New Hughes Fellowships Help International Graduate Students

11 August 2011 3:13 pm

In 2009, Chaolong Wang had already spent a year as a graduate student in bioinformatics at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, when his adviser told him that he didn't have enough money to support him as a research assistant for that semester. Wang already had a full schedule of classes, so becoming a teaching assistant didn't seem like an attractive option. And as a Chinese citizen, Wang wasn't eligible for any fellowships or traineeships funded by the U.S. government.

Wang chose Michigan in part because it had offered him a 1-year institutional fellowship. Although his adviser eventually was able to find additional funding, his real salvation came this month when Wang received a fellowship from a new graduate training program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

HHMI's International Student Research Fellowship is one of only a handful open to international students studying in the United States. It's worth $43,000 a year for 3 years. The first class of 48 fellows is one-third larger than HHMI's initial target, reflecting the high level of talented applicants. The fellows, second or third-year graduate students in the biomedical or related sciences, are nominated by their institution, which must be one of the 60 with a pre-existing relationship with HHMI. HHMI is committed to funding the program for at least 3 years, at an annual level of about 50 fellows,

The program grew out of HHMI President Robert Tjian's experience as a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2003, HHMI ended a long-running predoctoral fellowship program open to U.S. and international students after the stock market crash took a big bite out of the institute's endowment. The new program represents a fresh opportunity for HHMI to address the continuing needs of international graduate students. "We know that some institutions are reticent to bring on international students because there isn't a mechanism to support them in their research years," says William Galey, who heads the HHMI's graduate and medical education programs. Through this fellowship, he says, HHMI is "providing them relief from the commitment they normally would have to make."

Galey says that some of these institutions have promised "to take those funds that are freed up and use them to support other international students in their first years." This early funding is crucial to attracting international students; Wang says he wouldn't have been able to come to the United States if he hadn't received his first-year fellowship, which most universities do not offer.

Although the U.S. government may not be interested in funding foreign students, Galey says, "other countries are providing funds for U.S. students because U.S. students are desired." The HHMI fellowship, he adds, "is a means by which the U.S. can compete for the top talent in the world."

The fellowship eases Wang's concerns about supporting himself and allows him to focus on his research. Some of his friends aren't so lucky; they must also teach classes every semester, which detracts from their research time. Others feel pressure to graduate before they're ready.

In 2004, the National Institutes (NIH) of Health launched a new traineeship program aimed at increasing the number of scientists pursuing interdisciplinary research and opened it to foreign students. The program, part of the initial Roadmap Initiative by former NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, skirted the congressional ban on U.S.-only training awards by tapping research funds for the international students who participated. "We recognized that our research teams were lacking in the quantitative sciences, so opening it to foreign nationals would fill that void," says Terry Bishop, a program director at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, who oversaw the program.

The program ended in 2010. Bishop says that an advisory panel felt interdisciplinary training was being met by regular NIH funding mechanisms. But she's eager to see whether the international students in the discontinued program were more likely than their peers to remain in the United States and in science after graduation. "If there was strong evidence that it had good outcomes," Bishop says, "then I could see making a recommendation or something to the training advisory committee to maybe revisit this type of program."

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