Andrew Paige Kayla Evens Destinee Aponte Paige Leary

By Abby Weingarten

One of the most competitive science-based fellowships in the nation has selected four New College alumni as recipients this year.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) awarded Paige Leary ’16, Destinee Aponte ’17, Kayla Evens ’17 and Andrew Paige ’18 lucrative stipends to conduct their respective research. The alums were among 2,076 scholars selected, but several thousands more applied.

“It’s a super competitive grant, so I’m very surprised I got it on the first try,” said Paige, who studied biology at New College, currently works at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and will attend graduate school at Columbia University in the fall. “New College definitely helped me get here; it was important for my growth, my ability to try new things, and to push myself in a direction I’m passionate about.”

Helping scientists pursue their passions is the aim of the GRFP. The program supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees. The GRFP is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, and NSF fellows are “crucial to maintaining and advancing the nation’s technological infrastructure and national security, as well as contributing to the economic well-being of society at large,” according to the program’s mission statement.

Past fellows have included United States Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, and numerous Nobel Prize winners. Each fellow receives a three-year annual stipend of $34,000; a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees (paid to the institution); opportunities for international research and professional development; and the freedom to conduct research at any accredited United States graduate education institution.

“I was really excited when I got the news about receiving the fellowship. And I couldn’t believe there were so many alums from New College who got it; that is really a lot per capita for a school its size,” said Evens, who studied environmental science at New College and is now in her second year at the University of Oregon’s Institute of Ecology and Evolution. “I’m very thankful I went to New College because what I learned there helped me prepare for writing this proposal.”

Preparing students and alumni to write such academic proposals are New College staff and faculty members like Duane Smith (assistant director of prestigious fellowships and scholarships in the Center for Career Engagement and Opportunity), and Amanda Fidalgo, Ph.D. (assistant professor of political science and a past GRFP recipient).

“It reflects well on the College that our students are able to put together successful applications for this particular competition. This is really one of the most prestigious national post-graduate awards that students can receive in the STEM and social science disciplines,” Smith said. “It’s not just that these applicants are interested in being engaged in STEM or social science research, but also that they’re able to present convincingly that their research will eventually benefit society.”

Evens, Paige, Aponte and Leary are all conducting socially beneficial research. Aponte was a biological psychology student at New College who is now studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Leary, who studied neurobiology as an undergraduate, is at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

“I’m thrilled about this fellowship because it’s going to allow me to continue my outreach efforts around the city in tandem with my neurodegeneration research, and help me get my foot in the door for teaching fellowships down the road,” said Leary, who is studying the development and degeneration of balance.

Aponte will be enrolling in Harvard University’s Ph.D. program in neuroscience this fall, furthering her study of the brain’s role in sensory perception.
“With the support of the NSF, I get to contribute to the field of neuroscience and use my position to represent identities historically excluded from the scientific community,” Aponte said.

Smith is hoping to recruit more scholars for the next round of GRFP applications, which has an October deadline (as well as for other opportunities like Fulbright and Marshall scholarships).

Fidalgo knows firsthand how important the GRFP fellowship is, having received one herself during graduate school as a political science student at Florida State University in 2011-12. She has gone out of her way to help students and alumni apply.

“The hardest part about writing something like this is boiling it down to two pages. I try to help applicants get the language right because every word matters,” Fidalgo said. “It’s geared toward students in STEM and social sciences (but I don’t know if a lot of social science scholars know it’s available to them, so I’m trying to raise awareness about that). The fellowship is very well-known in academic circles and, if you have one of these, it’s a really good signal.”

For Paige, the stipend will help him further his research on mosquito-spread viruses, which he is studying in Washington, D.C. with the NIH Postbac IRTA Program. He wrote his New College thesis on the Zika virus under the tutelage of Sandra Gilchrist, Ph.D. (professor of biology and marine science). He credits his ability to write an impressive, GRFP-worthy application to the staff of New College’s Writing Resource Center (specifically Student Writing Assistant Bliss Aruj, who also helped him with his graduate school application). His ultimate career goal is to work in public health with an organization like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO).

“New College has been super important to me. It was focused on learning for the sake of learning, without the looming threat of grades, and you had the flexibility to be creative—to design your own courses, tutorials and independent reading projects,” Paige said. “In applications, people want to see independent thinking and resilience, and that’s what I learned at New College.”
So did Evens. She studied with Emily Saarinen, Ph.D. (associate professor of biology and environmental studies at New College), and wrote her thesis on phytoplankton population dynamics in the West Antarctic peninsula. She ultimately wants a career in environmental regulations and STEM policy.

“Ever since being in grad school, I have been so happy I went to New College. I do a lot of hands-on research in the lab, but 80% of the work I do is reading and writing,” Evens said. “The curriculum at New College, and its huge emphasis on reading and writing, has made grad school (and applying for programs) so much easier. Getting this fellowship made me more thankful than ever that I went to New College.”

Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.

Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is a top-ranked public liberal arts college and the state’s Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in arts, humanities and sciences, a master’s degree program in applied data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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