have to reduce our dependence on federal money."

So far, the fellowships only cover sciences, engineering and those parts of the social sciences that depend on federal grants for student support. The reason, Wasow explained, is that university funds already are used to support graduate students in the humanities, partly by hiring them to serve as TAs. "President Casper has said that he wants to start a campaign to raise fellowship money in the humanities as well," Wasow said. "I hope he follows up on that."

Variety of uses

Every school and department feels the influence of the fellowships in slightly different ways. For the Schools of Engineering and Earth Sciences and many departments in Humanities and Sciences, the fellowship gives students a new flexibility: They need not rush in the first year to tie themselves to a professor with solid research funding. A student can explore the idea of an interdisciplinary project working with more than one lab and more than one department, or can work with a mentor on a project that may need an extra year to prove its worth to a funding agency.

Some faculty are concerned that this flexibility may turn out to be a burden: that students given the freedom to choose may end up delaying the start of work that leads to a doctoral thesis. One department chair who asked not to be named said, "We looked at some students who have come in with national fellowships in the past. They do very well, but some of them seem not to do as brilliantly as you would expect."

In the School of Education, where all doctoral students receive support for fees and living expenses, Associate Dean Denis Phillips said some faculty also had expressed this concern. "We're working on how we can monitor the educational quality of what the students are doing," he said.

Joseph Goodman, senior associate dean of engineering, said he doubted the problem would turn out to be serious: "These are highly motivated people," he said. And Carl Rhodes, associate dean for graduate education in the School of Medicine, said they already offer this flexibility to all their students because almost all have three years of support from federal training grants. There is a method for directing their energies: All are required to take rotations in three different laboratories to learn hands-on which projects and which research groups appeal to them.

In medicine and education, fellows do not receive much different treatment from other students, but the impact of their grants is still significant, Rhodes and Phillips said. In addition to easing the impact of tuition remission and other fluctuations in Washington support, the fellowship frees funds for labs and other scholars. In the medical school there is an added plus to not having to depend on National Institutes of Health training grants: Those funds are restricted to U.S. citizens. "Some of the very best, most sought-after students are not citizens," Rhodes said.

Another advantage that could become a concern involves teaching assistantships (TAs). The Stanford Graduate Fellowships relieve students from the need to work as TAs. In some departments, this means that their most articulate graduate students (the ones who do well on application forms) will not be available to teach. It also could mean that students miss an experience they will need when they move into academic jobs on their own. Most departments say students will be required or strongly encouraged to work as TAs, either on a volunteer basis or by taking a break from fellowship support.

The initial design for the graduate fellows program was established by Kruger and a faculty steering committee. It was a job that could have been daunting, said committee member James Spudich, professor of biochemistry. Instead it turned out to be a cooperative venture, thanks to the leadership and "tremendous energy" that Kruger put into the project. "With Charles' leadership, the highest standards were held throughout the process," Spudich said. "Where there were clearly unique needs in one program compared to another, everyone said of course that makes intellectual sense and we should do it. Everyone enjoyed devoting the time because of the obvious impact it was going to have on the university."

The program is administered by Pat Cook of the office of the Dean of Research. She says it has put new work on the desks of staff throughout the departments. "I can't say enough about my enthusiastic colleagues," she said. "Everyone has been immediately helpful and responsive to requests. Everyone is working very hard to see that the fellowships do exactly what they were envisioned to do: attract the very best graduate students in the world to Stanford."

Competing for the best

So far, $125 million has been raised of the total $200 million goal that Casper set when he announced the graduate fellows program in 1996. The first $100 million was put up by a core group of donors including Robert Bass, chairman of the Board of Trustees, and John Morgridge, chairman of the board of Cisco Systems, who calls the donation "an investment in the economic future of Silicon Valley."

A recently announced $1.5 million gift from Chevron Corp. is the latest toward the second $100 million. Each $300,000 grant is matched with $300,000 from the founding endowment to support a named fellowship; for example, there will be five Chevron Fellows in engineering and earth sciences.

As a recruitment tool, the fellowship program chalked up solid successes in its first year: 56 percent of students who were offered the grants chose Stanford over MIT, Caltech, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon and other rivals. Those figures varied by department and school; in medicine, for example, the federal training grants have somewhat muted the competition between Stanford and other top guns like Harvard and the University of California-San Francisco. Engineering allocated nearly half the fellowships because of the number of its graduate students and the size of its dependence on federal grants has seen immediate recruitment results, though the yields varied by department, according to Goodman.

The results were a real morale-booster in departments like electrical engineering. "For the first time we knew our offers to the leading students were at least equal to those from any other institution," Fraser-Smith said in a letter to Casper praising the fellowships. Goodman heard that Stanford's electrical engineers won every student who was offered both a Stanford Graduate Fellowship and a package from Caltech. But for a few top-ranked departments, like computer science, the main competition seemed to come from a hot job market in industry.

