Many apply, but few are chosen.  Are any of those few from Berkeley? It’s unpredictable, but yes, it definitely happens.  Here are some recent cases in point.

Naomi Ondrasek
Integrative biology doctoral candidate Naomi Ondrasek, looking serene on vacation in Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. “After a long year spent in the lab,” she says, I was happy to be outdoors, stench or not.” She’s shown standing in a geothermal area called Bumpass Hell, which features hot springs, fumaroles, and mud pots — and smells to high heaven from its various hydrogen-sulfide-laden emanations, also known as rotten egg gas. (photo by Naomi’s husband, Thomas Ondrasek)

Finishing up with a little help — well, more than a little — from the AAUW

Sometimes precise knowledge creates its own anxiety level.  Naomi Ondrasek had applied for the American Association of University Women’s American Fellowship, and unlike many funding agencies, the AAUW tells applicants the exact day it will post recipients’ names.

“The night before that date, I didn’t sleep very well,” says Ondrasek, whose dissertation research is on the mouse-like rodent known as the meadow vole.  “Like a lot of other graduate students, I was feeling anxious about my funding situation for the upcoming year.”  The next morning, she “literally rolled out  of  bed and walked straight towards the computer.  I pulled up the AAUW website, and bam!  The recipient list was up.”  Although sleepy and reluctant to face the results, “I figured I should treat it like ripping a band-aid off — just do it and deal with the emotional consequences later.”  She opened the list and “scrolled down for what seemed like forever, didn’t see my name, and felt deflated.”

“Then I realized I was looking under the wrong award, so I scrolled farther down, and there I was!”  (At this point, her tale briefly takes on a sitcom aspect.)  “I was so excited to tell someone, I ran from the computer, threw open the door to the bedroom and scared the daylights out of my husband, who had been sound asleep.  He sat bold upright in bed, asking what was wrong and if someone had broken into the house.”

Thus do fellowships inject drama into otherwise calm, rational lives.   After their heartbeats returned to normal, the Ondraseks relaxed into the reality that the AAUW fellowship would do exactly what she needed: fund her while she completes her dissertation.  (That association, with admirable foresight, began its fellowship program in 1888; back then, women were usually discouraged from seeking education at all.)

She’s nearing the end of the grad-student road, now, but Onrasek says “Funding has been such an important part of my graduate career — my entire college career, really.”  How so?  “The bottom line is that an education costs money, and the farther you go, the more it costs.  Practically my entire academic career, from college to present-day, has been funded by scholarships and fellowships.” (As an undergrad at Randolph College in her home state of Virginia she received a Udall Scholarship for Excellence in Environmental Policy.  At Berkeley, she’s been an ARCS Fellow and received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship before the AAUW came along.)  “I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that respect.”

What has it meant to her?  “Fellowships have helped my research by letting me focus on it, instead of other concerns like paying for rent, food, et cetera.”  (She’s also been able to enjoy some free time, hiking, fishing, and backpacking in the Trinity Alps, when possible — and belly dancing, and writing features for the grad-student-produced Berkeley Science Review.)

Secrets of her fellowship success?  “I started out by making a list of potential fellowships, and then I read, very thoroughly, the requirements for each award.  I don’t like to take the shotgun approach — applying for anything and everything that I qualify for.  I think it’s a waste of time and, more importantly, a waste of effort, to spread yourself too thinly.”  Assuming a finite amount of energy and time, she asked herself, “What fellowships do I have a decent shot at getting,” and applied for just two or three at a time.  That kept her fall semesters — the height of fellowship season — “somewhat sane and manageable.”

Meadow Vole
The research subject: Microtus pennsylvanicus, the Meadow Vole, is found widely, mainly in grasslands, but sometimes in woods as well. Their life-spans are short, more often counted in months than in years. One factor: they’re important menu items for hawks, owls, crows, magpies, some snakes, most mammalian predators, and even the Pacific giant salamander. Meadow voles eat, and fertilize, grasses, and they contribute to habitat restoration after fires. (photo: Amy L. Peterson)

And what’s so interesting about  meadow voles?   The cute little rodents that are the stars of Ondrasek’s research “are fairly common in the northern half of the United States.  They’re often considered an agricultural pest.”  She’s interested in why social groups form, and voles are very social creatures.  In some species females “tend to be philopatric (stay home), while males tend to be the ones who leave (disperse).”  So, simply put, much of the social structure and interactions are left up to the gal voles. Quite a lot is known about vole behavioral ecology, but “in terms of how this relates to physiological and neurological factors, we’re just beginning to scratch the surface.”  Her research focuses on “how environment, hormones, and the brain influence same-sex affiliation and social bonding in female meadow voles.”  Partly because humans are extremely social, Ondrasek says, “I find social behavior fascinating.  I’m hooked because so many interesting behaviors happen when animals are interacting with each other.  The fact that we can now explore the neural origins of behavior, and integrate this with what’s happening in the environment, makes me excited to be a scientist.”

Recognizing her passion, a departing group of her undergraduate research assistants gave her a customized T-shirt that reads “Vole Whisperer.”   Getting that T-shirt, Ondrasek  swears, was almost better than getting a fellowship.”

 Dick Cortén

Three Berkeley grad students (and a recent alum) have Hertz backing

The prestigious Hertz Foundation Fellowship runs on a cycle that’s consistent with the National Science Foundation and others which open their applications in the fall, so its applications are closed until the new Hertz season begins in August.  However, just for encouragement, it’s worth mentioning that four Berkeley students — three grad students and an undergrad who became an alumnus — have been among recent Hertz Fellows, chosen from more than 600 applicants.

