BME on the Brain (Intro to #SfN14 Blogging)

(adapted from a previous post on Medium in the collection Collaborative Coverage of SfN 2014 by PLOS Neuro Community Bloggers)

I am where I am today, a neuroscience-oriented BME grad student, because of one of my father’s (and my) favorite movies: The Empire Strikes Back. (If you haven’t seen it, I’m about to say some spoilers, so skip this paragraph!) The struggle between good and evil resonates for any young child, but that’s not what caught my attention. After Luke escapes Darth Vader sans left hand, the close of the movie shows Luke having a prosthetic hand attached that looks and behaves exactly like his original hand. When I saw that, I said to myself, “I want to invent that someday”, and a biomedical engineer was born. Continue reading

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SPOTLIGHT: Elena Ferri, Chateaubriand Fellow

Elena Ferra photoElena Ferri is a graduate student in the Chemistry department, and is advised by Charles McKenna. They are working on a potential health gain by inhibiting a particular protein. In 2012, she was awarded the Chateaubriand Fellowship, which supports Ph.D. students who want to do research in France. She shared her fellowship experiences with me.

AF: Tell me about this fellowship, I haven’t heard of it before.

EF: The Chateaubriand Fellowship pays Ph.D. student researchers a stipend to work on a research project in France. I only applied for the STEM fellowship, since I do chemistry. But they also have fellowships for humanities students. You don’t have to be an American citizen to receive it, but you must be enrolled in an American university.

AF: How did you hear about this fellowship?

EF: My lab collaborates with a lab at Institut de Biologie Structurale. We had a Partner University Fund (PUF), which is a small grant for fostering exchanges between French and American labs. The PUF grant is mostly meant for travel, training, teaching and other expenses that help to foster the research. Students who want to go on extended work trips to France are strongly encouraged by PUF officials to apply for a stipend through fellowships like the Chateaubriand.

AF: What was it like applying for that fellowship?

EF: It was pretty easy actually. The entire application is online. It requires letters of recommendation, transcripts, a short description of your French project, and a longer description of your project in general. They don’t require any detailed timeline for your project. The whole thing was pretty straightforward.

AF: Had you gotten any fellowships before this?

EF: No, actually. It was my first funding application. I applied in my second year, and this had really been the first time I had to write about my work. I was able to learn how to convince others of the worth of my research.

AF: Where did you get your reference letters from?

EF: My advisor here wrote one, of course. But since I was already collaborating with French researchers, they were able to write me letters of reference as well.

AF: Aside from the obvious (that traveling to France is amazing!), how did you personally benefit from the Chateaubriand fellowship?

EF: Given the nature of my project, it was impossible for me to make progress on the work I was doing at USC without the French lab finishing their part first. The project was very new, and we didn’t have a lot of researchers on the French side to do the work. Having the fellowship enabled me to go there and do the work to keep the project moving. It was the most productive time of my graduate work so far.

SPOTLIGHT: Nada Ayad, Josephine de Karman Fellow

Nada Ayad is a graduate student of Comparative Literature, advised by Antonia Szabari. She is studying the literature of Egyptian revolutions of the last 100 years, including the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt. Nada has been awarded both the Fulbright and the Josephine de Karman fellowships.

AF: How many fellowships have you applied for?

NA: Aside from the USC fellowships that departments nominate students for, I applied for eight external fellowships. I didn’t win any of them the first time, but the second time I applied I was awarded the Fulbright and Josephine de Karman fellowships.

AF: Where did you travel with the Fulbright fellowship?

NA: I was slated to travel to Egypt for my project, but my travel time was after the Arab Spring revolution when things were unstable, so the Fulbright program in Egypt was suspended.

AF: What were the other 6 fellowships you applied for? How did you find out about all these fellowships?

NA: I learned about all the fellowships I applied for by Googling keywords like “dissertation completion fellowships” and “diversity fellowships”. I applied for the Woodrow Wilson fellowship, the Ford Dissertation Completion Fellowship, the Mellon ACLS, and diversity fellowships offered by The Consortium, the AAUW, and Five Colleges.

AF: That must have been overwhelming!

NA: It gets easier the more times you apply. The first rejections were rough; it’s very difficult to avoid taking it personally.

AF: How did you move past that?

NA: I kept getting more and more advice about my graduate work and my application, and I kept editing it. The more refined my application got, the more confident I became in my ideas. Then I was able to take rejections less personally. It’s a humbling process. There are lots of good projects out there, and there are lots of excellent applications, but if you are confident in your work and persevere in applying, eventually you will win something.

AF: How did you go about getting letters of reference?

NA: My advisors know my ideas and my process so they were good letter authors for me. I also asked a faculty member not in my department. That required a new write-up of my research, but the letter author was expecting my request and I knew they would say yes. Nobody I asked was surprised by my request because I knew them all personally before applying.

AF: Besides the self-confidence you described, what else did you gain from the application process itself?

NA: Writing fellowship applications is much different than writing academic publications. The points you want to make have to be much more clear-cut and obvious. It’s very straightforward, you don’t want any subtlety or ambiguity. “I’m applying for _____ because I want ______.” So you learn how to write to different audiences. Also, I was working on all these fellowships at the same time as I was writing chapters of my dissertation, so I had to be quite careful with how I prioritized my time. Even though I was describing the same project in all my applications, each fellowship required its own essays. It’s really time consuming writing those essays and going through multiple revisions, especially since it’s quite a different writing style, so I had to be careful to make sure I was both writing my dissertation and making progress on my fellowship applications.

AF: Do you think there was any qualitative difference in the applications you wrote that won fellowships?

