Impact and Innovation

Impact and Innovation

The impact of the U.S. National Science Foundation's Research Traineeship Program reaches far beyond the classroom and the lab.

NRTs are allowing todays researchers to explore some of the most critical questions facing our society, from harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence to addressing the escalating crisis of climate change. At the same time, NRTs are helping to prepare the researchers of tomorrow: a new generation of STEM leaders that reflects the diversity America's communities and possesses the skills and knowledge to develop innovative solutions to the challenges that lie ahead.

Trainees: Tomorrow’s STEM workforce

Student researchers, wearing goggles and lab coats, work at a laboratory bench.
Credit: Rob Felt, Georgia Tech
Krish Roy lab, Researchers work in the cell manufacturing laboratory of Krishnendu Roy at Georgia Tech. Shown, left to right, are NSF Graduate Research Fellow Joscelyn Mejias, Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program student Angela Jimenez, (background) postdoctoral fellow Randall Toy, Georgia Tech Research Institute TAG-Ed High School Intern Gita Balakirsky, and project ENGAGES high school intern Ayanna Prather.

Through the NRT program, thousands of graduate students have pursued cutting-edge research and prepared for careers in STEM fields and beyond. There are currently 1500 trainees participating in the NRT program.

"[The NSF Research Traineeship at] BU URBAN allows me to work with researchers in different disciplines and community members. I truly believe it's going to allow me to do what I want in the future, which is really work at this nexus of communities, environment and public health, in a way that's actually going to inform policy and change people's lives."

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Institutions: Building research capacity

Lia Medeiros headshot
Credit: Lia Medeiros

Over 130 research institutions across the country — in 43 states, the District of Columbia, and the US. Virgin Islands — have launched NRT projects through more than $400 million in NSF investments.

  • Over 200 researchers have been named principal investigators of NRT projects since 2014.
  • Over 300 partnerships have been formed between NRT projects and regional governments, museums, private enterprises, and nonprofit organizations.

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Science: Advancing key discoveries

Rice plants growing in Lemna Tech High Throughput Phenotyping facility
Credit: University Communication/University of Nebraska-Lincoln
A research project by principal investigator Harkamal Walia at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln focuses on ensuring global food security by improving crop resilience. Here, Walia checks the progress of a rice plant growing in the Lemna Tech High Throughput Phenotyping facility at the Greenhouse Innovation Center on the Nebraska Innovation Campus. The magenta glow is caused by custom light-emitting diode grow lights. The facility is an automated system which moves the plants via conveyor belts and automatically waters them, then records their growth daily using various cameras and instruments. More about this image The National Science Foundation (NSF) made eight awards totaling $41.7 million for projects aimed at building capacity to research a national priority area: understanding the relationship in organisms between genetic material, or genotype, and physical characteristics due to gene expression and environmental influences, or phenotype. The genotype-to-phenotype relationship has significant societal and economic implications across scientific fields and areas of industry, including but not limited to medicine, agriculture, biotechnology and ecology. An enhanced understanding of this relationship holds the potential for improved food crop yields, better prediction of human disease risk and new drug therapies. Through these investments, NSF aims to provide the scientific community with new tools and resources for future discoveries. The awards were made through NSF's Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) as part of its Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) Track-2 investment strategy. "Over the past several decades, scientists and engineers have made massive strides in decoding, amassing and storing genomic data," said Denise Barnes, Head of NSF's Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) Program. "But understanding how genomics influence phenotype remains one of the more profound challenges in science. These awards lay the groundwork for closing some of the biggest gaps in biological knowledge and developing interdisciplinary teams needed to address the challenges." Among the awards made was for "Comparative genomics and phenomics approach to discover genes underlying heat stress resilience in cereals," principal investigator Harkamal Walia, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. To ensure global food security, there is an urgent need to improve crop resilience to high night-temperature, stress-induced losses to yield and quality. This project will focus on rice and wheat, which together provide more than 50 percent of caloric intake for humans worldwide. The project builds upon complementary expertise and infrastructure in Nebraska, Kansas and Arkansas for studying rice and wheat crops at the laboratory and field scales. The project will translate these discoveries into genetic and phenotypic markers for public and private breeding programs and develop a broad continuum for plant science research and education. Collaboration with key industry partners will ensure the prompt translation of promising research findings into applications that can benefit farmers. [Research supported by NSF grant OIA 17-36192.] To learn more, see the NSF News Release NSF EPSCoR awards new projects to help understand connections between genes and organisms' characteristics.

The NRT program creates opportunities to address complex challenges that require crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries and can result in transformative scientific breakthroughs. NRT projects are advancing discoveries in critical, cutting-edge fields:

  • Over 100 NRT projects have focused on the environment and climate change.
  • Around 30 NRT projects have focused on quantum computing and networks.
  • Forty NRT projects have focused on machine learning and robotics.

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Society: Supporting community wellbeing

American Indian graduate in a field removing invasive plants.
Credit: Photo from ATE Centers Impact 2008-2010 (
A graduate of a sustainable horticultural and natural resource program removes invasive plants from municipal wastewater treatment wetlands. The Northwest Center for Sustainable Resources develops natural resource curriculum materials used by college faculty in programs that educate advanced technicians and students in natural resources and environmental majors. The Northwest Center for Sustainable Resources (NCSR) is a national resource center focused on creating, disseminating and supporting adaptation of natural resources curriculum materials. These materials feature topics including environmental monitoring, habitat preservation and restoration, mapping, instrumentation and other related skills woven within the context of managing complex ecosystems. Established in 1995 with funding from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, NCSR has become a national collaborative of partners from education, business and industry, American-Indian tribes, and government agencies, providing a unique national, natural resources-based education information network. Materials developed are used in college programs in major subject areas of environmental and biological sciences and natural resource technical courses in fisheries, forestry, wildlife and environmental science programs. Other materials focus on integrating natural resource management concepts into secondary science courses such as biology, to ensure a wide range of understanding of ecosystem-based resource sustainability. NCSR is located at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore.

By focusing on equity and inclusion, the NRT program is supporting the development of a STEM workforce with the knowledge and capacity to meet the needs of diverse communities. NRT research is informing public health workers, policymakers, advocates and others to boost community well-being. For example, an NRT at the University of Arizona contributed to the COVID-19 response on the Navajo Nation.

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