Two Brigham Young University seniors graduating Thursday will be using prestigious post-graduate fellowships worth up to $121,500 each to pursue doctorates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The National Science Foundation recently named as 2008 Fellows Christopher Palmer, of Belmont, Mass., graduating in economics, and Colin Landon, of Grass Valley, Calif., graduating in mechanical engineering. The three-year award includes an annual $30,000 stipend, plus tuition, for master’s and doctoral work.
BYU is 10th in the nation in the number of alumni who earn doctorates, and Palmer and Landon say they benefitted from the university’s tradition of preparing students for graduate work. Despite coming from drastically different academic disciplines, both noted that their unusual access to research faculty as undergraduates was one of the strongest points in their applications for the NSF grants and top-tier graduate schools.
Such preparation was noticed by director of admissions and aid for the University of Chicago’s graduate economics program, who met with Palmer after he applied there.
“[Palmer] is at the top of our list—and that includes over 500 applications from great universities all over the world,” said John List, also a professor of economics. “I can honestly say that of all the universities around the world, the top undergraduate economics majors at BYU are consistently at the top of the pile in terms of readiness to matriculate to the University of Chicago. Give me a few good BYU graduates and I will have the makings of a wonderful class.”
List said of the BYU economics faculty that the “continual effort that they ubiquitously give to train students” is a major factor in the success of their undergraduate program, something Palmer saw firsthand.
“BYU’s faculty are so willing to stop you in the hall or invite you into their offices to talk to you about your experiences or interests,” Palmer said. “When I was visiting graduate schools, other faculty would comment that they were floored by the attention that BYU undergraduates get in comparison to other top universities.”
Among other research projects, Palmer traveled to Armenia, where he had previously served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to research economic benefits of higher education there. Funding for the field study and preparatory research came from a grant from BYU’s Office of Research and Creative Activities.
After returning, he continued his research and made it the focus of his honors senior thesis.
“My research work is so indicative of the complete BYU experience,” Palmer said. “It ties together my mission, interacting with international governmental representatives on campus, mentoring from the economics faculty, and help from the Honors Department to get my applications together for funding.”
Across campus in a laboratory in the engineering building, Landon’s undergraduate experience involved considerable hands-on work studying how to make materials stronger and last longer. He eventually was the lead author on a paper published in an academic journal and a co-author on several others. In addition to the NSF Fellowship, Landon won the prestigious National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, which is worth approximately $200,000 (although he’s only allowed to use one at a time).
“My second semester I was in a materials science class, and just out of the blue the professor asked if anyone wanted to do research with him. I felt like it was an answer to a prayer,” Landon said of his mentor Brent Adams. “He specifically works to get undergraduates involved at a level that at a typical university would be reserved for graduate students.”
Learning along the way, Landon described a long chain of events that prepared him for the NSF Fellowship, beginning with a personal challenge he made as a sophomore.
“When I had just joined my faculty mentor’s team, he was telling me about one of his students that received an NSF fellowship, and I decided that I wanted to do that,” Landon said. “I had to work hard for a long time, but here I am two-and-a-half years later, and I got it.”
Looking back on their BYU experiences, both students feel grateful for the rigorous preparation the university provided them.
“Walking away from BYU, I can’t imagine having gone to another university,” said Landon, the engineering major. “I got an amazing education that I don’t think I would have received had I gone to any other place in the United States or the world. Being here has really shaped the things I will be able to do in the future.”
In addition to his academic aims, as he leaves the university, Palmer, the economics major, has internalized the campus motto “enter to learn, go forth to serve.”
“The most important thing I learned at the university was perspective,” Palmer said. “It’s not the objective of life nor the professional world to be the person who publishes the most or gets the most attention; it’s about who you are influencing along the way.”
Three recent BYU graduates were also named 2008 NSF Fellows and are already in graduate school:
· Marian Adamson is studying bioengineering at the University of Michigan.
· Brigham Frandsen will welcome Palmer into the economics program at MIT.
· Adam Washburn is studying analytical chemistry at the University of Illinois.
Writer: Chris Giovarelli