A Worthy Cause: Writing Fellowships Foster Graduate Student Success

Research. Teaching. Coursework. Writing. For students who choose the biological science master’s degree program at Cal State Fullerton’s College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics, those four responsibilities can represent a challenging juggling act. Factor in the extra everyday challenges like working and/or raising a family, and it’s easy to see how biological science graduate students are a cut above.

Student Alexis Barrera collects algae samples

“Many of our students come from public universities and had to overcome challenges to get involved in research and then to see graduate school as an option. I think this helps them appreciate the opportunities that they have in our program,” says Paul Stapp, professor of biological science and Master of Science in Biology program advisor.

Along with supporting faculty research and doing investigations on their own, most biological science graduate students teach lower-division lab courses, which takes time away from their studies and research, but carries its own rewards.

“Many students come to find an aptitude for teaching and choose it as a career,” Stapp says.

When they’re not teaching, they are engaged in impactful research activities. These encompass diverse projects like examining antibiotic resistance in hospital infections, studying the molecular basis of zinc transport to help cure neurodegenerative diseases, seeking to understand the dynamics and promote restoration of marine ecosystems, and much more.

When anticipating a career in the biological sciences, a master’s program that incorporates a thesis offers enhanced value. It can demonstrate expertise in a particular area of study, distinguish an applicant for a PhD or health professions program, and sharpen research and critical thinking skills. But thesis-based research programs of study are becoming increasingly uncommon as many programs migrate online. This makes NSM’s thesis-based master’s degree program even more attractive.

“Our graduate students seem to enjoy learning and working closely with faculty, a hallmark of our program, either on their research or in course activities. In turn, working with these students energizes and motivates us,” he adds.

Student April Newman in the Sandquist lab.
April Newman, a graduate student in the Sandquist lab, simulates a rainfall event to examine the response of Mojave Desert plants.
Student Ben Higgins leads a student lab discussion.
Horn student Ben Higgins leads a student lab discussion about the biology of larval fish.
Danielle Bucklin examines the stomach contents of an urban coyote.
Danielle Bucklin examines the stomach contents of an urban coyote in southern California.
Student Evelyn Bond photographs marine fishes.
Evelyn Bond, a student of Kristy Forsgren, photographs reproductive structures of marine fishes to understand their development.
Kaitlyn Berry prepares to release a kangaroo rat captured.
Kaitlyn Berry prepares to release a kangaroo rat captured as part of a study of the effects of artificial light pollution on their behavior.
Miguel Macias examines plant responses.
Miguel Macias takes physiological measurements of an individual creosotebush shrub to examine plant responses to desert conditions.
Student Natalia Doshi checks for nestlings
Hoese graduate student Natalia Doshi checks a bluebird box for the presence of nestlings in suburban Orange County.
Students Rachel Pound and Eric Fan in the Burnaford lab,
Rachel Pound and Eric Fan, students in the Burnaford lab, record abundance and diversity of intertidal organisms in coastal California.
Student Shatarupa Ray in the Chen lab
Shatarupa Ray, a MS student in the Chen lab, performs chemical assays as part of her studies of genes mediating interactions between bacteria and plant roots.
Student Tyler Flisik cares for chicks of captive Elegant Terns.
MS student Tyler Flisik cares for chicks of captive Elegant Terns on his project to measure growth rates on different diets.

Supporting Devoted and Deserving Students

Stapp recognizes the added pressure graduate students are under to manage all the requirements for their degree and how outside challenges can slow research and thesis writing.

“The need to teach, or work outside of their studies in general, slows their progress. We would like to be able to remove some of that stress by giving them the chance to focus on data analysis and thesis-writing, the final step of their program, without having to worry about working to pay bills for a semester,” Stapp says.

Ostensibly, the program can be completed in two years, but few students are able to do so.

“Most take longer, typically three to four years, because of the challenges involved in designing a project, conducting experiments or field work, analyzing data, and then writing a scholarly thesis, many of which are novel and rigorous enough to be published in peer-reviewed journals,” Stapp says.

However, there are opportunities, through philanthropy, to recruit and recognize these graduate students for their hard work and excellence as they pursue the completion of their theses. Donor investments through graduate and writing fellowships complement our outstanding program and add to the robust culture of research at all levels in NSM.

Graduate fellowships provide support to students to bolster their research efforts, while writing fellowships help to encourage completion and academic rigor at the final stages of our graduate students’ degree.

The Violet Horn Graduate Research Fellowship in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology is an example of how donor support recognizes and supports graduate student excellence. Established in 2015 by a generous gift from Mike Horn, a longtime faculty member in the Department of Biological Science, the fellowship honors the memory of Violet Horn, who was an award-winning K–12 teacher, a devoted supporter of her family’s learning aspirations (including her nephew Mike), and a tireless advocate for educational opportunities in the Cherokee community.

Each year, one outstanding applicant pursuing a master’s degree in biological science is selected to receive the fellowship based on academic records, relevant research experience, letters of recommendation, and their potential for success as a research student at Cal State Fullerton. The recipient is awarded $10,000 to support their thesis research during the second year.

The Coppel Graduate Science Award is also available to three biological science masters’ students each year. This endowed scholarship was established by Lynn and Claude Coppel in fall 1995. Prior to her retirement in 1992, Lynn Coppel worked for 24 years as the science reference librarian at Cal State Fullerton. Her husband, Claude, was a research supervisor with Chevron Oil Field Research in the production department for 27 years. Between the endowment distribution and Claude’s annual support, the college can support three students with $3,000 awards.

An investment in a graduate fellowship or writing fellowship is an investment in the department and the culture of research in the college. Many students are first-generation graduate students or come from working-class backgrounds, and they go on to contribute significantly to the local workforce in Orange County as teachers, in industry, or at government agencies. Others move on to doctoral programs or health professions schools. They serve the biological science department’s teaching mission by engaging with undergraduate students as recent peers and by providing an approachable first point of contact for our undergraduates. Some mentor junior research students in their advisers’ labs.

“These students often do all this at the expense of their own progress toward their degrees, so we’re thrilled when they’re recognized and supported in their efforts,” says Stapp. “Supporting a fellowship does both.”

Supporting Biological Science at NSM

If you are interested in supporting biological science graduate students at NSM through a graduate fellowship or a writing fellowship, or other giving opportunities, please contact Mike Karg, senior director of Development, at 657-278-3348 or mkarg@fullerton.edu. We thank you for your generosity.

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