National Graduate Fellowship Week Student Feature - Sierra Tutwiler

Each year the National Science Foundation selects new awardees for the prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. This highly competitive national initiative helps exceptional graduate students advance in STEM-based disciplines.

The five-year fellowship program provides students with three years of financial support, including an annual stipend of $37,000 and a cost-of-education allowance of $12,000 to their institution. That type of funding is exactly what recent VCU graduate, Sierra Tutwiler, was hoping for when she began the application process.

“It was a multi-month process to apply for the NSF GRFP,” Tutwiler explained. “It was stressful at first but ended up being more than worth it. I worked closely with the National Scholarship Office (NSO) throughout the process and ended up being awarded a $147,000 total package to help fund my research for the next five years.”

Students in the College of Engineerings Nuclear Power Simulator labTutwiler’s research is in Thermal Hydraulics with a specific focus on Computational Fluid Dynamics – her hope is to support the development of advanced nuclear reactors. Through her research, she can assist with optimizing performance and costs, in an effort to provide a more efficient and effective turnaround in getting the advanced fleet up and running. Although she was busy with her research, Tutwiler knew that the opportunity for funding through the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship was one she could not pass up.

“It felt like everything was happening all at once,” Tutwiler began. “In the winter months, I felt like I was writing papers all the time. I was submitting papers for my research publications, writing essays for various scholarship opportunities, and going through the process of applying to grad schools – so it was a pretty stressful time. NSF in particular has a very specific process for applying, which includes a broader impact section and an intellectual merit section. I remember talking to Jeff Wing (NSO’s director) and asking for clarification on how exactly to handle everything. So it was a stressful time but ended up being very rewarding in the end.”

Throughout the application process, which began in the summer of 2022, Tutwiler was also working full-time at Argonne National Lab in Chicago – the developers of the code that she uses to conduct her research. It was through her faculty advisor that she learned about the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

”I remember my research advisor telling me that I needed to apply for this opportunity,” Tutwiler commented. “Although I fought him on it at first, I think that the process with the NSF – which is sponsored by the NSO – really helped me with my other fellowship application that also went through. So it was definitely worth it. I tell all my friends that are going through it that although it seems like a lot right now, it’s what happens after that really makes the difference.”

After another summer filled with research at Terra Power in Seattle, Tutwiler will begin her doctoral studies in mechanical and nuclear engineering with VCU’s College of Engineering this fall. She plans to continue to progress in her research now that she is back on campus.

“This year will be a balance of classes and doing research,” Tutwiler stated. “This fellowship will be key in helping to fund and support the research that I’m doing while also taking on a full schedule of classes. Just knowing that I have five years of funding for my research has been a huge stress reliever for me because I know that I can continue my schooling and still do what I love.”

The National Scholarship Office, in collaboration with the Graduate School, will be hosting information sessions on various fellowship programs from Sept. 5-13 as part of National Graduate Fellowship Week. Students interested in learning more about opportunities, like the one Sierra Tutwiler is in the process of, can find more information or sign up for a session using this link.