MTSU Student, Alum Tap Campus Resources to Clinch Highly Competitive NSF Research Fellowships

A recent graduate and an alumni from Middle Tennessee State University used their MTSU education and opportunities for research to land one of the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious and long-established research fellowships.

Monika Fouad, who just graduated with her degree in professional physics and biochemistry and will continue her studies at Michigan State University this fall, and Dara Zwemer, a psychology alumni and Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, both earned spots in the five-year NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

“I feel excited and grateful for the opportunity,” said Fouad, originally from Marsa Matruh, Egypt. “It will allow me flexibility to study and pursue research I’m interested in, without relying on an assistantship for income.”

“I am going to be able to really devote myself to my research and not have to (work as a teaching assistant) or complete as many external responsibilities during my time in graduate school,” said Zwemer, who is from Murfreesboro. “Having this experience and research line will set me up to become a research professor at an R1 (top research) institution, which is a future goal of mine.”

Also known as the NSF GRFP, the program provides fellows with an annual stipend of $37,000 over three years and an additional $16,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees. Since its inception in 1952, the NSF has funded over 70,000 fellowships out of more than half a million applicants, according to the program website. Forty-two of these fellows have gone on to become Nobel laureates, and over 450 have become members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Laura Clippard, a coordinator and advisor at the University Honors College, helps connect these students with multiple funding and research opportunities.

“Students interested in the NSF GRFP are able to start research here as an undergraduate with support from our Undergraduate Research Center, use that support to help apply for NSF research internship opportunities, work closely with their MTSU faculty and be proactive about networking with professors at other universities,” Clippard said, also citing resources such as the University Writing Center, the Career Development Center and the Undergraduate Fellowships Office for aiding in a fellowship pursuit.

A campus full of support

Both Fouad and Zwemer highlighted the MTSU support that helped make their fellowships possible.

“Dr. Hanna Terletska (physics professor) helped immensely with proofreading and feedback on my personal statement, as well as providing me with tips and examples for clear writing,” Fouad said. “I have greatly benefitted from various research experiences, including the AMPLIFY STEM student mentorship program Dr. Terletska leads…. Additionally, I am also grateful for recommendation letters from her and Dr. Eric Klumpe (physics professor).”

Terletska said that as the first undergraduate student from the Physics Department to receive this prestigious award, Fouad has set a remarkable precedent.

“Her success not only highlights her outstanding capabilities but also serves as a significant milestone for our institution,” Terletska said. “I have no doubt that Monika will serve as a role model for her peers at MTSU, particularly for female students who are still largely underrepresented in STEM fields.”

Fouad also credited her research experiences at other institutions, such as her summer internships at Michigan State University and Texas A&M, at aiding in her journey to becoming a fellow.

Zwemer expressed gratitude to many MTSU staff and faculty in landing the fellowship.

“Laura Clippard helped me build my confidence in applying to awards and pursuing opportunities,” Zwemer said. “The Undergraduate Research Center, in particular Dr. Jamie Burriss, also helped me to build my confidence both by supporting undergraduate research generally and by trusting me to create projects….

“The entire Psychology Department, including my research mentors Dr. John Pennington, Dr. Tim Odegard and Dr. Emily Farris (who has since transferred institutions), were all a huge help in building my skills and supporting my journey as a psychologist … and many of these individuals served as amazing letter writers for my GRFP.”

Burriss, director of the Undergraduate Research Center, said they make students their top priority with resources such as peer mentors who assist with research basics like finding a faculty mentor, formulating a research question, developing a proposal and more; a Lab Directory resource, which showcases MTSU’s research labs and groups looking for undergraduates and also which Zwemer initiated the development of; and the SOAR student organization that hosts several workshops and trainings throughout the year and was also named the top student organization of the year.

“I served as one of Dara’s recommenders, and it was an honor for me to highlight Dara’s successes and contributions to undergrad research,” Burriss said. “The most fulfilling aspect of working with students is celebrating their achievements; they are a constant source of inspiration to me, personally and professionally.

“More of our recent student successes include Ross Sibley, our 2023-24 SOAR president and URC communications ambassador, who took home the most prestigious award at MTSU – the President’s Award. Another undergraduate researcher, Sydney Robbins, won the Provost’s Award. Many of our students are off to some of the top graduate and professional schools or have already landed really impressive jobs in their industry.”

Both Fouad and Zwemer recommended students interested in pursuing a GRFP start taking advantage of MTSU’s supports and getting into research as soon as possible as well as building community connections through volunteering and other activities.

Learn more about how to get started with research and grant funding at MTSU through the Honors College at and the Undergraduate Research Center at

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