Some observers say Casper's idea will be widely copied; others doubt that many institutions will be able to raise enough endowment to support equivalent programs. The University of Wisconsin already has announced a fundraising campaign to support an almost-identical fellowship, and faculty at the University of California-Los Angeles recently invited Simoni to talk with administrators about the Stanford fellowships.

Steven Maberry, one of the civil engineering fellows recruited by Koseff, has his own perspective on the program. Maberry is returning for a doctoral degree after years of work as an engineer and a teacher of construction engineering. He said he and his wife were ready to pack up for Purdue, where he'd been offered a teaching assistantship as support toward a degree, when he heard he'd been accepted at Stanford. Koseff phoned the next day. "He said they'd offer me $16,000 plus tuition and fees. I said, 'And what do you want me to do in return?' He said, 'We want you to come here and do good research.' I said, 'Well, I was planning to do that anyway.' But it took me two months to believe that it was for real."

Who are the new Fellows?

Nobel Laureate Steve Chu was a National Science Foundation Fellow when he started his career as a physics graduate student. The fellowship gave him a little leeway when things weren't going well in his work on a theory of star formation, he set up an experiment to measure the acoustics of rapid musical notes. "[That was when] I stopped being a theorist," he said. "I decided not to do what seemed important to do, or what appealed to my vanity. I decided to do something that I wanted to do . . . and I didn't know what I liked until I played around. This started my career as an experimentalist."

Chu chose this story to open his speech to the Stanford Graduate Fellows at a banquet held in their honor Jan. 22 because he wanted to drive home a point. The students are the recipients of a three-year grant that allows them the same degree of autonomy he once had over his doctoral research: the chance to choose any course of research and any faculty mentor he wanted. For Chu, the result was a career "following my nose" in experiments that led to a way to cool and trap atoms with lasers -- and to a Nobel Prize.

The lesson, he said, is that most great discoveries don't come from a grand design but from creative people testing their own limits, doing what they like to do. To the fellows, the next generation of discoverers, he said, "You are here making new knowledge. And you're teaching us."

Who are the people who inspire such confidence? "No doubt about it, these are extremely talented doctoral students," said Dean of Research Charles Kruger. Most had graduated from top universities. Nearly all scored above 90 percent in an admissions committee numerical index, which included grade-point averages and Graduate Record Examination scores ranked against all students taking those tests nationwide, he said. "Perhaps most extraordinary," Kruger said, "was the number of recommendation letters that contained remarks such as, 'Of all the students that I have recommended in my 25-year career for major national fellowships, she is one of the very best.'

"And not only are the fellows great on paper, when you read their applications," Kruger said. "They are great when you meet them personally."

The 122 fellows include 29 women; 47 have come from other countries, ranging from Canada to China, Croatia to the Philippines. They are poised to work in 29 fields, from economics to neuroscience to chemical engineering.

Many have significant undergraduate accomplishments behind them -- for example, Eva Zanzerkia of geophysics recently presented her Harvard work on Boston's earthquake risks at a major national scientific meeting. Some, like Steve Maberry of civil engineering, come to their doctoral studies after years of work in related fields: Maberry already has begun preliminary work for his thesis, to design a low-cost breathing system for deep ocean dives.

Here are some of the other fellows and the projects that currently attract them -- though some may change their final research direction as their interests evolve over the next year:

Tala de los Santos of developmental biology is studying mice to see how abnormal genes result in abnormal development.

Mark Engelhardt of biochemistry is studying enzymes to see how they stabilize a biochemical reaction -- and how that natural ability might be harnessed for practical purposes.

Eric Frew (Stanford M.S. '96) of aeronautics and astronautics is working on the Hummingbird Project, building a succession of robot helicopters that can fly and perform tasks autonomously -- that is, without remote controls.

Jeremy Hourigan of geological and environmental sciences explores the geological history of Eastern Russia, the territory once known as Siberia.

Stacie Lambert of immunology is looking at a new form of "natural killer" cells.

Matt Reidenbach of civil and environmental engineering has started on a project to study the turbulence in the water around coral reefs. Turbulent water distributes the food that corals depend on; Reidenbach says his project is "an opportunity to combine biology with fluid mechanics."

Karyn Rogers, a joint NSF/SGF fellow in geological and environmental sciences, plans to combine hydrogeology and geochemistry to probe the biochemical reactions that occur as water transports various substances through underground soils.

Jessica Ruvinsky of biological sciences will use a Rocky Mountain flowering plant named scarlet gilia to investigate each step in the process of evolution, from changes in genes to changes in the plant's performance at different altitudes -- changes that affect its ability, in turn, to pass on the altered genes.

Benjamin Vakoc of applied physics is working on a fiber-optic acoustic sensor that works underwater -- a likely replacement for more cumbersome electrical undersea listening devices.

Aaron Wheeler of chemistry will work with lasers to probe physical or biological processes.

