IACS New Recruit Wins $102,000 in NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Friday, April 22, 2016

PhD student Alex Borowicz earns $34,000 for three years     

By Taylor Ha

At five in the morning, Alex Borowicz woke up to find a hard-earned and welcomed message in his inbox. He discovered that he was one of the 2,000 awardees of this year’s NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). Out of 17,000 applicants, he was one of the lucky 12%. “Still being mostly asleep, it was exciting, but muted excitement,” he said with a chuckle.” Yet as the week continued, the reality of his achievement finally settled in.

The grandfather of all graduate fellowships since 1952, the GRFP funds outstanding graduate students pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in the STEM fields at accredited American institutions. Past NSF fellows include Google founder Sergey Brin and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

“They’re basically giving you a salary, and that takes away your need to do things like being a teaching assistant or doing other work like that,” Borowicz said. In other words, the fellowship allows him to conduct his research without worrying about having to earn a stipend. Alex’s research is on quantitative ecology, specifically the population dynamics of several seal species in the Antarctic and the ways in which the environment’s changing marine conditions affect how these seals live.

Most people never get to witness the infamously frigid, stark climate of the Antarctic. Borowicz has visited the continent three times. “They’re unlike anything else. Hundreds of feet of ice sitting on top of islands that you can’t even see because they’re just covered.” He recalled a stark landscape with a minimal color palette, and apparently, the weather is not always as cold as one might imagine. “We’re down there in the summer, the southern summer, so it’s not bad. It’s around freezing, so it’s often colder back home than it is in Antarctica when I’m there,” Borowicz said.

His adviser Heather Lynch, an Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University, specializes in the Antarctic ecology, and she is one of his most proud supporters. “It’s very difficult for my students to support their research through TA-ing because they’re often gone both fall and spring semester or portions of both fall and spring semester,” she said, noting that her students conduct their fieldwork right in the middle of the academic calendar year. “The fellowship will give him the freedom to extend that time in the field and not be tied down by responsibilities teaching back here on campus.” She also added that it’s difficult for graduate students to secure these fellowships on their first attempt. For Borowicz, that apparently wasn’t the case. “This is the first time Alex had applied,” she said.

So how will Borowicz spend the $102,000? Much of his money will go toward housing or, in his words, “to not starve to death.” According to Borowicz, graduate student stipends rarely keep up with today’s high cost of living nationwide. “It’s a real challenge for graduate students to be able to afford housing and all sorts of things they need to live on the money they’re given,” he said. “So this makes life a little bit easier.” 

To read more about Alex's accomplishments, visit http://www.stonybrook.edu/happenings/student-spotlight/2016-nsf-graduate-research-fellow-alexander-borowicz/