Kay Ousterhout

The Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship has been supporting Kay Ousterhout in her first year of Ph.D. work here (along with a Chancellor’s Fellowship and a Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship), in which she’s emphasizing networking computer systems, and cloud computing.  She did her undergraduate work at Princeton, where she co-founded Princeton Women in Computer Science and worked on the web team at the Daily Princetonian.  Her graduate work here is a return to Berkeley, where she was born (and where her father, John Ousterhout, was a computer science professor before joining Sun Microsystems and later joining the faculty at Stanford).

Mollie Schwartz
Mollie Schwartz

Mollie Schwartz comes from a rural farming community in Pennsylvania, from which she headed to Columbia University to study chemical physics, which she is also pursuing here, specifically in condensed matter physics, with an emphasis on new and emergent physical properties of nanomaterials.  She was inspired by the promise of nanoscience to revolutionize technologies in virtually every sector during work she did after graduating from Columbia for the White House Office of Science and Technology.  Her home area growing up lacked cable television, so she spent her spare time with music and martial arts; she holds a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do.

Thomas Segall-Shapiro
Thomas Segall-Shapiro

Chicago native Thomas Segall-Shapiro grew up around Washington, D.C., and focused on synthetic biology at Rice University where he was part of the bio-beer team and won a gold medal in the  2008 International Genetically Engineering Machine competition along with worldwide media attention for their process of brewing beer with resveratrol, a naturally-occurring health substance usually found in red wine.  In 2010, just as he was graduating, he was back in the limelight again as one of 24 authors of a study published in Science that, according to the Rice news staff, “may be the most significant scientific paper of the 21st century so far.”  At the J. Craig Venter Institue, where he interned for two summers,  the group of two dozen replaced a bacterial cell’s original DNA with a synthesized genome, which “rebooted” the cell, took over its operation, and even reproduced.  (A certain amount of extraneous material was imbedded in the genome, incuding “watermarks” containing people’s names, famous quotes, and the URL of a website.)  This advance became known popularly as “synthetic life.”  Now a Ph.D. student in the Berkeley-UCSF joint bioengineering program Segall-Shapiro plans to create technologies for both biological discovery and real world applications.

Stephen Miller
Stephen Miller

Stephen Miller of Escondido,who graduated from Cal with a major in EECS concentrating on surgical robotics, also received a Hertz Fellowship, which he is now using at Stanford to pursue his Ph.D. in artificial intelligence.

The Hertz Foundation, through its rigorous competition, provides considerable assistance to students in the applied physical, biological, and engineering sciences so they may become leaders and key contributors to the advancement of “national technological capabilities on which the long-term well-being of the United States largely depends.”  Its fellowships are designed to be “the most attractive” in both “material terms and duration of tenure.”  Founder John Daniel Hertz was an immigrant and “American Dream” success story, rising from newspaper seller to become the head of numerous companies (founder of Yellow Cab), racehorse owner, and philanthropist.

John Mather
John C. Mather: a Hertz Fellowship, a Berkeley Ph.D., and then a Nobel. Cause and effect? (photo: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Among the 94 Berkeley students who have received Hertz Foundation fellowships over the years, one physics student is especially notable, since he went to, among other accomplishments, win a Nobel Prize in that discipline.  John C. Mather Ph.D. ’74, now a NASA scientist, shared the 2006 physics prize with Berkeley professor George Smoot.  Their work on the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite gave the first empirical confirmation of the Big Bang theory of the universe and (according to the Nobel Prize committee) “can also be regarded as the starting point for cosmology as a precision science.”

(Not that Mather’s accomplishments should put any explicit pressure on the new Berkeley Hertz fellows to go out and win a Nobel or something.  Implicit perhaps, but not explicit. Oh, and he earned a 4.0 GPA while here.  Just saying.)

The modern Essence of Una’s history

Una Smith Ross
Una as a young woman, wearing her necklace.
Essence Harden
Essence Harden, wearing Una’s necklace (photo: Ellen Gobler)

The Una Fellowship, for Berkeley students, is a something of a slam-dunk.  It’s won by a Berkeley student every year… because it’s only open to Berkeley students. Plus it has an unusual feature: it’s not only about history, it has history.

The Una Fellowship is given to an outstanding woman graduate student in the field of history at Berkeley to “foster the spirit of inquiry and individuality” so characteristic of the woman for whom the fellowship is named, Una Smith Ross, In November, Essence Harden, the 2011-2012 recipient of the Una Fellowship was honored one evening in the Hart Room of the Faculty Club, the most recent enactment of a ceremony that has become one of the campus’s hallowed traditions. Over dinner, an ornate vintage necklace that belonged to Una was placed around the neck of Harden, who wore it only for the evening, while enjoying a pleasant meal with representatives of the Graduate Division and mentors and close associates from her academic department.  Already a Berkeley alumna, Harden graduated with a B.A. in history in spring 2011.  She has also been awarded a Chancellor’s Fellowship for Graduate Study.  She is pursuing a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies in the Department of African American Studies.  Committed to sparking intellectual development in others, she has volunteered for the past several years as a teaching assistant at Berkeley High School.

Benjamin Ide Wheeler
President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, equestrian and scholar, ran the university when Una was a student

Una Smith Ross studied history at Berkeley during the presidency of Benjamin Ide Wheeler, the last UC chief executive to regularly navigate the campus on horseback (and probably the last to teach Sanskrit, Gothic, and Balto-Slavic). She earned her B.A. in 1911 and her M.A. in 1913. In her memory, her husband, Edward Hunter Ross, donated the funds for the fellowship, and attended the award’s dinner-ceremony numerous times during his lifetime.