Cari Johnson

"Geologists tend to talk with their hands," says Cari Johnson, cupping hers to show how the East Gobi Basin sits at the bottom of the map of Mongolia. Johnson is planning her third season of summer fieldwork in the deserts of Asia. The first summer, before she enrolled at Stanford in 1996, geology Professor Stephan Graham sent her along as a field assistant -- an assignment he often gives to see if his students are as ready as they imagine for the personal hardships and the bureaucratic hurdles that come with work in these ancient lands. GradFelCari.GIF

Cari Johnson

"It was much harder than I had anticipated," Johnson concedes. But the hardships also are alleviated by the pleasures of working in Mongolia, where, she says, the people are kind and open and the nomadic life of a geological field team is not much different from everyday living for the local residents.

Johnson's taste for the outdoor life began in her freshman year in high school when she arrived at a Salt Lake City school that emphasized outdoor education. She was fresh from Texas, "a Southern belle like you wouldn't believe." Her first camping trip convinced her that life could be lived without a curling iron. In high school, she trekked in the Utah wilderness and at Carleton College in Minnesota she joined geology field trips that convinced her that life is lived best with part of the year in the wild. "I realized that what I want to do is what geologists do," she says.

In Mongolia, Johnson has the opportunity to bring together her training and the research tools of a major university to try to find out how a major sedimentary basin was formed, when it was formed, and what oil and mineral deposits might lie there.

Her work requires a combination of tasks in the field and in the lab. In the field, she does detailed studies of rock outcroppings. "It's like looking at a cliff of rock for the first time again, starting with the simplest questions about how it is structured and what rocks are there." In the lab, she examines the composition of rock samples and age-dates them. Later this year, to add to what she's seen on the surface, she'll start work on a 1,000-foot core sample drilled in the Gobi Basin by an oil company.

Johnson and her fellow Asia researcher Jeremy Hourigan are second-year doctoral students, honored by the department of geological and environmental sciences for the quality of their work in their first year. She says the Stanford Graduate Fellowship came as "a complete surprise," both an honor and a gift.

During the school year, it means that teaching is no longer a financial necessity. "I loved being a TA last year, but this means another 10 to 12 hours a week for research," Johnson says. In the summer, her fellowship frees some of her adviser's grant money for other purposes -- ideally, a research assistant to join her in Mongolia. "This is a big project, and we only can do fieldwork for a few weeks each summer," Johnson says. "Another pair of eyes in the field will help."

Scott Hemphill

Scott Hemphill came to Stanford because he is fascinated by what he calls "the seams between the fields." He's intrigued, for example, by the ways a nation's laws shape the businesses that support its economy. He'd like to know how the culture of an industry like software evolves from the attitudes of its workforce and the personalities of a few dominant leaders. With his base in the department of economics, he hopes to tackle questions like these that require input from law, political science and business as well. GradFelGuy.GIF

Scott Hemphill

"Stanford is a good place to look at how institutions shape the decisions that people make," he says. "It is probably tops in the world in microeconomics. And there are scholars throughout the university who are trying to understand how incentives are shaped by legal and institutional constraint."

He had already accepted an offer to join the economics department when he heard he had earned a Stanford Graduate Fellowship. "I was ecstatic to hear about it," he says. "It provides some space to take chances in other fields -- to root around for concepts and conclusions that might be of broader interest."

His fellowship is named for the late Martin Lee Johnson AB '53, and supported by a donation from his brother, venture capitalist Franklin P. Johnson, B.S. '50. Hemphill says he's looking forward to meeting him. "Pitch Johnson has been instrumental in making Silicon Valley what it is today. I hope these fellowships might deepen the interaction between practitioners like him and academics," Hemphill says.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Hemphill took an equally broad course of study, focusing on international relations in a program taught by economists, political scientists, sociologists and philosophers. He later won a Fulbright Scholarship to earn a master's degree from the London School of Economics. However, the major influences on the direction of his curiosities have been his experiences overseas.

It started with a Boy Scout Jamboree in Australia, where he says he saw "a taste of international relations . . . enough to realize, for example, that Koreans were resentful at being mistaken for Japanese but not enough to know why." In college he led the Harvard Model Congress Europe, held in Luxembourg each year to give European high school students a taste of the democratic political process. Before starting on his master's degree, he worked for two years in an international strategy consulting firm that sent him to analyze business practices and conditions in Asia, South America and Europe.

"I got to thinking about issues I wanted to push further," he says. "I wanted to become a producer, not a consumer, of knowledge. There's an attraction to being an expert in something."

Hemphill grew up in Johnson City, Tenn., hiking and whitewater rafting country "between the Appalachian Trail and the Smoky Mountains National Park." The son of a physician and an elementary school teacher, he says he can envision himself as a teacher and scholar. "But the nice thing about an economics degree is there are a bunch of places you can take it."


By Janet Basu

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