Popularity of research awards grows for students

Applications increased this semester for GW’s two main internal undergraduate fellowships, a trend an administrator credited to the University’s broad push for research.

Paul Hoyt-O’Connor, director of the Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research, attributed the heightened interest in the George Gamow and the Luther Rice fellowships to the greater visibility of undergraduate research on campus, stemming in part from prioritization by top University administrators.

Hoyt-O’Connor estimated applications for each of the two undergraduate fellowships increased by 50 percent this year, although he said he was still processing final numbers.

Ten out of about 40 applicants typically receive the Gamow Fellowship, which is named for a former faculty member who developed the Big Bang theory, Hoyt-O’Connor said. Between 10 and 20 students annually receive the Luther Rice Collaborative Fellowship, which had also drawn about 40 applicants in past years.

Both programs require undergraduates to conduct original research under the guidance of a faculty member. Hoyt-O’Connor plans to announce this year’s recipients before classes end in April.

External awards – including the Fulbright program, which funds research abroad – have also seen more applicants this year, although government budget cuts may force the program to downsize.

Provost Steven Lerman said in October that the University would put a focus on expanding undergraduate research opportunities moving forward, committing an additional $100,000 this academic year. Total internal research funding doubled at the University between 2010 and 2011 leading up to the groundbreaking of the Science and Engineering Hall.

This year also marked the first time an alumnus was selected to receive a highly competitive Gates Cambridge Scholarship, an achievement for the University in the international fellowship realm, Hoyt-O’Connor said. The scholarship, founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, funds 90 graduate and doctoral students around the world to attend postgraduate programs at the University of Cambridge each year.

“This is a big deal. The Gates Scholarship is a premier scholarship,” Hoyt-O’Connor said.

Todd Tucker, a member of the Class of 2001, was selected in February from a pool of about 750 applicants to become one of 40 Gates Cambridge Scholars from the U.S. Beginning in October, he will pursue a Ph.D. in development studies at Cambridge University, where he earned a master’s in economic development before spending eight years working on U.S. trade policy.

“I’m excited to step back a little bit and return to an academic perspective,” Tucker said.

Tucker said his first stint at Cambridge helped guide his professional research at two District non-profits: the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen. He specializes in research on the developmental impact of international trade agreements and World Trade Organization activities.

He will continue his work as research director at Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division until this fall, when he will return to Cambridge.

Tucker “went through a very competitive selection process and at interview, he clearly demonstrated that he met the scholarship’s main criteria, which include not just academic brilliance, but an emphasis on social leadership,” Mandy Garner, a representative from the Cambridge Office of External Affairs and Communications.

The alumnus was first inspired to work toward social change by his own experience visiting Argentina as a child. Tucker joined his father, a missionary for the Southern Baptist Church Commission Board, on trips to Argentinean slums.

“I think it’s encouraging any time you’re involved in social justice work to see ideas you have get taken seriously by opinion leaders and decision makers. It’s sort of encouraging to see that democracy can actually work. It’s not always that the deck is stacked totally against you,” Tucker said.

Hoyt-O’Connor said interest in fellowships swelled due to word-of-mouth encouragement among professors, as well as in student communities.

The rise in applications follows last fall’s creation of an undergraduate research assistantship program by the University Honors Program, which Director Marie Frawley said she is very pleased with so far.

The program matches students with faculty researchers to facilitate relationships where “our students can provide assistance and, at the same time, benefit enormously from the experience.”

“I wanted to develop something distinctive to the Honors Program, in part to supplement our efforts to steer students toward already existing University resources, such as the Gamow and Luther Rice Awards,” Frawley said.

This post was updated on March 29, 2012 to reflect the following:
The Hatchet uploaded the incorrect photo caption to accompany this article’s photo. Also, due to misinformation from a source, The Hatchet incorrectly said Todd Tucker graduated with the Class of 2000.

Chelsea Radler contributed to this report.

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