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July 8, 2024

Student view: Being accepted to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

Maxwell Harman
Maxwell Harman

Maxwell Harman is a second year Ph.D. student in the Genetics & Genome Sciences and Molecular Plant Sciences programs. He is passionate about combining science, outreach and service to benefit ag producers and consumers.

Harman has been accepted to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, or GRFP. According to the website, the goal of GRFP is to “help ensure the quality, vitality and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce of the United States,” and was established to recruit and support individuals who demonstrate the potential to make significant contributions in STEM. It is a five-year fellowship that provides three years of financial support to the recipients.

My research statement was titled "Uncapping Carbon Capture – Elucidating and Engineering the Final Limits of Photosynthesis” and focuses on my work to understand triose phosphate utilization limitation. TPU is a limitation in plant cells that sets an upper “ceiling” on the rate of photosynthesis, no matter how much carbon dioxide and light might be available.   

This work combines both “forward” and “reverse” genetics approaches to find new genes involved in TPU as well as test hypotheses involving already known genes.  Ultimately, my goal is to design genetic engineering strategies to lift the TPU “ceiling” on photosynthesis, which could lead to more productive plants and higher rates of CO2 absorption.

With GRFP, I’ve now secured independent funding for what will likely be the entirety of my Ph.D., which gives me the freedom to continue pursuing high-risk/reward projects. Beyond that though, it's a very deep and personal validation. I started GRFP applications in my undergrad and first year but came to the very hard conclusion that my work didn’t have the intellectual merit to be competitive.  

I had prioritized a well-rounded, service/leadership-focused undergraduate experience, and worried that I was “behind” in terms of scientific development. Receiving GRFP validates that “extracurricular” work and personal growth.

As a PBHS (Plant Biotechnology for Health and Sustainability) trainee, I’ve been able to start projects where I was interested and without the constraints of the lab’s current grants, and GRFP means I can confidently move forward without fear of having to change projects to fit within grant limitations. Having a significant national award under my belt early in my Ph.D. also builds momentum and can open doors for future success too.

A big thank you to the many people who have provided opportunities for me to grow personally and professionally over the years!

This story was adapted from a piece that ran on the College of Natural Science website.