May 26, 2020

Set Up for Success

National Science Foundation fellowship winners from UMass Amherst

When you are a UMass Amherst graduate student following stay-at-home directives, how do you celebrate receiving a super-prestigious graduate fellowship that will provide you with three years of funding? Rebecca Huber, graduate student in chemical engineering, had chocolate cake made by a friend, and Seanne Clemente, organismic and evolutionary biology, ordered a pizza.

Huber and Clemente are among 10 UMass Amherst students recently awarded fellowships through the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), With an average acceptance rate of 16 percent, these highly competitive fellowships provide financial support for graduate education in sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

These 10 awards once again position UMass Amherst as the third leading institutional producer of GRFP recipients among Massachusetts colleges and universities, behind only MIT and Harvard. An additional 10 individuals affiliated with UMass were awarded honorable mention in the GRFP competition; both the number of awardees and honorable mentions for 2020 are an increase over previous years.

UMass Amherst encourages STEM undergraduates planning to attend graduate school and graduate students who have completed their first year of study to apply for the GRFP and provides applicants with strong support and mentorship.

“We encourage as many students as possible to apply, because even if they don’t receive the fellowship, the application process is an invaluable intellectual exercise,” says Heidi Bauer-Clapp ’16PhD, associate director for grants and fellowships for the Graduate School Office of Professional Development (OPD). “It focuses students on what they plan to do and how they plan to get there and gives them confidence in their abilities to achieve their goals.”

“This is the first application like this I have ever written, and the OPD was a great resource for me,” says Seanne Clemente, whose graduate work focuses on how animals self-medicate against diseases. “The most difficult part was condensing the theory behind my research and my research plans into just two pages. I went to many OPD workshops and consulted with Heidi Bauer-Clapp.”

The OPD also connected Clemente and other applicants to UMass Amherst graduate school mentors who are already GRFP fellows. “It was great to talk to someone who could tell me their personal experience with the application process and award,” Clemente notes.

Rebecca Huber, who is studying how breast cancer metastasizes to the brain, also had application help from the OPD and graduate student mentors, as well as effective support from two chemical engineering faculty members, Associate Professor Shelly Peyton and Assistant Professor Peter Beltramo.

Huber calls receiving the GRFP “pretty wild.” She says, “I now have the flexibility to delve into research questions I may not have been able to pursue otherwise. And the GRFP gives you an awesome network of opportunity. I have already gotten emails from the NSF about internships available only to fellows, and I’m sure more opportunities will be coming.”

Huber’s lab research is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Clemente can safely continue field research this summer. He will plant several varieties of basil at the UMass research and education farm in South Deerfield, tent the plots, release colonies of bees in the basil, and then evaluate how the different chemical profiles of the plants effect bee health.

Who knows where his research will lead? Clemente says, “The GRFP funding will give me the freedom to explore some unfeasible ideas. As we know, some of the best discoveries come from crazy ideas.”


The next NSF GRFP competition opens in August 2020. Current UMass undergraduates planning to attend graduate school beginning in Fall 2021 as well as graduate students who just completed their first year of graduate school are eligible to apply. Students interested in applying or faculty seeking more information may email Heidi Bauer-Clapp in the Graduate School Office of Professional Development or go to the Graduate School Office of Professional Development.

2020 UMass Amherst NSF Graduate Research Fellows 


Bridget Benner, mechanical engineering
Brooke Burrows, psychology
Stephanie Call, chemical engineering
Seanne Clemente, organismic & evolutionary biology
Jacob Davis, mechanical engineering
Annabelle Flores-Bonilla, neuroscience
Rebecca Huber, chemical engineering
Isabella Jaen Maisonet, chemistry
Rachel Jansen, biochemistry & molecular biology
Kelly McKeon, geosciences

Honorable Mention 

Elizabeth Voke, chemical engineering
Sean van Geldern, physics
Kristyn Robinson, molecular & cellular biology
Mèlise Edwards, neuroscience
Kaitlyn Chhe, chemistry
Craig Brinerhoff, civil engineering
Cierra Abellara, psychology
Alexandra Zink, environmental conservation
Robert Yvon, molecular & cellular biology
Walter Young, polymer science & engineering