Seven University students selected for prestigious graduate fellowship

Landon Marston

Roughly 3,000 students applied to the prestigious National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, only 189 received the award and seven of those attend the University. 

Graduate students from 48 universities around the country received the fellowship, which covers the fellows’ full tuition and fees, over $30,000 per year as a stipend and $1,000 annually for medical insurance. The award is good for three full years and is funded by the Department of Defense, with sponsorships from the air force, army and navy, among others. 

The DOD hand-picks the applicants who are most relevant to them. That is, the students’ research must match up to the DOD’s interests and specializations in order to receive the award. 

This year’s winners specialized in everything from mathematics and oceanography to chemical engineering. Four of the University’s NDSEG fellows spoke about receiving the award, what it means to them and how they will take advantage of their new connections.

Landon Marston, Ph.D. student in civil engineering

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    For Landon Marston, winning the NDSEG fellowship was “a sigh of relief.”

    “I’m maybe in a bit different situation than traditional students,” he said. “I’ve actually got my education, went out into the workforce for four and a half years and then got married in the process and had a child … then came back to school again.”

    With the burden of tuition and University fees off his chest, he has more leeway to focus on his research and his family.

    Marston was previously employed with the Army Corps of Engineers before coming to the University for his doctorate degree, so he decided that the NDSEG Fellowship would be right up his alley. 

    “For me at least, this was a little bit easier to write my proposal because I kind of knew what the Department of Defense was looking for,” he said.

    His research concentration is system design optimization, especially in the scope of water and food systems. This is based on IMPACT-WATER, a theoretical model stemming from the work of Ximing Cai, one of his advisers. Marston’s research seeks to connect global and local food and water approaches to develop more comprehensive models.

    “The piece of advice I would have (for those looking to apply to the NDSEG fellowship) is to get on the Department of Defense’s research website and kind of get a feel for what they’re interested in,” he said. “The chances aren’t great, but … pursue it; it’s definitely worth it.”

    Ian Robertson, Ph.D. student in chemistry

    The past two years, Ian Robertson applied to the National Science Foundation  Graduate Fellowship to no avail. It wasn’t until last year when he decided to apply to the more exclusive NDSEG Fellowship that he was rewarded for his perseverance. 

    “The three tiers of fellowship are the NSF, then there’s the NDSEG and then the Hertz Fellowship,” Robertson said. “The NDSEG has always been in my periphery … because a lot of the people who give advice on how to write fellowships give advice for all three.”

    The NDSEG Fellowship is comparable to the NSF Graduate Fellowship in the financial sense, Robertson said, although the former is more specialized in the realm of national defense. 

    “My current research is on creating rapidly stiffening materials,” Robertson said. “You just put (a stimulus — in this case, heat) into the system and that starts that sort of chain reaction and causes a wave of stiffening to take place. It transforms all the liquid in the channels into solid plastic.”

    Robertson was relieved to have a more flexible financial situation now that he is an NDSEG fellow, but even more so to remove that pay obligation to the University. 

    “Between tuition and fees and the stipend, that’s over $50,000 a year that would be coming out of a research grant for the University,” he said. “So over three years, that’s over $150,000 towards science rather than (paying for my education).”

    Bradley Nakamura, graduate student in chemistry

    “I first heard about the fellowship from a friend of mine who was also applying,” said Bradley Nakamura. “And then my adviser mentioned it. At that point it was definite that I was going to apply for it.”

    The NDSEG Fellowship deadline is in mid-December, so Nakamura applied in late fall of last year as a senior undergraduate. The decision came this past April, and this is his first school year as an NDSEG Fellow. 

    “The NDSEG is really interested in funding specific kinds of research, and … specific people doing it,” Nakamura said. “You want to come across as a person that is an investment both in your research and you as a scientist.”

    Nakamura’s research is based in antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA, commonly known as Staph, or VRE, a bacteria that targets the intestine.

    “Having that nod from our government, both them giving you the money, that’s big … just saying that you are an individual that we’re investing in,” he said. “It gives me a lot of mental security.”

    Above all, Nakamura feels honored to have been one of the 6.3 percent of applicants selected as NDSEG Fellows.

    “It comes at a time when you’re ending your first year, and a lot of things are coming together, and you’re very stressed out,” he said. “As it comes in April, it’s just an overwhelming affirmation, and that means more than the money.”

    Joseph Degol, Ph.D. student in computer science

    Like Robertson, Joseph Degol also applied to major fellowships for the past two years. This year, he can finally call himself an NDSEG Fellow. 

    Students are only eligible to apply for the NDSEG Fellowship for three years — their senior year as an undergraduate and the first two years of graduate school. Because this was Degol’s last chance, he figured he would go for it. 

    “It’s nice to have on your resume. … In my case more than anything, that was why I applied to it,” Degol said. 

    As a third year Ph.D. student in computer science, Degol’s research focuses on quadrotors, which are robots used to monitor construction sites of buildings, bridges, tunnels and other civic structures. 

    Prior to coming to Illinois for his Ph.D., he received his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and mathematics from Pennsylvania State University. 

    “Trying to get your Ph.D. has its ups and downs,” he said. “So it’s encouraging when you get a fellowship, like the NDSEG for example, particularly because you know well-known faculty, such as my own adviser, that have won this fellowship or similar fellowships.”

    Reema can be reached at [email protected].