NSF fellowship allows graduate student to balance research, service, and support
When it comes to her research, Cora Esparza gets excited about the unknown.
The first-year biomedical engineering doctoral student is studying the complex network of blood vessels found in glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer. She’s particularly interested in how fluid flow produced by leaky vessels in brain tumors can affect the invasion of cancer cells into surrounding tissue.
“There are a lot of things we don’t understand about flow-mediated invasion,” said Esparza. “No one really knows what to do about it yet. This research could have a huge impact on patients someday, and I like working in that place of need.”
While a degree of uncertainty may be motivating when it comes to research, it’s better to know some things in the lab up front – especially when it comes to funding. Thanks to a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program award, Esparza has a new sense of clarity in that regard.
Esparza is one of three graduate students in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics who received the prestigious fellowship this year and one of five in the College of Engineering. Although she entered her doctoral program with an offer of full funding from Virginia Tech, the three-year, portable NSF fellowship essentially means she’s now self-funded – and less reliant on funding provided by a faculty advisor.
“As a student, an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship provides flexibility for your research and gives you an option to be more autonomous in terms of the direction you might choose,” said Esparza. “But there’s a balance there. You still want to pick an area that will be useful to your faculty advisor.”
That sense of balance is an important part of the fellowship’s application process and its execution. Esparza first worked closely with Padma Rajagopalan, the Robert E. Hord Jr. Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, to prepare her application for the fellowship. When she transitioned to the Onco-Engineering Lab to work with Jennifer Munson, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, she chose to explore a topic that both excited her and also contributed to Munson’s overall research program.
For a fellowship program that’s known for focusing just as much on developing the individual as it is for accomplishing a research goal, a mindful approach is fitting, said Jack Lesko, the associate dean of research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering.
“This award is about recognizing talent and promoting that talent to its potential,” said Lesko. “The review committee is looking at a graduate student’s contributions and the potential of that individual to become a technical leader. It’s a very prestigious award for those reasons.”
Lesko also noted the fellowship’s emphasis on outreach and community involvement. “These recipients understand how to engage a broader community,” he said.
For Esparza, that element of outreach holds special significance.
Members of her family struggled with alcoholism throughout her childhood, and as a result, she grew up attending Al-Anon meetings with her mother in her hometown of Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Al-Anon, a support program for friends and family members of alcoholics, has since become an influential part of Esparza’s life. During her time as an undergraduate at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, she served as a mentor for the local Alateen group, a version of the program geared for teenagers.
As part of her NSF Graduate Research Fellowship award, Esparza hopes to start an Alateen group in the New River Valley, one that could support adolescents in the Blacksburg and Christiansburg areas. The closest group currently meets in Roanoke.
“I want to show others that your life experiences don’t define who you are or limit what you can become,” said Esparza, who is Hispanic and a first-generation college student. “Life is full of obstacles that are meant to challenge and refine us. I hope my story can inspire others to pursue engaging careers in STEM fields or academia.”
Esparza’s potential to serve not only as a leader in her field but also as a positive role model was recognized by the College of Engineering long before she applied for the NSF fellowship. She entered her program as a New Horizon Graduate Scholar and will serve as a mentor for incoming first-year graduate students next year as part of the Virginia Tech Early Engineering Mentoring program.
The college is working diligently to scale up these types of support programs to meet the needs of all graduate students, said Lesko. Together with colleagues Trey Waller and Renee Cloyd, the respective director and assistant director of graduate student programs, he hopes to prepare more students like Esparza to be competitive for awards that recognize both scholarship and service.
“We often talk about the need to develop outstanding and diverse scholars,” said Lesko. “But at the end of the day, students need to be good people with skills that enable them to serve as good citizens, too. It's about being a well-rounded individual who can make an impact.”
Written by Emily Roediger