National Science Foundation director visits UC Santa Barbara

by Graduate Division Staff
Thursday, October 31, 2019 10:55 AM

UC Santa Barbara leaders, researchers, and fellowship awardees welcomed National Science Foundation (NSF) Director France Córdova to campus today. Dr. Córdova toured our university’s research facilities and met with graduate students who have received the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship award at a special luncheon hosted by Graduate Dean Carol Genetti.

Dean Carol Genetti“It is a great honor for the campus to have a visit from the highly esteemed Director of the National Science Foundation,” said Genetti. “The Honorable Dr. Córdova has an extraordinary record of accomplishment and has made a tremendous impact on the entire scientific enterprise in the United States and beyond. Yet it is good to remember that she was once a graduate student too, and that it all started with a doctorate. I am sure many students will see in her a superb role model and will be inspired to use their own educations as a tool for positive change.”

The NSF is an $8.1 billion independent federal agency that is the only government agency charged with advancing all fields of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and STEM education. Last year, the NSF awarded UC Santa Barbara researchers over $49 million in grants to departments across the university as well as laboratories and programs like the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, and the Graduate Division, which is leading the AGEP California Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) Alliance to Increase Underrepresented Minority Faculty in STEM.

Nearly $4 million in 2018 went to support graduate student research at UC Santa Barbara through the NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The program is the country’s oldest fellowship program that directly supports students pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. Since 1952, over 50,000 Graduate Research Fellowships have been awarded nationally, with 42 Fellows going on to receive the Nobel Prize, and over 450 achieving membership at the National Academy of Sciences.

Associate Dean Mary HegartyCurrently, 127 UCSB graduate students are funded by the NSF GRFP. Fellows benefit from a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with 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 their own research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education they choose.

"NSF is an important funder of graduate education at UCSB through the GRFP, the many grants across campus that fund our students as graduate student researchers, and in providing grant support for Graduate Division initiatives related to interdisciplinary education, professional development, and diversity,” said Dr. Mary Hegarty, who serves as associate dean at the Graduate Division and leads research at the NSF-funded UCSB Spatial Thinking Lab in the Psychological & Brain Sciences Department.

Meeting the Fellows

At a special Faculty Club luncheon hosted by Graduate Dean Genetti, Córdova met with NSF GRFP awardees Ana Sofia Guerra, Trevor Auldridge, Mayela Aldaz Cervantes, Vinnie Wu, Luke Rosedahl, and Heather Prentice Walz.

“I was fortunate to have found financial support for my research through the UCSB Doctoral Scholars Fellowship and NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship,” said Guerra, a Ph.D. student in the McCauley and Caselle labs in the Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology Department. “I conduct most of my fieldwork on Pacific coral reefs where I study the effects of fishing on fish schooling behavior and the ecological importance of schooling fish to the ecosystems they inhabit.”

Guerra, Wu, and Rosedahl also participated in this year’s UCSB Grad Slam, an award-winning campus-wide competition for the best three-minute talk by a graduate student. Vinnie Wu is a graduate student in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. Wu’s graduate research is focused on social psychology, an interest fueled by her personal experiences. “I actually started off as a high school dropout,” said Wu. “So one of the things that has always interested me is motivation. Through the experience of working through my undergraduate years — and eventually doing graduate school at UCSB — I am passionate about researching motivation and intergroup relations.”

Dynamical Neuroscience Ph.D. student Luke Rosedahl works in the labs of Drs. Greg Ashby and Miguel Eckstein, where he studies the neural systems behind human category learning and vision. “Broadly I am interested in leveraging recent advances in machine learning, computational modeling, computing resources, and the increased accuracy of brain imaging/data collection schemes to pursue a deeper understanding of how the brain functions.”

Born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Mayela Aldaz-Cervantes earned her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas, El Paso before going on to pursue her Ph.D. in Materials at UC Santa Barbara. She was a participant in the 2013 MIT Summer Research Program. “I have been involved with research in both powder metallurgy and tissue engineering throughout my undergraduate career,” she said. At UCSB, she currently works as a researcher at Dr. Carlos G. Levi’s laboratory, and won second place in the UCSB Art of Science competition with her entry “Everyday I Have the Oxide Blues” featuring metal crystals imaged through an electron microscope.

Prior to pursuing his doctorate in Sociology at UCSB, Trevor Auldridge worked at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University and in the City Year Americorps Program in Northern California. “I am excited to meet Dr. Córdova to learn about the '10 Big Ideas’ they are working on at the federal level, specifically the NSF INCLUDES program,” he said. “I received the GRFP while I was entering my Ph.D. program, and it has helped me in numerous ways: I learned many of the skills necessary for securing large research grants — skills I hope to further cultivate with non-profits and other community organizations that rely on foundations to fund their work. It provided me more personal agency, as I was able to choose the Ph.D. program that best fit my interests as opposed to what best fit my wallet. Many Ph.D. ethnography students can only afford to research near their universities. Because I am interested in studying with rural communities across the United States, the GRFP allows me to place fewer limits on the places in which I hope to build community and conduct research.”

Heather Prentice-Walz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology who also serves as the UCSB Graduate Student Association’s Vice President of Internal Affairs. Her work as a sociocultural anthropologist focuses on the ways in which international nongovernmental organizations impact local food systems in rural Haiti. “I feel honored to have the opportunity to meet NSF Director Dr. France Córdova, whose career is a testament to the value placed on the broader public impacts of academic research,” she said. “I am thrilled that the NSF supports my own research, which is an ethnographic study of the ways in which local communities in rural Haiti understand and interact with international aid organizations in a post-disaster context. My project, which focuses on the food and agriculture sector, and centers local perceptions of the relationship between international aid organizations and food systems, would not be possible without the support provided by the NSF’s GRFP.”


NSF Director France C√≥rdovaThe Honorable France A. Córdova is an astrophysicist and the 14th director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Córdova was nominated to this position by the President of the United States in 2013 and subsequently confirmed by the U.S. Senate. NSF is a $8.1B independent federal agency; it is the only government agency charged with advancing all fields of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and STEM education.

Córdova has been a leader in science, engineering and education for more than three decades. She has a distinguished career in both higher education and government; her contributions in multi-spectrum research on x-ray and gamma ray sources and space-borne instrumentation have made her an internationally recognized astrophysicist.

She is president emerita of Purdue University, chancellor emerita of the University of California, Riverside and former vice chancellor for research at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During her tenure at UCSB, she initiated a "Research Across Disciplines" program that funded and encouraged both interdisciplinary and "blue sky" projects.

She also served as NASA's chief scientist and is a recipient of the agency's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal. Prior to joining NASA, Córdova was the astronomy department head at Penn State and deputy group leader at Los Alamos National Lab.

She received her B.A. from Stanford University and her Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology.