Stanford Today Edition: September/October, 1996 Section: Campus News: Graduate Fellowships WWW: Far Fewer Sleepless Nights

Far Fewer Sleepless Nights

By Diane Manuel

Michelle Coleman spent more sleepless nights than she cares to remember during her first year as a graduate student in experimental physics. To qualify for a research and teaching funding package from her department, she had to take three intensive physics and math courses each quarter, in addition to putting in 8 hours of work each week in a research group and doing another 12 hours of tutorial work. It all added up to 80 hours on the job each week, with only four or five hours of sleep per night. By the third quarter, discouraged and convinced that she was on the verge of flunking out, Coleman went to see Walter E. Meyerhof, who was then chair of the admissions committee for physics.

“He said, ‘What would help? If you didn’t have to teach this quarter?”

“And I said, ‘Yes!’

“So he talked to the right people and found some research funding and got me excused from teaching for one quarter. And he gave me tremendous emotional support and encouragement, too. I remember leaving his office feeling just great, like I could conquer the universe.”

The relief that Coleman experienced that day, knowing she could begin to commit full time to her studies, undoubtedly will be shared by some 300 future scholars who will qualify as Stanford Graduate Fellows under the initiative proposed by President Gerhard Casper. At a time when federal support for the sciences and engineering is evaporating about as fast as the liquid nitrogen in Coleman’s lab, the new fellowships are designed to augment federally funded research assistantships.

Students who are nominated by their departments and selected by a faculty committee will be given a tuition voucher of $12,000 and a stipend of $16,000 for each of three years. They can take the money to the lab or research group of their choice, rather than having to select a research project or adviser based on available funding.

Amanda Peet, a theoretical physicist who received her Ph.D. from Stanford in 1994 and currently is a postdoc at Princeton University, says her life would have been significantly easier if she’d had “free” money as a graduate student.

“As it turned out, my thesis advisers and the physics department had to move heaven and earth to find funding, to make sure I could stay in their research group,” she says.

Peet, a native New Zealander, spent her first year at Stanford searching for external funding, but came up against two stark realities. Not only was there less money nationwide for theoretical physics - as opposed to experimental physics - but there were virtually no fellowships for foreign students.

The new Stanford fellowships - which will be open to foreign students - are the talk of graduate lunch tables and labs these days. The prospect of portable funding has a tantalizing appeal, particularly for those in the exploratory years of graduate study.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I came to Stanford,” Coleman recalls, “but I certainly didn’t have a burning desire to do low-temperature physics.”

After spending a quarter with John Lipa’s low-temperature research group, however, she knew she’d found her academic home.

Today Coleman has staked out Lab 028, deep in the basement of the Varian physics building. White crystals envelop the pipes that connect a tank of liquid nitrogen to a conglomeration of thermometers, ion gauges, heaters and surgical tubing that are attached to what looks like a giant blue thermos bottle. She spent a recent afternoon twiddling dials and logging temperatures in her lab book as she monitored her confined helium experiment.

“When you do experimental physics, you find that you can go for days or weeks or months without thinking about the physics of what you’re doing,” she says. “We spend most of our days thinking about what kind of screws we’re going to use and how we’re going to put grease on them. Probably half of what I do is plumbing.”

Coleman was collecting data from her “cold” experiment to take to an international physics conference in Prague. Her work already has been published in the prestigious journal Physical Review Letters, and making the right contacts at the conference could open postdoc doors.

Coleman began saving money for the trip to Prague three years ago, when the conference was announced. She had landed a $22,000-a-year grant ($16,000 for stipend, $6,000 toward tuition) from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, one of only 300 that are awarded nationally, and was able to accumulate travel funds for three years.

“The NASA fellowship meant money for tuition, required fees, whatever,” she says. “The university kept sending me bills, saying, ‘Here’s how much you owe,’ and then another note would come, saying, ‘Look, someone’s already paid for you.’ So I felt very secure, knowing the money was there.”

But Coleman’s NASA fellowship runs out in October and she once again will become a department research assistant, with substantially reduced funding. She will receive tuition support plus about $15,000 per year in salary - compared to her $16,000 NASA stipend. Before her NASA grant ended, she also was receiving a research supplement of about $2,500 per year, paid from her adviser’s funds, which brought her total income, to $18,500.

Coleman now will have to pay some $900 annually in required university fees, including mandatory health insurance. The increased fees and decreased take-home pay mean $4,000 less in her pocket.

Still, she knows she was lucky to land in a department that is known for nurturing its graduate students, encouraging women scientists and accepting only as many doctoral candidates each year as its faculty can support financially with research grants. Coleman also counts herself fortunate to be in Lipa’s research group, since he has substantial outside funding for space-shuttle experiments.

Many faculty members have expressed satisfaction with the numbers that have been proposed for the Stanford Graduate Fellowships. For one thing, the $12,000 annual tuition voucher and $16,000 stipend add up to $6,000 more than many prized fellowships such as NASA’s. Professors who will have Stanford Graduate Fellows in their labs won’t have to include the cost of paying research assistants in grant proposals, which should make those proposals less costly and more competitive.

“Under the new program, students will be assigned money, regardless of where they’re going,” says Susan Abernethy, a development officer who is spearheading the $200 million fund-raising drive that will be needed to sustain the program. “They can go to faculty member X and say, ‘I’m funded and won’t cost you anything. Will you take me on?’ ”

Initial reaction to the proposed fellowships has been about as hearty as it gets from a faculty known for its often critical deliberations.

“If we go through the abrupt change in the level of federal funding that many of us are concerned about, then we have an ethical and moral obligation to provide the resources that our students need to complete their degrees,” Joseph W. Goodman, chair and professor of electrical engineering, said when the graduate initiative was announced.

“We all worry about what will be the fate of our graduate students if our funding is dropped. It’s the subject that keeps us awake at night.” ST