Ride the SURF: Tips and advice on applying for the ASPB Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship

Kevin harvesting leaf tissue in Geneva [ph: J Labatte]
Kevin harvesting leaf tissue in Geneva [photo J Labatte]
Insight from a 2015 SURF Fellow

The ASPB Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) is a spectacular opportunity to embark on an independent project over the summer, earn money, present your research, and expand your resume. Applying to nationally competitive fellowships is a daunting task. Only 15 students are awarded the SURF (10 from doctoral granting institutions and 5 from primarily undergraduate universities) so awards can be very competitive. If it’s your first time every applying (or even if it’s your tenth) for one it seems like there are a million things to learn about applications and proposals in such a short amount of time. It takes time, focus, and a good bit of luck to make an application that persuades the committee that you and your project are worth their money. Hopefully this blog post can answer some of your questions and get you feeling confident in your ASPB application!

First let’s talk about logistics of the application because the last thing you want is the physical constraints or the application structure hampering your success:

  1. Your project proposal has 2 main components the actual 1 page proposal and a page where you show you’re prepared enough (through coursework and past experience) to complete the project. This is where you can ‘brag’ about past experiences, research fellowships, possible manuscripts (co-author or first author), outreach, tutoring. Anything that you’ve done that you think qualifies you for completing what is hopefully an ambitious project. They’re both super important so make sure to devote ample time to both parts of the application!
  1. You’re very space limited so one way to gain a few very valuable lines is to change your citation style to an abbreviated version (I did author, journal, volume, issue, year and shrunk the text down very small). You can also internally cite papers with superscript like so1 to save even more space. Furthermore the text size for works cited is not specified. As long as your font is readable you can shrink it down as much as you can and gain precious line space.
  1. Don’t forget to make your personal statement personal! This may seem obvious, but sometimes people are tempted to make their personal statement look like their resume put to paper. That’s a huge mistake because your personal statement is your only real chance to show who you are as a person, what you’ve been through, and what inspires you to do plant biology. Don’t pass up on that opportunity, it might be the thing that gives you an edge over other applicants.

Once you have the logistics down you can start perfecting your application and making it as appealing as possible for the review committee:

  1. Remember, no one writes a perfect draft the first or even the tenth time. Send out your essays to as many people as you can. Your adviser, other professors you know, post-docs in the lab, graduate students, your undergraduate peers, any staff you know (I sent mine to the assistant director of undergraduate research and the director of the fellowships office). Make sure you get edits often, but don’t drown your editors in copies all the time! Ideally you have certain people who can edit for grammar and sentence structure and others who can edits science and methods. Crowd sourcing like this is a great way to make a fantastic proposal/essay.
  1. I perceive ASPB as being a fairly applied and translational research type of society (It’s definitely not the Botanical Society of America which is much more geared toward naturalists and basic plant research), so if you can make your project seem more applied that’s great! Talk about agriculture or plant-based pharmaceuticals that could stem from your findings. Even if you’re doing basic research still talk about the societal and economic impact of plants on the world.
  1. Finally, ASPB can be a great opportunity for you to branch out or build on collaborations of your current lab (if you have one). My application was between my PI and a collaborator that allowed me to experience a new lab and learn a new field, which I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. One benefit to this strategy is that you can get a stronger letter of recommendation because you can’t get a letter of recommendation from your ASPB-SURF mentor. Having your mentor be someone besides your home institution PI lets you get a letter of recommendation from someone who has more knowledge and familiarity about you as a person and as a researcher.

Applying for fellowships like the ASPB SURF can be a challenging and frightening task, but with the proper amount of work and advice from other experienced undergraduates and graduate students the challenge is completely surmountable.

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