Rock-Solid Education Leads to Prestigious Fellowship

Since spending time in Allegheny’s geology department, Douglas Barber ’13 knew he someday wanted to pursue a Ph.D.

In March, Barber learned he would receive some extra support to help him achieve that dream.

Barber, who is studying geology at the University of Texas at Austin, received a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF). He was one of 2,000 individuals chosen for the Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program from among 16,500 applicants in 2015.

According to Allegheny Assistant Professor of Geology Theresa Schwartz ’10, who also is a past NSF Graduate Research Fellowship recipient, the award gives beginning graduate students many degrees of freedom that they may not otherwise have.

“In the sciences, grad students often ‘earn their keep’ in their departments as teaching assistants for classes and research assistants in lab facilities. The NSF GRF frees students from these duties for up to three years by providing tuition and a substantial stipend, as well as miscellaneous travel awards, small sums of research money, etc.,” she says. “For the first three years of grad school, I didn’t have teaching or lab obligations and didn’t have to submit grant proposals to cover my costs, so I could focus solely on coursework and research.

“Doug will benefit greatly from winning this award, and will be able to dedicate his time and energy to his personal research, rather than running lab facilities,” she adds. “Winning the GRF is a fantastic opportunity for any student pursuing a graduate degree.”

We spoke to Barber, who majored in geology and minored in economics at Allegheny, about this honor and about how the College helped him to prepare for his career:

How does it feel to be one of 2,000 individuals to have received this fellowship?
I was very shocked when I found out I had been awarded a fellowship. I am still in disbelief. This was my third and final attempt at applying, and it definitely felt satisfying to see the persistence and hard work over these years pay off.

Most of all I feel extremely grateful and indebted to all of those who have helped me along the process and provided letters of recommendation, especially Dr. Daniel Stockli (current adviser at the University of Texas), Dr. Bob Schwartz (undergraduate mentor at Allegheny) and Dr. Mazin Tamar-Agha (research collaborator at the University of Baghdad in Iraq).

What does it mean to have received this fellowship?
The NSF award supports graduate students in technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in the United States. Being selected as a fellow of this program means several things. First of all, it provides a three-year annual stipend along with a full cost-of-tuition allowance and the freedom to conduct my own research at any U.S. graduate institution of my choice. It also provides other benefits only open to awardees such as career development programs, international research opportunities and scientific internships at federal facilities and national laboratories.

To me, this award provides the flexibility and resources for me to pursue the research that interests me most and removes barriers to me achieving a career that is most suited for my passions and skills. For example, I no longer have to serve as a teaching assistant in order to secure funding, and I am guaranteed summer support, thus freeing up a large portion of my daily schedule.

What did you have to do to apply? Did you work with anyone at Allegheny during the process?
The application is relatively short but requires a lot of critical thought. In addition to a résumé and transcripts, you have to provide a two-page research proposal and a three-page personal statement and have to get three people to submit letters of recommendation on your behalf. The most difficult part is that in just two pages you have to describe your entire Ph.D. project to your reader and convince him/her that your research will have greater intellectual impact and benefit to society than 16,000 other applicants.

Dr. Bob Schwartz (Allegheny geology department) has been particularly helpful for me in getting this award. He has provided me with scientific discussion and critical feedback on my proposals over the years, helping me to perfect my application. More importantly, the research skills and knowledge I have gained over the years working with Bob Schwartz in the field and lab provided me an invaluable foundation and passion for this science, ultimately driving many of the ideas and organization of my awarded proposal.

What are you doing now?
I am living in Austin enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Texas, which is one of the top five geoscience graduate programs in the nation. I am working on an industry-sponsored research project in the Iraqi Zagros Mountains in Kurdistan, and I am also involved in other laboratory technique-development research that we are applying to the Zagros project. During the semesters I take classes and attend conferences and meetings. This summer I will be doing field work in eastern Turkey and hopefully Iraqi Kurdistan barring unforeseen political circumstances.

How did Allegheny prepare you for your career?
There are three main attributes of Allegheny that have provided me with an exceptional foundation to succeed in graduate school and my career. These include the strong emphasis on experiential learning and undergraduate research, the tremendous quality and accountability of faculty and the focus on effective scientific communication.

In particular, I most benefited from the student-faculty research program supported by the Christine Scott Nelson Faculty Support Fund at Allegheny. Through these student-faculty research experiences, I was able to spend two summers conducting field research in Montana alongside Dr. Bob Schwartz and various other collaborators and students. This also gave me the opportunity to present at multiple national conferences and travel to conduct lab work at some of the top analytical facilities in the nation. Overall, this has been the most important experience during my undergraduate tenure in terms of skill and knowledge development, networking, fostering a passion for geologic research and ultimately preparing me for doctoral research. I would highly recommend the continuation and expansion of such student-faculty research programs at Allegheny!

Also, I have to thank Drs. Ron Cole, Rachel O’Brien, Tamara Misner and Jack Meter of the geology department for greatly contributing to my educational development and passion for geology. Lastly, the geology department (and Allegheny as a whole) has a strong emphasis on written communication – having developed this skill definitely serves as a major advantage when writing research proposals such as those for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.