Human Advice from a Successful National Science Foundation REU Applicant

Series: How I Found My Research Opportunity
By Gavin Wagner (’23, SEBS/HC)

It’s August 5th, 2022. I turn my car key and crank the AC. At 7:00 am, the New Mexico sun has already warmed my black car. It’s hot, but I find patience. I’ll need it–today, I’m driving home. I lift my eyes, glancing out the windshield at my new friends. They wave and smile, and vignettes of our time together flood my mind. I crest the dirt road that rollercoasters away from the field station and towards I-25. A happy tear grazes my smile.

Around the same time last year, I sat on a much cooler porch with my fellow camp counselor Jessie as we decompressed after a salamander-filled nature walk with young campers. Camp is my happy place, I told her, but I knew it would always be there for me. I wanted to try something that I might not always get to do. I wanted to explore, learn, and test my boundaries next summer.

I knew I wanted to study ecology, so Jessie suggested that I look into the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduate Program (NSF REU). Through this program, the NSF stipends students for conducting interest-specific research. It felt right for me, but a Google search revealed how competitive the application process was. Jessie propped up my confidence: “You’re practically already an ecologist. They’ll love you!” Daunting as it sounded, the program soon became my goal.

Come January, I would apply to ecology REU sites out west. I combed through Reddit and online how-tos, slowly realizing that this might be more complicated than I thought. With hundreds of REU sites offering only 5-10 spots each, I’d have to run the gauntlet. Online advice was pretty consistent: procure extraordinary letters of recommendation, write phenomenal essays, and apply to 10-15 sites. My gut turned. How could I possibly muster the intention to build a single competitive application while juggling ten or more tailored essays, references, and resumes?

This uneasiness traces back to my work ethic. I have found ways to reduce stress, by minimizing the difficulty of my input AND maximizing the quality of my output. In other words, I try to work smarter, not harder. No all-nighters allowed.

These morals of mine left me unsteady about the so-called “tried-and-true” frantic methods of writing competitive applications for stacks of REUs, internships, and other opportunities. If I spread Gavin out too much, would each application really contain any Gavin? They wouldn’t be authentic.

Still unsure, I narrowed my list to seven REU sites. In hindsight, this was still too many.

This is my first point of advice to any prospective applicant: pick one to three opportunities that you can pour your heart into, not opportunities that just sound cool.

With four applications done, I decided to scrap one and focus on the final two—Colorado and New Mexico. Spring semester crept up on me. However, my Principles of Ecology class revved my enthusiasm for the topic I hoped to study in the coming summer. I let my enthusiasm level up my applications.

I scoured current literature, pertinent history, and important people for each site. I began to see myself in Colorado or New Mexico, which helped me craft authentic personal statements with clear goals.

I moved away from general statements that speculated what each experience would bring to me. I moved towards specific statements that outlined what I could bring to each site as a human and as a scientist.

Confidence swelling, I turned in my applications.

It took about a month for the rejections to start flowing in and by the Ides of March, I had received no’s from all but Colorado and New Mexico…and suffered a bad stomach bug. Brutal. Despite the odds, I felt hopeful.

During spring break, I ventured into the Adirondack Mountains to learn about the North Woods in my Winter Field Ecology class. It was a week to recharge my batteries, reconnect with nature, and replace phone time with human time. I made new friends who helped me see myself as an ecologist whether or not I got into any REU program. I felt loved, but deep down, I started to make plans to work at summer camp again.

At our last dinner, I caved and checked my phone. I found two emails: Colorado was a no, but the other was a kind message from Renée from Albuquerque. Enthused by my interests, she wanted to discuss opportunities at the Sevilleta Field Station. I jumped, replied with a message of affirmation, and celebrated with a snow angel.

The next week, erratic LX bus behavior left me frantic and late for my interview (nightmare). Renée understood, though, because I gave her a heads-up (reality). During the interview, when Renée asked if I had anything to share, I reflected on my day.

“Life is a series of learning experiences and tolerance exercises. A few weeks ago, a stomach bug managed to mimic appendicitis and land me in the ER. Painful as it was, I learned what a CT scan is, what foods to eat when I’m sick to my stomach, and how to set obligations aside when I need to care for myself. Today, I sweat bullets on that bus. I thought my lateness was unacceptable. Through the panic, I practiced tolerance. It sucked, but life happens. I took a deep breath and did the adult thing. I communicated, I came late, and it was okay.”

Renée smiled and told me she’d be in touch.

Monday morning’s emails included a job offer from Renée. I replied with my acceptance, eager to reconvene and plan out my summer. My job would be all that I envisioned and more: I would work with a network of 15 long-term climate monitoring stations across the refuge, using their data to contextualize 40 years of vegetation changes over time. With spare time, I would also create a 360-degree VR photo tour to showcase the inner workings of the Sevilleta Long-Term Ecological Research program. It would be a beautiful mess of art, ecology, and history.

I was in my element–emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. I became one with the desert on top of the mesa behind my house. I felt the kindness of my silly group of housemates. I witnessed the cool and heavy July rain nourish the drylands to a vibrant green. I learned that work can be play, that research can be a youthful adventure, and that desert shrubs can be thirsty. This was more than professional development; it was human development.

Because I legitimately enjoyed every second, I’ll carry it with me and apply it to my everyday life. My passion and pride stand out, eliminating fears of not living up to extrinsic expectations. I have the energy, so I may as well leave my own footprints.

I believe that this time of my life is all about taking risks, cultivating learning experiences, and growing through trial and error. I offer two final pieces of advice:

  1. If you’re considering applying to something to bolster your resume or LinkedIn, don’t. You won’t really be applying yourself at all; you’ll be applying someone else’s expectations. To apply yourself, follow YOUR heart to opportunities that fit YOUR passions.
  2. If you’re tempted to pile your plate with responsibilities and obligations to stand out in the crowd, don’t. You’ll only burn yourself out. Do what works for you and your confidence will be enough.

My desert friends fade in the rearview mirror. With my last few hours in New Mexico (for now) ahead of me, I dream about what’s next. Renée and I already planned to continue my project as a part of my honors capstone. I prepare to spend time at home, move into a new house with old friends, and venture into my fourth year at Rutgers. I melt into the seat, feeling the resonance among all I looked forward to. My next chapter awaits.

HOW TO APPLY: The NSF REU applications vary by host institution—most open in December or January.