The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Programme (GRFP) recognizes outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based graduate degrees. GRFP fellows receive three years of support, a $30,000 annual stipend, a $10,500 cost-of-education allowance to the institution, international research opportunities and TeraGrid Supercomputer access.
"After the initial excitement, I realized what an honour and how blessed I was to be chosen for such a prestigious award", Zack Valdez stated. "After speaking with different professors and my adviser about the reputation associated with the award I ironically felt proud and humbled to share the award to which I owed so much to the support of friends, family and the Baylor community."
The application process is extensive and Zack Valdez worked for several months to apply for the award, as applicants are judged on the quality of the research project they design and their research accomplishments as an undergraduate student, said Dr. Bill Hockaday, assistant professor of geology at Baylor and Zack Valdez's adviser.
Zack Valdez said he chose to apply for the award during orientation and was re-exposed to the option in a grant writing class with Dr. Steven G. Driese, professor and chair of the department of geology at Baylor.
"I'm especially grateful not only for his direction but what I gained from various departments including Dr. Carolyn Skurla, associate professor of engineering; Elizabeth Vardaman, associate dean for special academic projects in the College of Arts and Sciences; and my adviser Dr. Hockaday", Zack Valdez stated. "I think the direction and experience I had received arriving to Baylor allowed me further confidence to consider my potential, as I had worked on and presented research at various levels and locations from Washington, D.C., to Taipei, Taiwan."
As a NSF fellow, Zack Valdez said he is studying how Nitrogen fertilization and harvesting techniques affect the belowground carbon stocks associated with the switchgrass agriculture, a potential plant for biomass and biofuel use.
"The extensive root system of this plant sequesters carbon underground, acting as a sink for CO2, and by optimizing the associated agricultural practices, I hope it can create a positive environmental option that supports global food supplies and provides an alternative form of energy", Zack Valdez stated. "Using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance techniques, we will study the root biochemistry to determine how these processes affect the plant and soil environment, and if we can utilize climate modelling, we can have a better assessment of how the larger scale development of switchgrass affects current and future climate conditions."
Zack Valdez received his bachelor's degrees in engineering and physics from St. Mary's University in San Antonio.
"If I had advice for any students who are considering a future profession as scientists or in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field, I would highly recommend they apply to various internships and research options through Baylor and over the summer to gain a better understanding of what they are good at and what they enjoy", Zack Valdez stated. "Even though I received my undergraduate degrees in engineering and physics, I didn't know that I enjoyed the earth sciences research field until I had that opportunity, and ultimately that brought me here."