November 22, 2016
By Carol Frost
As director for the Division of Earth Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF), I get to work for a federal agency tasked with pushing the frontiers of science. Every day my colleagues and I help make this possible by funding exceptional science ideas and supporting students and researchers as they advance in their careers. I like to think that our job is to promote Earth scientists in universities and research institutions across the country. What job could be better?
NSF has been part of my life for as long as I’ve been an Earth scientist. As an undergraduate, I was supported by an NSF grant that allowed me to do an independent research project in northern Pakistan. I pitched my tent in the Salt Range just a short distance from a camp of brightly dressed nomads who’d traveled from Afghanistan and went about establishing the paleomagnetic stratigraphy of molasse sediments shed by the Himalaya, which preserved a rich vertebrate fossil record.
It was a transformative experience, one that encouraged me to earn my Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge (supported in part by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship) and continue in the Earth and space sciences, resulting in a 30-plus-year career as a professor of geology at the University of Wyoming. After many decades of NSF support for my research, I had the chance to return the favor by joining NSF for a term as division director.
Research experiences provide opportunity for both an incredible life experience and the pursuit of academic interests, which are often influential in deciding a later career path. If I were to identify the single most important step an undergraduate could take, it would be to seek out an undergraduate research experience. Ask instructors of your favorite courses if they are looking for help. Explore undergraduate opportunities. I recommend applying for NSF-funded opportunities, specifically the Research Experiences for Undergraduates and International Research Experiences for Students programs. Not only will you develop skills in defining and solving scientific questions, you’ll have experiences for your resume and graduate school applications.
Graduate students should also investigate NSF programs to support their education and research, in particular the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). GRFP is NSF’s premier opportunity for graduate students, and some of the program’s opportunities include the Graduate Research Internship Program, Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide, and the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students. Again, there are a plethora of other internships and fellowships available to graduate students, all of which aim to allow you to make connections and help you grow a network of friends and colleagues who hopefully accompany you throughout your career, no matter the path you take.
Our science is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and early-career scientists are increasingly expert at working collaboratively to solve fundamental and complex problems. NSF’s goal is to help grow an expert geoscience workforce that contributes to the betterment of society; we strive to help students pursue a variety of career paths and eventually arrive at the same question: what job could be better?
Carol Frost is currently serving as the Earth Sciences Division director at NSF. She has established an impressive career in academia as a geoscience professor and has numerous years of experience in advising students on professional and academic goals.