Michael Burel is a Ph.D. candidate studying stem cell biology at NYU School of Medicine. Michael graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Georgia in 2012 majoring in cell biology and writing. During his undergraduate career, Michael conducted research on induced pluripotent stem cells and brain development. In 2011, he received the Goldwater Scholarship for his work under Dr. Steve Stice on deriving patient-specific neural stem cells for future use in regenerative medicine and drug discovery. Michael now conducts his doctoral research under Dr. Erika Bach, where he was awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to study how stem cells compete with each other during stem cell transplantation and cancer. In addition to his research, Michael is the founder and content director of Biocanvas, a worldwide online platform that helps scientists leverage their own research data to communicate what they do to the public.
Science isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the days when scientists could explore “good” or “interesting” ideas knowing funding will certainly flow from somewhere. In light of recent government funding woes and dismal grant success rates, scientists must now scramble for every penny up for grabs. Failing to do so doesn’t just mean an experiment goes undone. Often, it means the letting go of key personnel and labs teetering perilously on the verge of permanent closure. The struggle is real.
I have felt this struggle since day one. I entered science research my first day as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia (UGA). Ever since, I have lived in a climate of funding uncertainty…not just in the lab, but also on campus. Coming from a not-so-wealthy background, I learned the hard way that college is expensive. Really expensive. Practically any student will attest to the crippling debt of loans to pay tuition, fees, books, boarding, and meals. More often than not, those saddled with this burden enter into a “la-la-la, everything is fine!” mentality as compounding interest piles on despair cent by cent.
As much as I would have liked, I never had the option to exercise this avoidance behavior. As a junior at UGA, I successfully applied for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, a fantastic scholarship opportunity awarded to undergraduates pursuing STEM fields after graduation. The day I learned I won the scholarship, I called my mom so we could both hysterically scream and sob over the phone. The scholarship was not just an acknowledgment of scientific merit; it was a financial lifeline when I needed it the most. My time as a Goldwater Scholar provided much needed financial security, freeing my mind to think of other things like research, classes, and the tantalizingly close date of graduation.
Now a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Medicine, I have once again felt the struggle. Ph.D. students are heavily encouraged to pursue external funding during our graduate school tenure. External funding for scientists provides two powerful gifts shared by almost any fellowship: a sense of validation (yes, you are a great scientist!) and a sense of security (yes, we will pay for you!). I began to seek out external funding opportunities for my time at NYU, and once I learned about the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP), I put my all into securing one.
The NSF GRFP combines my interests in exploring fundamental stem cell biology questions while disseminating science information to broad audiences. While at UGA, I pursued a writing curriculum to create Biocanvas, an online platform that helps scientists leverage their own data to communicate what they do to the world. Since its inception, Biocanvas has accrued over 180,000 active readers, and its upkeep is as important to me as my doctoral research. The NSF GRFP encourages and supports recipients to not only conduct groundbreaking research, but to also engage in activities that spread the benefits of science outside our tiny laboratory universe. This support, coupled with funding security for three years, empowers creative potential and leeway to research potentially risky science topics while developing and evolving outreach activities.
In applying for the NSF GRFP, I have found the key to success lies in the delivery. After being nominated for the Goldwater Scholarship, the Major Scholarships Coordinator at UGA gave me this piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since: “You are handing them a package. Every paragraph, essay, transcript, and reference letter must sing together and deliver one cohesive message.” When preparing your applications, decide what your message is. What, in one sentence, are you attempting to convey to application readers? Who are you and who do you want to be? For me, my message was: “My passion for research equals my passion for communicating and increasing access to science across all groups.” (This is an actual excerpt from my NSF GRFP application.) I then provided evidence in every document to support that statement. I even sat down with my reference letter writers to clue them in on my message and ensure they could speak to that statement. Crafting your message early results in an application that feels complete and congruent, because everywhere a reader looks, they will find echoes and evidence of your message.
Moving forward, the NSF GRFP has allowed me to consider career options that marry my interest in science, communication, and outreach. The NSF’s support and expectation to do science for the great and the good will undoubtedly springboard me into my next career endeavor. It’s a type of security that transcends the financial, and you can never put a price on that.