This post is part of a series where Rutgers grant and/or fellowship winners are invited to share their thoughts and experiences with the process of applying for funding in graduate school.
By Amanda Williams
My name is Amanda and I am beginning my third year as a Ph.D. candidate in the program of Microbial Biology (Biochemistry and Microbiology Department) with Debashish Bhattacharya as my advisor. When I decided to pursue a graduate degree, I chose schools based on projects and advisors, first and foremost. Ultimately, I chose Rutgers because I loved the research in the Bhattacharya lab and felt the lab environment was very positive. The lab members were all so welcoming and kind, have since become some of my dearest friends. The second most important aspect of Rutgers was the Microbial Biology Graduate Program. The program was rigorous and well structured, which I preferred to help me catch up. Lastly, I believed the experience from the C2R2 program would help me progress as a STEM communicator, which is very important to me.
My research revolves around tropical coral reefs. Coral reefs are very similar to human beings, in that they also have good and bad microbes living in their tissue as well as outside their bodies that influence their health. The combination of the coral, algae, and microbes is called the holobiont. I am working to protect corals from anthropogenic climate change by building a deeper understanding of the coral holobiont. I’m using metabolomics and genomics to understand how the coral holobiont reacts and adapts to environmental stress. To that end, I’m also working to determine how the coral animal can modulate holobiont homeostasis through the production of metabolites (glucose or insulin, for instance, are metabolites). The end goal is to build a device that can predict coral health based on the production of particular metabolites, in the way a glucose monitor can help diabetics monitor their insulin levels.
Many stony coral reefs will likely not survive the next century, resulting in habitat loss for a variety of marine species that live in these ecosystems. Furthermore, reefs protect coastlines from storms and erosion, while providing economic prosperity to local communities through food supply and tourism, establishing their annual value at $375 billion. The loss of coral reefs is equivalent to the loss of rainforests in terrestrial systems. The potential outcome is unfathomable, but because humans remain unable to extract themselves from fossil fuel dependence, this development appears unavoidable. The question then becomes, how can coral reefs be modified to survive climate change? Improving basic understanding to allow the design of metabolic markers to identify the physiological/ health status of each reef is a key tool for scientists to intervene and potentially help stony coral reefs survive habitat destruction.
In the short term, I want to grow as a scientist. I want to learn as much as possible, whether that be lab techniques, writing skills, coding skills, etc. I also want to grow as a STEM communicator. I am working to develop techniques and confidence to communicate science to all groups of people. Currently, my most daunting short-term goal is to overcome my fear of public speaking.
In the long-term, when I think how I can best contribute to the world, I believe it is through my research and having the power to create an inclusive, welcoming environment for students to learn and thrive. My ultimate goal is to earn my PhD and become a research professor, an effective teacher, a valuable mentor, and a STEM communicator. I cherish learning and sharing knowledge with others. I want to spend my life learning and helping students discover a similar love of science that has brought me so much happiness and self-confidence. Particularly, I want to encourage and support students that are so often deterred from entering/remaining in STEM fields (i.e. women, queer students, students living in poverty, and/or students of color). I hope to make all students feel like they belong in science. Additionally, I want to help engage non-scientists and influence decision-makers to implement policies that will help our planet and humanity. I don’t plan, nor do I hope, to be like Bill Nye, but I do feel a responsibility to help spread knowledge rather than deceptions.
My experiences with the world of funding
During my time at Rutgers, I have received several internal and external fellowships and awards, including The Coastal Climate Risk & Resilience (C2R2) fellowship, the Limnology and Oceanography Research Exchange award (LOREX), and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.
The funding provided by these fellowships has allowed me to devote the time needed to my research and expand my skill set. I do not have a background in biology or genetics (my undergraduate degree was in chemistry), in fact I hadn’t taken a biology class since 2010, so I needed time to learn these new fields. Additionally, the LOREX program will help me expand my research to coral species in the Red Sea. While I’m at the University of Haifa, I’ll get new training that will be imperative for me to move forward in my thesis, and research in general.
My advice for other applicants
1. Don’t procrastinate your application.
2. Read ALL of the guidelines, rules, and regulations. You don’t want to put in so much time and effort to be disqualified based on a technicality.
3. Beginning the writing process can be very daunting. Having an outline with organized sections will be extremely helpful. To help figure out how to organize your writing, whenever possible, ask someone who was accepted for a particular fellowship or grant for their research/personal statements, or look for examples online (https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1xoezGhbtcpg3BvNdag2F5dTQM-Xl2EELUgAfG1eUg0s/edit#gid=0).
4. Make your objectives clear and have someone outside of your field read your proposal. Ensure that any reviewer can understand your specific aims.
5. In your research statement, emphasize why your work is so important and why it is needed. Similar to number 4, people reviewing your application may know nothing about your research area. The reviewers may not even be interested in your research area. Make them appreciate the impact of your work. Think of your research statement as a story you want to tell, rather than just spouting information.
6. Put effort in to improving your writing style and implement proper grammar.
7. Don’t underestimate the power of your personal statement. Every reviewer of my NSF GRFP submission made comments about my personal statement. It is important to let your strengths shine and demonstrate why you are deserving! Personally, I focused my personal statement on my research background and progress throughout my first year of grad school, why I love science so deeply, and my future goals. I devoted a large portion of my personal statement to why I believe STEM outreach and communication is so important and how I am working to help other students.
8. If letters of recommendation are required, ask people if they would be able to write you a STRONG letter of recommendation and give them plenty of time to write.
9. Be confident and only focus on doing your best! There are so many factors outside of your control that will contribute to whether or not you receive a fellowship or grant. The only thing you can do is be confident in yourself, be confident in your project, and do your best!
You can follow Amanda on Instagram @amanduhwills
To learn more about Amanda’s research and the lab she works at check out their website https://sites.rutgers.edu/coralbase/