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From Thousands Come Few

In an effort to eliminate non-educational achievement hindrances, each year the National Science Foundation searches for the brightest developing researchers who demonstrate promise and significant acumen in their field of research. Pursuance of the coveted National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program is both rigorous and competitive with only 2,000 individuals achieving acceptance across the nation. Such small acceptance rates are amply merited by the $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance, but undeterred masters and doctoral students toil endlessly to perfect their proposal. One such student is our very own Meng Xu.



Meng received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she first began her research career. After two years as a member of the Li Research Group, gaining intimate experience and knowledge of biological mass spectrometry and MALDI imaging techniques, Meng’s admiration of the research environment captured her full attention and led to her eventual acceptance into the Analytical Chemistry graduate program. However, even with several years of research beneath her belt, Meng would be the first person to tell you she was not overly hopeful her NSF application would be approved. There was no hope in wondering, all she could do is wait.


“I was not optimistic at all. After submitting, I only allowed myself to imagine I would receive an honorable mention, at best.

And wait she did. Six months of waiting, to be exact. After submitting her application in the late fall of 2018, all thought of the award itself had faded into the back of her mind – besides, successful researchers never stop and Meng still had plenty of work to do. But finally, late one April night, the email arrived. Meng’s application was accepted. Meng was now a NSF fellow. When asked about receiving the award, Meng was still in disbelief. “I was not optimistic at all. After submitting, I only allowed myself to image I would receive an honorable mention at best. When I saw the email notification, I thought I was about to see a ‘We are sorry to inform you that you were not selected’ message. But I was shocked when I saw the word ‘Congratulations.’ I even checked to make sure my email account wasn’t being phished! It took me quite a while to believe this was now reality. It felt like winning the lottery.”


All smiles, Meng poses with her friend Nhu Vu after they both successfully defend their Thesis Background Examination. Nhu Vu also received honorable mention from the NSF-GRFP.

A lottery, maybe, but the NSF fellowship brings with it immense opportunity for Meng. As much as we would all like to say that research runs on the hard work we put in, a truth is that it also runs funding. And now being a fully funded research fellow, Meng feels relieved, to say the least. “Receiving this fellowship means I can devote more time to my research. Since they no longer need to consider my funding, the collaborators I work with can devote more resources to instrumentations and supplemental materials for our projects.”

The NSF fellowship is a testament to Meng’s resolute spirit during the application process and her technical expertise, but no researcher is completely self-made. Well…some are…but those are the people who end up in the encyclopedia, so we won’t count them. It takes a village to raise a child, and it certainly takes a community to foster great science. “Being a member of the Li lab is undoubtedly the biggest factor in me receiving this fellowship. I built up my lab skills and research experience in the Li lab. Dr. Li and Bingming gave me great help and support so that I was able to participate in different types of MS related research, which fortunately allowed my name to appear on publications during undergrad. Countless group members have had great discussions to help me develop my ideas and think of possible approaches for this proposal. Jill Johnson is very supportive, too. She helped me to polish my draft and comforted me when I was stressed out and considered giving up on the application. Overall, know I would not have received this award without the Li Research Group.”


“With the number of people I wish to thank, the list of individuals responsible for my success is quite large. But most importantly, I would like to thank Dr. Li, Bingming and Jill Johnson. They put a lot of time and effort into training me, answering my questions and discussing my projects.”


And so another year of NSF-GRFP applications comes and goes. The majority of students who apply have their journey end in disappointment. These students are no lesser than the award recipients and serve to strengthen the prestige found in the NSF fellowship – without such brilliant minds pursuing high achievement, scientific discoveries would never be unearthed. But no matter the outcome, the young men and women who apply for the fellowship are instilled with a sense of pride, knowing they offered their best and are willing to tackle a challenge that may bring defeat.


The Li Research Group is so proud of Meng and her accomplishment. Her new fellowship is sure to bring with it the discovery of knowledge for years to come.

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Li Research Group

 University of Wisconsin Madison

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