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Luke Kurfman ’22 wins prestigious science fellowship for graduate school

Luke Kurfman ’22. Photo provided.

Last updated June 5, 2024

By Tina Underwood

Luke Kurfman ’22 knew when the National Science Foundation (NSF) would post its Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) awards, so he went online one day in April and scrolled through names. When he finally found his, he was stunned.

“I had given up hope,” he said. “I just stared, and I kept double- and triple-checking it. I got the official email notification about an hour later.”

Kurfman, now working on his doctorate at Georgia Tech in computational and theoretical chemistry, is one of about 2,000 students each year to receive the prestigious fellowship out of roughly 14,000 applicants. It includes a $37,000 annual stipend.

Kurfman said the award means he can pursue his research interests without having to worry about funding or graduate teaching obligations. “It’s so liberating,” he said.

Dating from the 1950s, the GRFP is one of NSF’s oldest programs. It supports outstanding graduate students pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in more than 100 NSF-supported STEM fields and helps build diversity and strengthen the American talent pool in STEM.

Kurfman is working with C. David Sherrill, a Regents’ Professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Tech, on binding energies, or the attraction of two molecules when they form a larger structure, a dimer.

He said the research will help inform experimentalists and theorists involved in spectroscopy about what types of computations are necessary to yield high-accuracy binding energies, which are important for understanding forces between molecules and have applications in other branches of chemistry like biochemistry, synthesis and crystallography.

A 2021 Goldwater Scholar, Kurfman appreciates the head-start he received at Furman where he worked with George Shields, professor of chemistry, studying atmospheric aerosols and their relationship to climate change.

“Dr. Shields was such an effective and dedicated principal investigator. He guided me through the majority of my undergraduate research and got me interested in computational chemistry,” Kurfman said.

Kurfman also thanks Furman’s Sandy Wheeler, senior research associate and lecturer, who first encouraged him to segue to computational chemistry when he was uncertain about his path in analytical chemistry, and Paul Wagenknecht, professor of chemistry, for his “passionate and insightful” approach in the classroom and for his unfailing willingness to write letters of recommendation on his behalf.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without any of these faculty, and I’m grateful for everything they’ve done,” Kurfman said.

Kurfman offered advice for scientists looking to apply for an NSF GRFP grant.

First, he said, get involved in research and scientific outreach early. Both are important to be competitive.

“Second, have peers, professors and even previous NSF fellowship winners look at your application essays,” said Kurfman, again stressing the importance of acting sooner rather than later.

“Third, there are multiple chances to apply – unlimited opportunities before choosing a graduate program and then another chance when you enroll in one,” he said.

Kurfman said the process of applying is a lesson in and of itself.

“Even if things don’t go your way when applying as an undergrad, learn from your application feedback and try again. This fellowship is worth the effort.”

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