RICE UNIVERSITY: ‘An unprecedented year’: Record number of Rice grad students awarded NSF fellowships

24 current students among 44 affiliated with university to win Graduate Research Fellowships
Daziyah Sullivan applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship as an undergraduate, but wasn’t selected that year.

Mechanical engineering graduate student Daziyah Sullivan is among this year’s cohort of 17 current grad students awarded one of the coveted five-year NSF fellowships.
Mechanical engineering graduate student Daziyah Sullivan is among this year’s cohort of 17 current grad students awarded one of the coveted five-year NSF fellowships.

“I was worried about whether I should have waited to have publications or more tangible research experience before trying again,” said Sullivan, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who works in Rice’s MAHI Lab. But after receiving sweeping encouragement from her team in the lab, her adviser — Marcia O’Malley, professor of mechanical engineering — and the virtual coaching program sponsored by the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (GPS), Sullivan gave it another shot.

And this time, she was accepted to the prestigious program. Sullivan now counts herself among this year’s cohort of 17 current graduate students awarded one of the coveted five-year fellowships, which provides three years of financial support for students early in their graduate careers in science, technology, math and engineering.

“This is the largest number of NSF awards to current graduate students in Rice history,” said Kim Gonzalez Hohlt, director of student advancement and career development in the GPS office. In total, 44 Rice-affiliated students won NSF fellowships for 2021.

“This was definitely an unprecedented year,” Gonzalez Hohlt said.

At Rice, the GPS office provides a fellowship coaching program that helps grad students filter through various fellowships and their vigorous application processes.

Importantly, the fellowship coaching program is run in part by past winners themselves, typifying Rice’s close-knit graduate student community. Its success, Gonzalez Hohlt said, can be witnessed in part in this year’s record crop of NSF winners.

“Our coaches did a fantastic job by coaching 14 of our graduate student winners and four of six honorable mentions who were enrolled in fall 2020,” said Gonzalez Hohlt, who was herself a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship winner while pursuing her Ph.D. in biochemistry and cell biology at Rice.

The NSF fellowship will allow Sullivan to focus on her research on haptic interfaces and technologies with the MAHI Lab.

“Think: vibrations for phone notifications or the resistance you feel when turning the steering wheel in a car,” said Sullivan, who was also named a full fellow of the National Graduate Education for Minorities Consortium in 2020. Her research seeks to find applications for that kind of tech within the realm of mental health.

“I want to understand affective haptics because it can potentially assist with emotion regulation, which can be difficult for those suffering from certain mental illnesses,” she said. “The end goal is to essentially have a wearable device that can assist with coping strategies taught within the therapeutic setting.”

Pursuing this work with the backing of an NSF fellowship is a professional victory as much as a personal triumph for Sullivan, who was also quick to share the accolade with others.

“It is an honor for Rice University as my graduate school and for Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University as my baccalaureate institution,” said Sullivan, who acknowledged “the academic excellence that is a central part of the FAMU culture” in helping her pursue her graduate studies at another institution known for its academic rigor.

“This accomplishment is a culmination of all of my life experiences and is an external reminder that I am forging the correct — and best — path for myself,” Sullivan said.

Of the 44 Rice-affiliated fellows this year, 17 are current graduate students, seven are incoming graduate students, seven are undergraduates and 13 are alumni. Additionally, 18 Rice-affiliated students received honorable mention from the NSF.

“This is an incredibly competitive award, and students do an exceptional amount of work during the application process,” Gonzalez Hohlt said. “All applicants should be proud of their hard work and perseverance.”