John Naviaux graduated with the Chancellor’s Award of Distinction from UC Irvine in 2012 after receiving a B.S in Environmental Science and a B.A in Business Economics. He worked on a variety of projects while at Irvine that included the economics of urban bus pollution, the study of graviton decay at the Large Hadron Collider, and the optimization of electrode design in microbial fuel cells. After graduating, John spent a year abroad in Norway as a Fulbright Scholar studying mercury pollution in the Arctic. He received a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship upon returning and is currently in Caltech’s environmental engineering PhD program working on the chemistry of storing CO2 in the ocean as a means to combat climate change. In the future, John hopes to continue his research and work in environmental policy.
Recently, we caught up with John Naviaux to ask him about his experiences after winning both the Fulbright in Norway, and the NSF. Below, are his thoughts, experiences and tips on how to apply and how to enjoy these unique experiences. He hopes that those contemplating either a Fulbright in research or the NSF will find his story helpful. He is also available to answer questions regarding his experiences. Please see below.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your experiences with SOP.
Of course. Anything for UCI and the SOP office.
What Scholarships Did you Win? How did you Learn About Them?
Fulbright and NSF. Both, with the help of the SOP office. I learned about them because the scholarship office was sending out targeted emails. I was also part of the UCI CHP Honors Program, and they were also sending out emails telling us we should apply for these scholarships, and reminding us that we had a valuable resource in SOP.
How did you Work Together with SOP to figure Out Which Fellowships you Should Pursue?
I was contacted by someone in SOP who told me, “with your GPA and your honors background, you should apply to these opportunities.” I went in, and talked to them and they said they had a number of scholarships. We went over a few. The Rhodes scholarship, for example; I didn’t apply to that one. Rhodes requires 6-8 letters of recommendation, and I only really had personal relationships with 3-4 professors who would be able to write strong letters.
Then, there was the Fulbright and the NSF. Talking with SOP, we discussed what I had the best shot of winning. We went over my goals, and how my resume backed those up.
After going back and forth, SOP recommended the Fulbright and the NSF. Along the way, I figured out that a lot of the scholarships have similar requirements. So, while I was initially interested in the Fulbright, I realized that I could write about my research experience and propose projects and future goals that would work well if I decided to apply for the NSF.
So I decided to pursue both. I went to the SOP office and we started working on my personal statement. I ended writing almost the same personal statement for the NSF. With SOP’s suggestions and the work I had invested in the Fulbright application, I was able to adjust my applications, and incorporate tips that would be better for each.
So, Did you Apply at the Same Time?
I applied to both during the same year. That was part of the pitch that the scholarship office had: that all these things require similar applications, but not exactly the same, so I ended up working with one of my professors to have a different proposed project for the NSF than the one for the Fulbright, but the statement of purpose was very similar, with a similar research background and so I was able to change small things to apply for both.
Were you a Junior or a Senior at the Time of Application?
I was a senior when I applied. Part of the reason I applied then was that I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do after graduating. I thought grad school was a possibility, and this is what I’m doing now, but I wasn’t sure at the time and I wanted to apply to a lot of different opportunities and see what would work out. The SOP office pointed out that I could use my application to apply for graduate school, which was great, too.
SOP’s advice was invaluable in telling me, this works for this, this doesn’t for this one, and reiterating by going back and forth what would make for the strongest application and how. They suggested to me, change this, change that. It was worth it. I was able to adjust my statements to write winning applications.
How Did you Juggle the Fulbright and the NSF? Was there a Conflict of Timing?
Yes, but it ended up not being a problem. I found out about Fulbright, NSF and grad school all within a week of each other. They all want you to commit, so I talked with the different schools and the NSF director at each school along with the acceptance committee at each school and told them:
Look, I have all these things. I really want to do the Fulbright abroad in Norway. What can I do about this?
None of these schools had a problem at all. They said, not a problem we will just defer your admittance until you get back. The NSF is a 5-year scholarship, but only 3 of the years are paid and 2 of the years are for deferring, so it worked out because I was able to defer for the first year because of the Fulbright. I also accepted the NSF, and accepted Caltech as my graduate school of choice. They fund you the first year there so I was able to defer again and once the school funding ran out, I was able to start the NSF funding.
I was surprised by how easy the transitions were, and it really was because all these different academic communities are very supportive of these scholarships, and they want the students to have these things, so they were willing to work with me a lot in order for me to participate in all these different opportunities that did conflict in time, but worked out in the end.
Every school told me, yes, please go on your Fulbright. Come back. We will have a spot waiting for you. There was really no issue at all, especially for graduate school. They value their students having these experiences.
So, What did you do for your Fulbright? Where did you go? What was your experience like, and for how long?
