Discovery Files

It's a family affair

Sixty years later, Graduate Research Fellowship recipient's granddaughter receives prestigious NSF fellowship

On April 1, the National Science Foundation announced this year's class of Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) recipients--2,000 students representing all states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. commonwealths and territories. For one of this year's awardees, Kate Devlin, the GRF runs in the family: Sixty years ago, Kate's grandfather, Tom Devlin, also received this prestigious NSF fellowship. Although the GRF is fundamentally still the same fellowship, changes in the sciences and academia in the past half century have meant a different experience for grandfather and grandaughter.

GRF financial support provides freedom and flexibility

As an undergraduate at Brown University, Kate enrolled in an introductory neuroscience course and "fell in love with it." Kate's grandfather, Tom Devlin, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and taught in the discipline for over four decades, recalls how "that course excited her. She was eager to talk about things she had learned." Today, Kate is a second-year graduate student in a clinical psychology program at Temple University in Philadelphia, the city where both Kate and her grandfather grew up, two generations apart.

Kate is fascinated by questions surrounding the neuropsychological implications of stress and infectious diseases, describing herself as "very passionate about the biological basis of human behavior and cognition." For her master's thesis, Kate investigated how HIV infection and behaviors related to health maintenance interact to affect nervous system and cognitive function. The research she plans to pursue with her fellowship expands upon this question by examining how a cascade of life experiences and exposures, such as socioeconomic status, health behaviors, and inflammatory processes, may affect neurocognitive function.

Due to the clinical nature of the program and her pursuit of training in neuroscience, Kate's degree has extra requirements compared to a typical doctoral program in psychology. With so many aspects of her program competing for her already budgeted time, Kate is very thankful for the GRF: The stipend support will free Kate from having to commit to a teaching or research assistantship to cover her expenses. As a result, Kate can devote more time to her own research, interdisciplinary coursework, and broader impacts activities. Beyond the impact on her studies day to day, Kate also notes that "just the opportunity to be recognized is a major honor."

Professor Tom Devlin recalls how his granddaughter's interests included every subject when she was younger. "I wasn't sure where she would go, because she enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of everything," says Tom. He notes that he "never tried to pressure her into anything--she's too independent for that." Even so, not only did this grandfather-granddaughter pair both receive Graduate Research Fellowships, but both also pursued doctoral degrees in the biological sciences.

Tom Devlin received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, where he investigated mitochondrial energy transduction under Professor Albert Lehninger. For his first year of graduate school, Tom held a teaching assistantship, which paid $1,200 per year. Then, his advisor proposed that he apply for a research fellowship from the NSF. Tom received the fellowship for the 1954-55 academic year. The award offered an annual stipend of $1,400, but more than that, it offered prestige. His department was "very pleased, because I was the only one in the department to receive a fellowship at that time."

More importantly, Tom sees the fellowship--as well as a later fellowship that he received from the National Institutes of Health--as a major contributor to his early professional credibility. Tom believes that the fellowship "really helped me to develop into an independent researcher very quickly." Additionally, with Tom's tuition and living expenses covered, Professor Lehninger was able to use his funds from the university to send Tom to professional meetings, an important opportunity that not all of Tom's peers had available.

Tom is excited for his granddaughter and hopeful for her professional future. "The fellowship gives her an opportunity to branch out...I have kidded her that she's doing professional things before I did them in my own career."

Impact of family support and mentorship

Tom was raised in a blue-collar family, in which neither of his parents had attended college. While Tom recalls his father as hardworking and devoted to his family, he credits his success in school to his mother, who "was highly supportive of education." Although Tom excelled in his high school studies, before he could pursue college, he was obligated to find work so that he could afford the tuition.

After graduating from high school, Tom took a job as an assistant in an organic chemistry laboratory at a small company. At night, he attended courses at the University of Pennsylvania. Two years later, Tom was offered a new opportunity as a laboratory technician for Britton Chance, Director of the E. R. Johnson Research Foundation for Medical Physics, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Tom flourished under Chance, crediting Chance's mentorship with his choice to pursue graduate school: "My family had no idea what a Ph.D. was--but I knew," he says.

For graduate school, Tom elected to attend Johns Hopkins University under Professor Lehninger, Professor and Chair, Department of Physiological Chemistry in the Medical School. Having already been integral in pushing him to apply for fellowships, Professor Lehninger helped Tom locate a postdoctoral research position at Merck & Co., where Tom encountered the third most influential person in his professional career, George Boxer. "I feel so fortunate to have had three extremely wonderful mentors in my path and my career. I stayed friends with all three of them throughout their lives," relates Tom.

