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Dawn Levy, News Service (650) 725-1944; e-mail:

Students and mentors praise Stanford Graduate Fellowships

If Stanford Graduate Fellowship (SGF) recipients ever want a theme song, a good choice might be Timbuk3's "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades." And not only is the future bright. The present is pretty shiny too for these stellar graduate students in science and engineering who are free to choose research topics and mentors based on mutual interest rather than availability of funds truly a student's dream come true.

The SGF program supports valuable work that otherwise might fall through the funding cracks due to its novel or interdisciplinary nature. Research topics have ranged from WIMPS (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) to sprites (luminous glows that can accompany lightening), bionic eyes and microfabricated rocks to nature and nurture in the seep monkeyflower.

"In the best circumstances [before the SGF], you might have an idea, submit a proposal and, if a miracle occurs, six months or a year later you're funded," says James Harris, the James and Ellenor Chesebrough Professor of Electrical Engineering. He advises Xin Jiang, the Dwight Stanford Graduate Fellow and a second-year graduate student in applied physics, who focuses on quantum computing. "If you have a student supported on an SGF, you can start on something almost instantly. It avoids taking a year to convince somebody in government to fund the idea. By then you've already got some good results, and then you have a much better chance of getting some support for it."

"The program has been marvelous for students and for the faculty with whom the students work," says Charles Kruger, vice provost and dean of research and graduate policy. "It's been great for the university and has been a real example for other universities. I'd like to think we've helped not only the graduate students receiving SGFs at Stanford, but also other students at other universities where similar programs are catching on."

Funding support of Stanford's first students began in fall of 1997, and three classes already have benefited from the funds. One SGF student, Noam Sobel, already has received his doctorate, and closing in on him at the doctoral finish line are 331 students currently receiving funding.

One of those students is Gypsy Achong, the Kimball Stanford Graduate Fellow and a fourth-year civil and environmental engineering graduate student from Trinidad and Tobago. She is the first Stanford Graduate Fellow in the laboratory of microbiologist Alfred Spormann, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

"My adviser is a new professor, so money is always an issue in the lab," says Achong. With her fellowship, Achong says, "it's nice that he doesn't have to worry about getting funding for me."

Achong studies the molecular biology of an oxygen-shy microorganism that degrades toluene and xylene, two of the most water-soluble components in gasoline. Every gas station stores gasoline in underground tanks. But 25 percent of tanks leak, endangering groundwater and drinking water, according to an Environmental Protection Agency study. A common cleanup method is outgassing digging up the tanks and letting the fumes evaporate, a technique that "does not please the air pollution folks," Achong notes.

She is studying an alternative: the pollution-fighting abilities of a microorganism that thrives in the absence of oxygen and that "grows like crazy" when placed at sites contaminated with toluene and xylene. "These microorganisms use toluene and xylene the way we'd eat sugar and proteins. We oxidize foods, breathing in oxygen and producing energy and breathing out carbon dioxide and water. They use toluene and xylene as a carbon source to make their cells, to produce energy and grow."

"Environmentally, it's a very important reaction, and biochemically, it's a novel reaction," says Spormann. "We've stumbled on a gold mine."

What's more, Achong is looking at degradation of compounds that nature doesn't have a pathway to deal with. "I try to figure out what the genes are that make these pathways go and how the genes are turned on and off in response to environmental signals," she says.

Stanford Graduate Fellowships have been "an excellent recruitment tool" for attracting and retaining students like Achong who stand out academically, Spormann says. They are especially useful for supporting international students, who account for 30 percent of Stanford's graduate students. "You often have excellent international students who are not eligible for fellowships offered by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation," Spormann says. "All government fellowships require U.S. citizenship. It's a major limitation."

Achong points out that hers is a developing country. Support for graduate research is scarce. With the Stanford program, the best and the brightest can afford to pursue graduate studies here regardless of the research budgets of their homelands.

Without SGF money, students say, they would have to spend more time as teaching and research assistants worthwhile endeavors but ones that take time from students' own research projects. To receive their doctoral degrees, Stanford students already must teach two quarters.

Spormann calls the Stanford Graduate Fellowships "one of the most important breakthroughs in the way we provide funding for graduate education" because they provide maximal freedom for faculty and students to explore fields that might have a hard time getting funded due to their interdisciplinary nature.

Kruger agrees: "Students have freedom to switch advisers. Advisers have the flexibility to explore new areas."

Matthew Reidenbach, the Wells Family Stanford Graduate Fellow, is working toward his doctorate in civil and environmental engineering with adviser Jeffrey Koseff, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and senior associate dean in the School of Engineering. He is using his fellowship to investigate a novel area that bridges the disciplines of marine biology and fluid mechanics to study coral reef ecosystems.

Turbulence above coral reefs influences how organisms feed, how nutrients are distributed, how larvae disperse and other factors critical to dynamic ecosystems. To conduct this research, Reidenbach spends about five weeks a year at the Red Sea. His research collaborators include civil and environmental engineering Professors Stephen Monismith and Koseff at Stanford and marine biologist Amatzia Genin and a half-dozen other researchers from Hebrew University.

"In Matt's case, he was in the first class receiving SGFs," Koseff says. "Given their newness and the excitement, the SGFs had an influence on a lot of people coming to Stanford."

Has his fellowship given Reidenbach the chance to pursue opportunities he wouldn't have been able to otherwise?

"Definitely," he says. "This project, funded by a joint Israeli-U.S. science initiative, only covers support for research and travel. An SGF allowed me to do this project because it covers costs not covered by the research grant, namely tuition and living expenses. The SGF allowed me to get the project started and collect initial results to the point where it can then be used to obtain further funding after my SGF ends."


By Dawn Levy

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