My Fulbright was 10 months long, and I went to Norway. I stayed in the middle section of Norway working with a professor who was studying the presence of mercury in the environment, which worked well because I was interested in the Arctic environment. One of the things that was intimidating to me was that you are supposed to come up with a research project. Other Fulbrighters that I knew did have specific research projects. But for me, I was an economics undergrad who later added an earth science focus, so I knew I wanted to do earth science-related things. To get started, I looked at countries that I was interested in, and one of them was Norway. I looked at what the faculty were doing there, and found this professor and started thinking of a project that would be suitable to my interests. I learned he was researching mercury pollution in the environment. I thought, this is perfect. I thought of Norway, specifically, because it is in the Arctic. I would have easy access to the Arctic and that was what I was interested in. I was able to work with this professor and come up with an idea as opposed to coming in with a project that I wanted to do from the very beginning.
Where Did you Stay? Did you have any Language Barriers?
This question relates to why I decided on Norway. When it comes to the Fulbright, there are tons of countries you can apply to that have language requirements and others don’t. For me, I only speak English so that really cut out a bunch of countries. Like Germany and France, where you have to be fluent in those languages. Of English-speaking countries or with no language requirements there were: the UK, Australia, New Zealand and some Scandinavian countries. Editor’s Note: SOP maintains a list of countries with no language requirements that include other geographical regions.
When it came to choosing, I was systematic about the countries that I applied to. In terms of the UK, I looked at the number of applicants that applied vs the number of spots available, and for the UK there is something like 10 spots for 300 plus applicants. I also wasn’t interested in Australia or New Zealand. I looked at Scandinavian countries and they had a much smaller applicant pool per number of spots. The idea of going there, and the best odds for actually getting the scholarship influenced my decision.
They didn’t have a language requirement and as it turns out, once I knew that I had the Fulbright, I contacted the university and they were able to get me international student housing.
Did you have enough money from the award to pay for everything that you needed?
I did. It varies based on the country so my stipend was probably not as generous in terms of cost of living that perhaps helps students in South American countries, but I did not have a problem and neither did the other Fulbrighters in the area. We had food and housing and transportation was all paid for, and the only times I spent any of my own money was doing extra trips. Even then, it was easy to budget without spending my own money.
How long did it take you to adjust to Norway? Did you make friends right away? What was it like to adapt to a new society?
It was not difficult for me to adapt, partly because the Fulbright office is big on connecting you with other Fulbrighters, so the student body, and the location are two things to consider when applying and choosing a Fulbright location. I was in one of the universities where there were plenty of people who were my age and shared similar interests. And I was connected to the Fulbright organization and I learned there were 2 other Fulbrighters in my city. I got there and had an automatic network of Fulbrighters, and we did Fulbright events there. I’m still really good friends with them. I went to one of their weddings recently.
Meeting local students was also easy because I was in a university area. A contrasting story to mine: there was an English-teaching Fulbrighter who stayed in a really small town of like 200 people and it was harder to acclimate and get around. Someone’s experience will definitely be based on where they are in a certain country. When people ask me, what I should consider? I tell them:
You should consider what you want to do research-wise, but you should also consider the experience of the area that you are going to be in.
What was expected of you in terms of hours of work, and research projects, were you supposed to come up with something material by the time you concluded? Was a final presentation expected?
The Fulbright is very much a cultural exchange (in addition to the English-teaching or research exchange), so I am not sure how it is for other countries, but for the Norwegian experience, we had to write a mid-term report after 5 months. This was a 1-page statement saying, this is what we’ve done, and this is how we are adjusting. They had no pressure on having any set work done, or any kind of deliverable. With that said, conferences were encouraged and some were exclusive to Fulbright students. At the end of the year, all Fulbrighters get together and get to present on what they‘ve been up to. These presentations could be travel, cultural, or research-based. So it was not stressful to get these extras done.
Do you feel that you became a better researcher or gained more depth with your topic? Were you taught well by your mentors there?
Yes, I would say it was an incredibly valuable experience. I learned a lot about the specific topic of mercury in the Arctic. I also found it valuable to conduct research outside of the U.S. It was interesting to learn how different cultures deal with research and how they present in different research styles. It was also valuable trying to translate myself into another language because as a primary English speaker I had not done that before.
What did you notice as the biggest difference between research in Norway and research in the US?
To be honest the biggest difference was work/life balance. It’s kind of common in the US to have a 60 plus hour week. The stipend for similar work in Norway is not $30,000.
In Norway a graduate student is treated as a regular full-time researcher holding a 9-5 type job and the stipend is around $80,000. There are costs of living adjustments but research is treated as a full-time job and they are paid much more. I did not make that salary when I was in Norway. I got the US stipend.
It was interesting to see that the quality of research is very high, outputting a lot, while working significantly less. They really value productivity while you are at work, and once you are not, you no longer need to be at work.
I was also exposed to different styles of presenting. In the US when you present your research it is very much a pitch: this is why your findings are great and amazing. In Norway the style is more, here are the facts. How effective you think my facts are is up to the audience. Just being exposed to all of this was very interesting.
When you wrapped up the Fulbright you moved into the NSF opportunity. How did the transition take place?
I accepted the NSF at the same time I accepted the Fulbright. I was able to postpone it until grad school. It was really easy. Every year, they send you a message: please update your NSF status, so when I started grad school at Caltech I filled out the update and pressed the button to activate my status. And that was it.