Like her grandfather, Kate attributes much of her academic success to the emotional support that she has received from her family. "We do whatever we can to expose our grandchildren to the world," says Tom. Additionally, Kate was raised in a family environment where education, particularly in science and mathematics, was highly regarded. Her father holds a Ph.D. and is a human services consultant, while her mother graduated Phi Beta Kappa and now serves as a fundraising consultant to universities and colleges. All four of Kate's grandparents were educators at one point or another. She notes that "from all of them, I gained an appreciation of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and specific interests in biology, statistics, and psychology, which influenced my own academic trajectory."

Contributions to STEM education via broader impacts

The Devlin family's deeply rooted commitment to community involvement also explains why Kate is so committed to STEM education outreach as a middle and high school science fair coach and judge, an endeavor that she has incorporated into her graduate studies. Says Tom, "Kate grew up in an environment where this was always going on, giving back and doing something for somebody else without asking for any sort of recognition or reward--just because it's the right thing to do."

Following his time as a fellowship recipient, Professor Devlin has also contributed immensely to the science education field. Tom's path after graduate school was somewhat nontraditional at the time. Instead of pursuing an academic appointment, Tom initially worked in industry, at the Merck Institute, which at one point sent him to Brussels for a sabbatical to study embryology. While at Merck, Tom was offered and accepted the position of Professor and Chair, Department of Biochemistry at Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital (now Drexel University College of Medicine). This position afforded him the opportunity to return to two things he loved, teaching and research.

Tom was chair for 38 years and is now professor emeritus. In 1982, Tom edited and authored a textbook on biochemistry for use by medical students. This textbook, titled the Textbook of Biochemistry with Clinical Correlations, has undergone six additional editions and has been translated into multiple languages. It is used throughout the world today.

Changes in GRF and the biological sciences over time

Much has changed at NSF and in the biological sciences since 1953, when Tom first entered graduate school for a doctoral degree in biochemistry. For example, in addition to the original STEM fields supported by GRF, the modern program also funds graduate students in the social and computer sciences, as well as research tracks focused on STEM education and materials science. Initially, the fellowship provided one year of stipend ($1,400 in 1953), tuition, and lab fees, renewable for up to three years, and allowances were given for spouses, children, and travel. Today, however, the GRF guarantees three full years of funding, including a stipend of $32,000.

In 1954, the program received 2,500 applicants and offered 467 fellowships; in 2014, the GRF received more than 13,500 applicants and awarded 2,000 new fellowships. The GRF program has also added a supplement for international opportunities, called Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide (GROW), which will support approximately 150 current fellows in the pursuit of international research collaborations this year alone. Additionally, today, broader impacts activities are a formal aspect of each student's application.

The GRF program has been as much responsive to field-driven change as it has been the catalyst for change. In particular, with a strong focus on broadening the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM disciplines at the graduate level, the current GRF class is now about 54 percent female. Additionally, 382 of this year's awardees are from underrepresented minority groups, 55 are persons with disabilities, and 37 are U.S. military veterans.

Meanwhile, the life sciences have led the way in terms of engaging and advancing more women. When Tom was in graduate school, only 12 percent of NSF fellowship-receiving doctoral students in the biological sciences were women. At the same time, the normative baccalaureate-to-doctorate time to degree for male students was just over eight years. For female students, the average was approximately 9.5 years, although many took more than a decade, if they finished at all: while approximately 90 percent of male students ultimately completed their degrees, only 56 percent of female students attained theirs.

Tom recalls only two women out of 90 students in the first medical school class that he taught, which was in 1953. Even in the mid-1960s, females accounted for less than 10 percent of medical students. Today, nearly 48 percent of students graduating from medical school are female, although acceptance rates of women still fall slightly below those of men. Tom, who is "absolutely pleased" at the advances made in the medical field in terms of gender representation, recalls disagreeing with another member of an admissions committee who claimed that women were not worth considering because most would simply leave the profession to have children.

"We've made mistakes in the past," says Tom, in reference to the gender discrimination that women have faced in STEM. "I think of all of those individuals who could have accomplished things in the 40s, 50s, and never had the opportunity. How do we know who will become the next Nobel laureate?"

In this sense, Kate feels fortunate but recognizes that "although much progress has been made regarding the participation of women in the sciences, as evidenced by the number of women receiving NSF GRFs in 2014 versus 1954, there's still much work to be done. I've been fortunate to have my scientific endeavors supported by family, teachers and mentors--and now NSF--but many women and girls, particularly those of color or limited socioeconomic resources, face both overt barriers and subtle prejudices that discourage them from pursuing a career in the sciences."

Tom's greatest wish for his granddaughter is an exciting professional career in STEM. "I want her to have the same passion for her field as I had for biochemistry. There wasn't a day in my life that I didn't go to work looking forward to everything I could do. I want her to have that."