Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Finding Funding in Unexpected Places

Today’s guest blogger is Sabrina Stierwalt. Sabrina is currently a L’Oreal For Women in Science Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Virginia. Her research uses multiwavelength observations of nearby galaxy mergers to understand the cosmological assembly history of galaxies. Her most current work focuses on low metallicity, merger-driven star formation and the subsequent enrichment of the ISM in interacting dwarf galaxies.

Astronomy research funding through the usual NSF and NASA channels is shrinking to the point that some agencies have considered capping the number of proposals a scientist can submit. Other programs, like NASA’s 2015 Astrophysics Theory program, are being cut altogether. As a predominantly longer wavelength astronomer, I also don’t typically benefit from funds allocated with my telescope time since I rely on ground-based radio facilities as my workhorses.

So as a postdoc on a (never ending?) quest to fund my research in the financial landscape before me, one thing became clear. It was time to get creative. That’s how I found the L’Oréal USA For Women in Science program

Someone in biology or chemistry, however, would not likely consider this move creative. L’Oréal’s FWIS program is very well known and highly respected in many STEM fields. The US branch of the FWIS program has awarded $2.5 million to over 55 women since the grant program began in 2003. The larger, global L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science International Fellowship program began in 1998 and has supported more than 2,000 scientists in over 100 countries. AAAS, an organization more astronomers are likely familiar with, manages the peer review and selection process and administers the grants. Fellows are chosen for “their exceptional academic records and intellectual merit, clearly articulated research proposals with the potential for scientific advancement and … their commitment to supporting other women and girls in science.”

So why is the US-based FWIS program relatively unheard of in astronomy?

Well, it could be that although there are a few physicists on the list of former FWIS fellows, I was the first astronomer to be selected. The applicant pool is spread out over all science, engineering, and mathematics disciplines, and most commonly goes to chemists or biologists. Every year L’Oréal selects five fellows, and last year they received around 650 applications. Those odds are tough, but they are still better than many faculty searches. 

Perhaps the bigger issue though is that we astronomers have not yet heard what this award is all about. I certainly had no idea what I was getting myself into when I applied for and then accepted the fellowship. 

First off, the L’Oréal FWIS program provides a $60,000 grant for female postdocs meant to be spent over a period of a year. Compare that to the more well-known Sloan Research Fellowships that provide $50,000 over a two-year period. A FWIS fellow can propose to use that money in whatever ways her research requires – purchasing equipment, hiring undergraduates, traveling to observatories, salary, etc. 

For the US-based program, applicants have to be U.S. citizens or permanent residents, must be based at a US institution, and either currently be a postdoc or have plans to start as a postdoc by the start of the award period. 

The program includes a professional development component, including a day of media training at the AAAS offices to practice the art of communicating our research to a general audience. They also connect fellows with high level members of the House Committee of Science, Space, and Technology, the White House Council on Women and Girls, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to foster discussions on ways to improve the climate for women in academia and to offer role models for women looking to pursue careers in scientific policy. 

Thanks to the reputation of the award, I have been contacted by recruiters from industry, and thus as a bonus have made helpful connections should I choose to pursue scientific research outside of academia as well. I can also now add elle and Teen Vogue to my list of citations. I wonder how that affects my h index?

The application deadline for the 2015 fellows program just passed last month, and I received 19 (!) requests for advice, mostly from women and astronomers whom I had never met. The advice I gave was first and foremost to, obviously, have an awesome research program that you are passionate about. Have you ever served on a TAC or other fellowship committee and read a proposal from someone who isn’t completely invested in the project? As a reader, you can tell. We are told that “enthusiasm is contagious” and this is even more relevant when we are promoting astronomy to scientists from other STEM fields.

At the heart of the FWIS program is the catchy slogan, “The world needs science and science needs women.” L’Oréal’s goal is to offer support to women at a critical stage of their careers, the postdoctoral period, when many women leave choose to leave academia. Since my proposed budget was dominated by a salary request, I explained in my application how crucial an additional year of time as a postdoc can be for someone who relies on biannual or even only annual telescope deadlines. The cycle of proposal planning + telescope deadline + interminable waiting period for TAC decision + (hopefully) approval + interminable waiting period for data collection + observations is not necessarily obvious outside of astronomy.

This year the FWIS program also added a new criterion that fellows be actively investing themselves in the community and in training future scientists. In my experience, if you have not already made such efforts a priority, this is also not something you can convincingly fake. Some of my efforts include working with NASA to develop classroom materials depicting scientists from a broader range of backgrounds, bringing a portable planetarium to underserved communities in rural Virginia, and a weekly Everyday Einstein science podcast with an international audience. 

Some people may disagree, but I also think it doesn’t hurt to show some personality in your application. This can be hard for scientists since the standard for our normal writing is so dry. For women, breaking with formality can carry the extra risk of fear of not being taken seriously. However, when we are looking to private corporations or foundations outside of the normal funding channels, I think it helps to color outside the lines a little.   

For more information on the FWIS program, check out:

To see the type of research FWIS funds as highlighted in short videos about this (and past) year’s fellows, check out the youtube channel here (but please try to ignore the fact that my glasses are crooked because my toddler bent them earlier that morning):