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Research Beyond Boundaries
Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowships give doctoral students unique flexibility
Patrick Ye, MS '12, PhD '16, is hot on the trail of new treatments for brain disorders. He believes that noninvasive ultrasound could someday help Parkinson's and epilepsy patients. Yet despite a high-powered collaboration with leading advisors, his project was unable to gain federal funding. The problem? His work did not fit neatly into a single category.
"Traditional funders ask you to check off a box: 'Is this neuroscience, imaging, or engineering?' My research is all three. There's no box for me," explains Ye, the Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Fellow.
His outside-the-box work made Ye a perfect candidate for a Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship (SIGF). Launched in 2008, this highly selective, three-year program gives promising young scholars like Ye the freedom to pursue research across traditional boundaries—enabling them to design research areas encompassing multiple disciplines, schools, and advisors.
This flexibility can lead to whole new fields of study—and is exactly what motivates donors who have endowed such fellowships to date.
"Interdisciplinary thinking is very powerful," says Bob Bertelson, '82, who endowed the Robert and Lisa Bertelson Graduate Fellowship together with his wife. "One thing that makes Stanford so great is its iconoclastic approach to problems and its openness to new ways of doing things. Creating an SIGF is an excellent way to encourage that."
Because SIGFs have a term of three years, these fellowships present an opportunity for donors to learn about new fellows as they are chosen. Bertelson points out, "We look forward to seeing what outstanding people will be supported by our gift."
Donors also have choices about their fellowship gifts. They may indicate preferences for broad areas of study (such as the environment or biosciences), or leave them completely open to any exciting interdisciplinary research.
Reducing Dependence on Federal Funding
Bertelson decided to support the program when he learned that SIGFs are one of President Hennessy's highest priorities.
Hennessy and others are hoping to decrease the impact of future federal funding cuts and increase the options available to graduate students. Stanford has a strong record of securing private funding for graduate students, yet federal funding still accounts for approximately 40 percent of doctoral student support.
In contrast to federal funding and other traditional kinds of doctoral student support, these fellowships are portable, meaning that the support travels with the fellow, not a professor, department, or research grant—allowing doctoral students to focus on solving the problems that motivate them the most.
The university's goal is to endow 100 SIGFs by the end of August 2015. This effort is so vital that Stanford is offering one-to-one matching funds for SIGF gifts, with support from a generous anonymous donor.
The Freedom to Conduct Vital Research
Today, these gifted students include Laura Bloomfield, '07, MS '10, PhD '16, MD '18. With support from the James and Nancy Kelso Fellowship, Bloomfield has designed her own research project to investigate how infectious diseases are being shared between primates and humans living near Uganda's Kibale National Park. She studies how human land use and people's social networks may impact the transmission of these diseases.
Having an SIGF helped her secure additional funding, which allowed her to hire eight field researchers to collect data and blood samples in rural communities near the park. Her research could provide vital information to scientists and health officials trying to understand how environmental and social factors affect infectious disease outbreaks.
"Having an SIGF is an incredible opportunity. It gives me unique freedom to pursue the research questions I'm passionate about," Bloomfield says.