Nine graduate students awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Nine graduate students in the Physical Sciences Division received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which offers recognition and financial support for outstanding graduate students in science, technology and engineering fields supported by the NSF. 

To prepare students to submit their application, the Physical Sciences Division offers workshop sessions on broader impacts, personal statements, and research plans. One part of the workshop is a two-week writing and self-editing session with the UChicago writing program. The workshops run over the course of graduate students’ first year, and they apply for the NSF Fellowships going into their second year.

“One goal of these workshops is to increase the number of fellowship winners, and another goal is to impart so-called ‘soft skills,’ such as writing,” says Miranda Swanson, the dean of students for PSD. “Eventually, we would like to offer a workshop that goes beyond applying for this specific fellowship.”

Carlos Blanco, a PhD candidate in astro-particle physics, studies possible particle dark matter models and looks at gamma rays to determine if they are coming from dark matter. “Right now, our understanding of the universe is extremely small,” explains Blanco. “Twenty-seven percent of the energy content of the universe is dark matter, and we don’t understand the nature of dark matter at all.” Blanco is also working on a Raspberry Pi-based educational platform that aims to teach children in Colombia the principles of coding and engineering and how to build water quality sensors.

Claudio Gonzales, a PhD candidate in mathematics, studies how particles can move around each other, which in turn helps him understand the unique properties of said particles. “The place where a particle exists, whether planar or three-dimensional or what have you, tells us about what sort of data its configurations can encode,” explains Gonzales. “That data depends heavily on where particles live.” Using algebraic tools to understand mathematical obstructions, Gonzales can then devise ways to either take advantage of the underlying complexity or identify fundamental barriers to solving particular problems.

Gonzales credits the workshops offered by PSD as part of what helped him earn the NSF GRF. “The workshops gave me a sense of what reviewers were looking for and how to structure my essays,” says Gonzales. “It has even impacted how I write as a scientist now.” In addition to the fellowship, Gonzales also recently received UChicago’s “Physical Sciences Teaching Prize,” which is given to graduate teaching assistants based on nominating letters from students.

Maya Fishbach, a PhD candidate in astronomy and astrophysics, studies where and how black holes form. As a member of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, Fishbach utilizes detections of merging black hole binaries, which emit fairly “loud” gravitational waves in the last few seconds of their evolution. "Black holes are not intuitively understood, which makes them very exciting to study,” says Fishbach. “When black holes collide, they emit a lot of energy in the form of gravitational waves, and these waves carry information about their properties.” Fishbach recently published a paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Anne Davis, a PhD candidate in geophysical sciences, studies the chemical properties of materials under high pressure and high temperature conditions, to better understand the constitution, structure, and evolution of the Earth's interior. She’s interested in the role of volatiles, such as carbon and water, in the deep Earth, and how they affect and explain the chemical properties of the Earth's interior.  “It’s an honor to receive an NSF Fellowship,” says Davis. “It’s nice to see that students at UChicago are doing well enough to receive these awards, and I think it’s encouraging for the university as a whole.”