Among universities across the nation, UC Berkeley has historically topped the list of National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows. This prestigious and competitive fellowship provides significant funding over one to three years, allowing students to pursue important research in fields ranging from cognitive neuroscience and bioengineering to public policy and particle physics. Since 2015, the university has produced 758 NSF Fellows.
The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines. The fellowship includes three years of financial support including an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution. Founded in 1951, the NSF GRFP is the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind. GRFP recipients often make life-long significant contributions to scientific innovation and learning. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners, former U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, Google founder, Sergey Brin and astronomer Amy Mainzer.
In March, the NSF announced the results of the 2021 GRFP competition. UC Berkeley again led with 85 awardees. Two of this year’s recipients are Kathleen Muloma, a recently admitted PhD student in astrochemistry, and mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate Yakira Mirabito.
Kathleen Muloma — Seeking the origins of life
Recently arrived at Berkeley’s College of Chemistry with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Hope College in Michigan, Kathleen Muloma (they/she) will be using their investigatory skills to attack the original question of how we got here, starting from the very beginning: the formation of complex organic molecules in the interstellar medium.
Born in Kenya, Muloma immigrated with their family to the United States as a child. Muloma’s interest in science began with an AP biology class in high school. A passion for chemistry was ignited almost by accident when, as a freshman at Hope College, Muloma misread the schedule ending up in the wrong chemistry class but with a professor who recognized and encouraged their talent. A quantum mechanics book, Now: The Physics of Time by Berkeley Professor Emeritus Richard Muller, set Muloma on the path to their current field of study — astrochemistry and stellar formation.
“As a researcher, I am drawn to projects that take high-level questions and break them down to specific molecular processes,” Muloma explained. During summer 2020, Muloma completed a fellowship at Princeton Simons Observatory — National Society for Black Physicists. As a member of the Bose isotopic cosmochemistry lab, Muloma compiled and analyzed computational isotopic data for pre-solar SiC dust grains in order to identify their stellar origins, providing insight into the solar system environment preceding its formation.
The NSF-Graduate Research fellowship will give Muloma the freedom to focus on research without the stressful burden of financing their education. Specifically, Muloma is hoping to answer questions around the role of the excited state of oxygen atoms in the formation of complex organic molecules, COMs. Understanding the chemistry that creates and degrades these molecules is integral to constraining the chemical inventories for prebiotic chemistry occurring during solar system formation.
The NSF fellowship will also allow Muloma to pursue her goal of becoming a mentor and teacher — investing in the next generation of astrochemists while creating a community of support for black and other underrepresented science students at Berkeley and in the greater STEM community. As an undergrad, Muloma co-founded WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering) at Hope College to help change the experiences of women of color in STEM. Since then, Muloma co-founded #BlackinChem and co-organized #BlackinAstro to celebrate and support scientists across the African diaspora.
“I envision a world where little black, brown, and queer children are drawn to scientific spaces because it is where fairness, passion and pushing against the status quo are not just tolerated but encouraged because these are the qualities that make a great scientist,” said Muloma.
Yakira Mirabito — Deciphering design bias
A second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Yakira Mirabito’s research focuses on decision-making, bias in engineering design and engineering education. She holds a B.S. (2018) in Materials Science and Engineering and a Design Certificate from Northwestern University.
As an avid freeskier, Mirabito was frustrated by the lack of thoughtful product design for women in the sports industry — the pervasive “shrink it and pink it” approach. Her user research resulted in the fabrication of a ski designed specifically to accommodate women’s unique morphology and led her to further her research focusing on equipment design. This included using integrated wearable sensors to monitor knee biomechanics for injury prevention and investigating how smart apparel can enhance physical therapy progress.
These explorations sparked a broader need to understand why designers and engineers make the decisions they do — the cognitive process underlying design decisions, how bias influences that and how it can be quantified to improve innovation and engineering performance. This is the current focus of Mirabito’s research — decision-making in engineering design.
Beyond engineering design, however, Mirabito is motivated to increase equity in higher education. As a first-generation queer Latina student, Mirabito understands the value of community. She currently leads the group FGLI Grads (First-Generation and Low-Income Graduate Students) — whose goal is to connect students to existing resources and build community. She also meets regularly with graduate diversity fellows and other marginalized student leaders to support each other and ensure progress toward goals.
Mirabito feels fortunate to have received the NSF GR Fellowship, acknowledging the community of support that enabled her proposal to rise to the top. It will allow her to not only pursue her research interests but also free up time to focus on her equity work. Ultimately, Mirabito envisions a position in academic leadership where she can make a significant impact.
Said Mirabito, “People might feel that higher education is quite slow to change. But higher education can also be some of the most progressive spaces. I’m really excited to see where universities are going to go because diversity, equity and inclusion is at the forefront of every institution. And if they’re not thinking about it, they ought to be.”
UC Berkeley offers an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship application workshop each fall where students can learn about and get help with the application process. To find out more about this fellowship, visit the NSF website: nsfgrfp.org