So once the NSF gives you the funding for graduate school, are there specific research expectations due to them?
No. It is pretty much a blank check. When completing their application, you have to come up with a research project and plan. It does not have to be related at all with what you will end up doing. When I applied to the NSF, I was working in a microbial cell lab at UCI.
So my project/pitch was based on doing more research in this area. What I’m doing is important. What I plan to do in the future is this. But, once I got to Caltech I decided, okay, I’m not planning on that anymore but NSF does not care about that. Once you have proven that you are capable of thinking of a strong research idea and writing out a plan for it, once you get the award, they trust you will continue coming up with new research ideas that are not necessarily the same as the one you originally proposed.
Each year I write a quick paragraph or so updating the NSF on what I’ve done in the previous year. For my first year in Caltech, I wasn’t doing much research so for my update I told them I’ve been taking classes and started new projects. So now that I’m doing more research my updates are more research related. I’m working on ocean chemistry now. I’m still getting paid by the NSF, but it’s not related to my application at all. There is no expectation that it has to be.
What do you want to do with your degree?
For graduate school, I chose the California Institute of Technology. I’m getting my Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Engineering. I had several ideas that potentially interest me. Part of my research is doing ocean chemistry for CO2 capture. The idea is coming up with a way to take out CO2 out of the environment to combat global warming.
We are trying to start up a company based on the work we‘ve done to capture CO2 and put it into the ocean and store it there without changing the ocean chemistry. We are setting this up. We are exploring the possibility of a start-up company that works on this topic, which is a popular thing to do. There is also another possibility of working for government research labs or major companies. My approach so far is to see what opportunities come up.
How influential would you say that the Fulbright and the NSF have been to your development?
The NSF is invaluable. If you are a student and you have an NSF you can work pretty much at any university. Any university would want you as a student and any professor will work with you because you are free. As soon as you say that you have an NSF in your application all doors are open to you and you can do whatever you want with whoever you want. There are different professors who might turn away a student because the reality of funding in the academic world. “I’d like to work with you but, I can’t pay you.” But with the NSF you are paid for 3 years, so if you have your own research ideas a professor would support you because you are free or you’ll hop onto their project and they’ll love that because you are free. So, the NSF allowed me to switch between professors without any problems at all.
The Fulbright was also valuable in making your application stand out more. I would consider the Fulbright as an invaluable life experience. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. That was one of the best 10 months of my life. It was probably not a huge research contributor because I’m doing different research. But, it reinforced the idea that this was the field of study that I was interested in. I was developing my interests in environmental health safety kind of research.
What Tips would you share with a Student Contemplating the Fulbright or the NSF?
Go for it. It may be intimidating to apply to multiple scholarships, but with a small amount of extra work I was able to apply to multiple opportunities. You don’t have anything to lose by applying. The worst thing that can happen is that you write your strongest application yet. You can always use it to apply for other opportunities, including graduate school. If you get it, then you’ll have an amazing experience living and studying in another country. Also, with the NSF you can do whatever you want, research-wise. Some Fulbrighters don’t go to graduate school, so it is not a requirement. Still, being paid to live and work in another country can be an incredible experience.
What Tips can you Offer for the Application Process?
Regarding the personal statement, I would listen to you guys in the scholarship office. I struggle a lot with personal statements. I had to rewrite mine like 10 times. Writing personal statements is a different experience for me. It is not how I write.
The other parts of the process depend on the student. I was pragmatic about the whole thing. For example, I can only speak English; I want to research in environmental science; I want the best options to get in. I looked at acceptance ratios and studied my chances to get in. I struggled between Norway and Sweden because both had interesting environmental programs, but I went with Norway because my chances to gain acceptance were higher. I knew that if I applied to Sweden and I didn’t get it, I would have kicked myself for missing a study abroad opportunity. If I didn’t go with the option that gave me the best chance, I would be very sad. Not everyone wants to be that pragmatic, though. Some people have a dream: I want to go to place x, and this is why. To them I would say, go for your dream. My goal was to study abroad in an environmental field. I looked at Norway’s universities and the faculty there and looked for what was most interesting to me.
What about Professor’s Letters?
Plan ahead! Once I knew I wanted to pursue this, I started cultivating relations with professors more intentionally. Since I was working with professors doing research already, that was one letter. A summer before I had worked with another so that was another letter. For my third, I started going to my organic chemistry professor’s office hours. Talking to her more about what I wanted to do and explaining my back story. I told her, I’m interested in doing this would you be willing to write a letter if we get to know each other and she agreed.
SOP’s help worked very nicely for me and my application process. Once I knew I wanted to apply it got easier. But it was intimidating to think about starting some of these applications because you always think you are not the best and you probably won’t get it so, why bother. I’m not sure how you overcome that hurdle. But I’m glad I did.
If you would like to contact John for advice on completing a Fulbright in Norway or the NSF process, he can be reached by email: email@example.com