Graduate Scholarship Program Celebrates 20 Years of Enhancing Women and Minorities in NOAA Sciences

By Claire Fackler

November 2020

Twenty years ago, NOAA created the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program in honor of the late Dr. Nancy Foster. This scholarship provides support for independent graduate-level studies in oceanography, marine biology, or maritime archaeology disciplines, including all science, engineering, social science, and resource management of ocean and coastal areas. Based on language within the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, an emphasis was put on strongly encouraging women and members of minority groups to apply for the scholarship. To date, scholarship selections have been based on academic excellence, letters of recommendation, research and career goals, and financial need.

four photos of people smiling.
Current Dr. Nancy Foster Scholars from left: Sarah Hutchinson (class of 2020 studying wedge-tailed shearwaters); Brijonnay Madrigal (class of 2020 studying marine mammal acoustics); Carina Fish (class of 2018 studying deep-sea corals); and Erin Arneson (class of 2019 studying impacts of ocean acidification on benthic invertebrates). Photo: Courtesy of Foster Scholars pictured
two people holding a plaque

Dr. Nancy Foster, was the former assistant administrator for Oceanic Services and Coastal Zone Management at NOAA, and director of the National Ocean Service when she died of cancer in June 2000. Throughout her career, Dr. Foster was respected as a leader who supported mentorship, a champion of diversity, a role model for women scientists, and an advocate of fair and equal treatment of all people in the workplace. Just months after her death, Congress created the scholarship as a way to honor her life’s work, 23 years of service to NOAA and her contribution to the nation It is funded annually with 1% of the budget appropriated each fiscal year to NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

"I can't imagine another fellowship like the one in Dr. Nancy Foster's name,” said Emily Klein, a former Foster Scholar. “The Nancy Foster [scholarship] family really cares about the development of its scholars into scientists with a range of skills and experiences that sets it apart from all others, and I remain a part of that family a decade after I received the financial support that allowed me to receive my PhD."

photo of people smiling

Over the last 20 years, 79 students have been selected for this prestigious graduate scholarship. In most years, two to five scholars are awarded the scholarship. Foster Scholars receive a stipend of $30,000 per year, up to $12,000 a year for tuition costs, and are awarded up to $10,000 in funds to conduct a program collaboration with a NOAA office(s). The program then works very closely with each of the scholars to provide extensive scientific communication training to ensure their ability to share their research in a clear and concise way. This training ensures that each scholar can speak to any audience about the significance of their research as it relates to real-world problems and the needs of society.

"The Nancy Foster Scholarship Program provided me with some of the most valuable, memorable experiences that I had in graduate school. The connections made during my scholarship propelled me into the two postdoc positions I've had with Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and I'm so grateful for the opportunities afforded by the scholarship program."

Dr. Tammy Silva, former Nancy Foster Scholar

During the past two decades, NOAA has supported Dr. Nancy Foster Scholars to create a pathway to a future career. Whether in government, academia, non-profits, or the private sector, NOAA staff have provided collaborative experiences and connections for each scholar to guide their future path. Through hands-on research, policy, and education, the National Marine Sanctuary System provides a classroom away from universities and colleges to allow for scholars to experience real-world science. These scholars then become ambassadors for NOAA and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries throughout their scholarship and future careers.

“This highly competitive scholarship program allows the next generation of NOAA scientists to grow intellectually and expand their knowledge, while promoting the work and mission of the National Marine Sanctuary System,” said John Armor, director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “It presents an unmatched opportunity to provide these young scholars with guidance in the very beginning of their careers.”

Diver collecting samples
Former Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar, Lindsay Marks Orsini, Ph.D. collecting Sargassum horneri or “devil weed” as part of her study of this invasive species that impacts Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and National Park off California. Photo: © Tom Boyd

In the last decade, the program continues to increase the number of women and minorities in these scientific disciplines, particularly as it relates to the mission of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Based on follow-up evaluations, 64% of former scholars work as professionals in a NOAA science-related field, and 29% work in another STEM field. The Foster Scholarship team continues to find ways to reduce barriers for students with high financial need who may otherwise not be able to pursue an advanced science degree.

In an April 2000 letter to Dr. Foster, Vice President Al Gore wrote, "You have pioneered an impressive national strategy for environmental management and served as an outstanding role model for women scientists across America."

Due to continuing uncertainty over the COVID-19 national health crisis and its impact on field research operations, applications for the 2021 Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program will not be accepted this year. Since the pandemic began, NOAA has restricted field research activities across the National Marine Sanctuary System out of an abundance of caution for the health and safety of our staff and their families, volunteers, and visitors. We plan to announce a decision about the 2022 Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program in Fall 2021. We look forward to the opportunity to award this distinguished scholarship to additional qualified students. To find out more about eligibility for this scholarship, please visit our website.

Claire Fackler is the National Education Liaison for the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and helps administer the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program as a federal program officer.