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It was not hard for a good time to be had by all. The atmosphere was convivial, the mood was celebratory, there were plenty of people to talk to, and — always a priority for grad students — there was food. And not only that, the food was good.

The occasion was the Berkeley Distinguished Graduate Fellows Reception, an annual event, held this year in the banner-festooned auditorium of International House (well known as one of the largest, most diverse, residential global communities in the world).

The event was held February 29 — Leap Day, which only exists every four years to correct drift in our imperfect calendars. (Eleven days later we would adjust our timepieces for Daylight Savings Time, removing an hour instead of adding a day.)

Anthropology professor Rosemary Joyce, acting in her role as associate dean of the Graduate Division, welcomed a throng of several hundred — students, faculty, donors, and a smattering of staff — congratulating the fellowship recipients for being the culmination of a highly rigorous selection process that began with the 38,000 applications Berkeley’s graduate programs receive each year (15,000 to the doctoral programs), for fewer than 3,000 openings. Of these, hundreds are nominated for fellowships, and a far smaller number are actually chosen to receive awards. “As someone who’s familiar with the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which are extremely selective,” said Joyce, “I can say this is one of the most selective processes you will ever have gone through in your lives.”

Along with the competitive privately-funded fellowships, she noted, “Berkeley has the nation’s largest number of National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows, the largest number of Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellows, and outstanding numbers of recipients in many other categories,” which reflects well on the institution as well as the students. “Berkeley itself remains at the top as a research university,”  she continued. “The National Research Council recently concluded a study that again showed that Berkeley has the highest number of highly ranked programs in the country. When a Berkeley department talks about its distinction, we can say that’s true across all the fields — the sciences, the arts, and the humanities, and physical sciences. In fact, the 2011 Academic Ranking of World Universities rated UC Berkeley fourth of all universities in the world, and the top public university worldwide.”

Graduate students are critical to both the  university’s mission and its continued excellence, Joyce asserted. “Faculty cite graduate students as one of the most important and satisfying aspects of our professional lives. Being here and working with the graduate students who come here is what makes our research actually possible. My graduate students are what keep me from resting on my laurels, and they bring incredible ideas to light in their own research.”

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, bringing the congratulations of the campus, expanded on this theme from his own perspective: “As someone who’s been a longtime academic and whose career has been very tightly entwined with graduate students and graduate studies, I want to let you know how much people like myself appreciate what graduate students contribute to ours university.” He noted that the relationship between adviser and graduate student lasts for life. “You can get to see your own area of research, through your graduate students, blossom nationally or internationally, and have an impact.”  (Birgeneau will be honored in June with a lifetime achievement award in his specialty in physics — neutron scattering — for which he was nominated by two of his former graduate students.)

He referred back to “a study when I was dean of science at MIT” in which “it turned out that the single most important attractant wasn’t the Boston winters or swimming in the Charles — any of you who’ve been there know it’s heavily polluted; even dogs won’t go in it —  and certainly not the salaries. In fact, it was the quality of the graduate students. And that’s true at Berkeley as well.”

It’s often noted, Birgeneau said, that “Berkeley faculty have won 22 Nobel Prizes. What’s probably more important is that so far Berkeley students, most of whom were graduate students here, have won 28 Nobel Prizes. So our students are ahead of the faculty, in terms of counting Nobel Prizes.”

Three students spoke about their research and their fellowships: comparative literature Ph.D. student Natalie Cleaver (recipient of the Jacobsen Fellowship), biostatistics Ph.D. student Laura Balzer (recipient of the Berkeley Fellowship), and Jeremy Chase Crawford, integrative biology Ph.D. student and Chancellor’s Fellow). Crawford also won first place in this year’s Distinguished Fellows Video Contest.

—Dick Cortén  (slideshow photos by Peg Skorpinski)


The winners of the 2012 Distinguished Fellows Video Contest (left to right): First Place: Jeremy Chase Crawford. Second Place: Arturo Cortez. Third Place: Kristina Kangas. Winners received conference travel awards in the amounts of $1,000, $500, and $250, respectively. View all three videos on YouTube.