NA: Mostly my self-confidence and amount of time invested, so the second round of applications I wrote were better than the first. My project was more developed and I had a specific argument. That specificity made a big difference. I also had more opportunity to take advantage of resources to help me write better applications. The Fulbright office had lots of winning applications on file to look through, and they arranged for professors to help me work my Fulbright application. The Graduate School also offers one-on-one review of your applications by humanities professors outside my field. The professors then sit with you and help you edit your application. It was quite scary to do that with someone you don’t know, but even though I didn’t win that particular fellowship, the process was extremely helpful. Going through the process of having the Graduate School and experts in the fellowships walk you through things helps demystify the application process and provides positive feedback and validation about the work that you’re doing.

AF: What did you gain through the fellowship you won?

NA: Graduate school can be a very arduous experience, especially with funding concerns and teaching taking up your time. It feels very luxurious to have peace of mind, to be able to dedicate my time to my research, and to have some time to breathe between drafts, as well as time to apply for jobs. The extra time has helped me understand my own writing process in a way I couldn’t achieve when I felt rushed.

AF: Do you have any specific advice about the fellowships you won?

NA: You have to know what is unique about yourself when you apply for fellowships. The fellowship offices USC has (the Graduate School, Fulbright, etc.) have lots of resources for you, such as winning fellowships, info sessions, and a “Graduate Students’ Advocate” (GSA) for fellowships. The Internet also has lots of great resources. Take advantage of all of these resources!!! Also, take advantage of anyone who says they’ll read your essays, particularly if they know your work.

SPOTLIGHT: Nada Ayad, Josephine de Karman Fellow

Nada Ayad is a graduate student of Comparative Literature, advised by Antonia Szabari. She is studying the literature of Egyptian revolutions of the last 100 years, including the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt. Nada has been awarded both the Fulbright and the Josephine de Karman fellowships.

AF: How many fellowships have you applied for?
NA: Aside from the USC fellowships that departments nominate students for, I applied for eight external fellowships. I didn’t win any of them the first time, but the second time I applied I was awarded the Fulbright and Josephine de Karman fellowships.

AF: Where did you travel with the Fulbright fellowship?
NA: I was slated to travel to Egypt for my project, but my travel time was after the Arab Spring revolution when things were unstable, so the Fulbright program in Egypt was suspended.

AF: What were the other 6 fellowships you applied for? How did you find out about all these fellowships?
NA: I learned about all the fellowships I applied for by Googling keywords like “dissertation completion fellowships” and “diversity fellowships”. I applied for the Woodrow Wilson fellowship, the Ford Dissertation Completion Fellowship, the Mellon ACLS, and diversity fellowships offered by The Consortium, the AAUW, and Five Colleges.

AF: That must have been overwhelming!
NA: It gets easier the more times you apply. The first rejections were rough; it’s very difficult to avoid taking it personally.

AF: How did you move past that?
NA: I kept getting more and more advice about my graduate work and my application, and I kept editing it. The more refined my application got, the more confident I became in my ideas. Then I was able to take rejections less personally. It’s a humbling process. There are lots of good projects out there, and there are lots of excellent applications, but if you are confident in your work and persevere in applying, eventually you will win something.

AF: How did you go about getting letters of reference?
NA: My advisors know my ideas and my process so they were good letter authors for me. I also asked a faculty member not in my department. That required a new write-up of my research, but the letter author was expecting my request and I knew they would say yes. Nobody I asked was surprised by my request because I knew them all personally before applying.

AF: Besides the self-confidence you described, what else did you gain from the application process itself?
NA: Writing fellowship applications is much different than writing academic publications. The points you want to make have to be much more clear-cut and obvious. It’s very straightforward, you don’t want any subtlety or ambiguity. “I’m applying for _____ because I want ______.” So you learn how to write to different audiences. Also, I was working on all these fellowships at the same time as I was writing chapters of my dissertation, so I had to be quite careful with how I prioritized my time. Even though I was describing the same project in all my applications, each fellowship required its own essays. It’s really time consuming writing those essays and going through multiple revisions, especially since it’s quite a different writing style, so I had to be careful to make sure I was both writing my dissertation and making progress on my fellowship applications.

AF: Do you think there was any qualitative difference in the applications you wrote that won fellowships?
NA: Mostly my self-confidence and amount of time invested, so the second round of applications I wrote were better than the first. My project was more developed and I had a specific argument. That specificity made a big difference. I also had more opportunity to take advantage of resources to help me write better applications. The Fulbright office had lots of winning applications on file to look through, and they arranged for professors to help me work my Fulbright application. The Graduate School also offers one-on-one review of your applications by humanities professors outside my field. The professors then sit with you and help you edit your application. It was quite scary to do that with someone you don’t know, but even though I didn’t win that particular fellowship, the process was extremely helpful. Going through the process of having the Graduate School and experts in the fellowships walk you through things helps demystify the application process and provides positive feedback and validation about the work that you’re doing.

AF: What did you gain through the fellowship you won?
NA: Graduate school can be a very arduous experience, especially with funding concerns and teaching taking up your time. It feels very luxurious to have peace of mind, to be able to dedicate my time to my research, and to have some time to breathe between drafts, as well as time to apply for jobs. The extra time has helped me understand my own writing process in a way I couldn’t achieve when I felt rushed.

AF: Do you have any specific advice about the fellowships you won?
NA: You have to know what is unique about yourself when you apply for fellowships. The fellowship offices USC has (the Graduate School, Fulbright, etc.) have lots of resources for you, such as winning fellowships, info sessions, and a “Graduate Students’ Advocate” (GSA) for fellowships. The Internet also has lots of great resources. Take advantage of all of these resources!!! Also, take advantage of anyone who says they’ll read your essays, particularly if they know your work.