Iowa universities achieve elite status in Fulbright program

'I was so surprised and overjoyed'

(File photo) Curtiss Hall (left) and the Campanile (right) on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Friday, July 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(File photo) Curtiss Hall (left) and the Campanile (right) on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Friday, July 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

In a chemistry lab on the University of Iowa campus, Nicholas McCarty found the freedom to ask big questions, seek big answers, and chase ambitious pursuits — like becoming the first UI student to receive a Fulbright award to the United Kingdom since 1994, the year he was born.

McCarty is among 16 UI students in the 2017-18 term to receive the prestigious Fulbright award — granted annually to elite U.S. students, artists, and professionals seeking grants to study, teach English, and conduct research around the world.

The UI’s 16 Fulbright students ranks it No. 15th nationally among research universities — its highest ever placement, tying it with Stanford and Columbia universities, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s new rankings released this week. It demonstrates marked and continued improvement over its placement at No. 30 last year and No. 117 five years ago.

“This shows that we have really prepared (students) in the areas that the Fulbright program and State Department think they’ll be capable of going abroad and being effective ambassadors abroad,” UI Fulbright Program Advisor Karen Wachsmuth told The Gazette. “It’s huge for us.”

Also achieving standing in The Chronicle’s new Fulbright rankings is Iowa State University, which tied at No. 10 for its number of 2017-18 Fulbright scholars — different from Fulbright students in that the recipients are faculty, postdocs, or other researchers not pursuing a degree.

Iowa State — the only Iowa College or university ranked for Fulbright scholars — had six professors or associate professors receive grants through the program, touted as the country’s flagship international educational exchange program, supported by the U.S. Department of State.

Although UI was the only Iowa research university ranked for Fulbright students for 2017-18, Drake University tied at No. 9 among master’s universities. Among bachelor’s schools, Grinnell College placed No. 15 for Fulbright students, and Coe College in Cedar Rapids tied for the No. 17 spot.

Coe’s seven Fulbright recipients set a record.


“The hard work and dedication of our bright scholars to earn these Fulbright grants results in life-changing experiences for each award winner,” Coe President David McInally said in a statement. “We are exceedingly proud of these recent Coe alumni.”

When looking at the proportion of grant applicants who received awards, UI is at the top, according to Program Advisor Wachsmuth — who said more than one-third of its 41 applicants were chosen.

“Of all the top schools in the country in our category, we have the highest percentage,” she said.

“I was so surprised and overjoyed.”

Since the Fulbright program’s inception in 1946, it has enabled more than 370,000 participants to “exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.” More than 1,900 U.S. recipients are offered grants annually — the student program operates in more than 140 countries.

Among the more challenging countries to study via Fulbright — due to the extreme competition — is the United Kingdom, which receives more than 900 applications annually for just 44 total placements. Imperial College London awards just one, and the University of Iowa’s McCarty received that one this year in pursuit of a Master of Research in Systems and Synthetic Biology.

McCarty told The Gazette he graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, and wanted to shift his career more toward applied research and the engineering sciences. After returning from London, McCarty hopes to pursue a doctorate in bioengineering.

“If I didn’t take this year, I couldn’t make that leap to engineering,” he said.

And without the Fulbright scholarship, McCarty said, he couldn’t get a master’s from the best European institution in his field.


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“I could have applied to come here and paid my own way — but it would have been exceedingly expensive,” he said. “I definitely couldn’t afford it.”

McCarty’s Fulbright scholarship covers the cost of tuition and offers a stipend for living. While at Imperial College, he’ll focus on engineering E. coli and yeast to produce a variety of therapeutic molecules — including antibiotics, antioxidants, antitumour agents, and appetite suppression hormones.

The work, eventually, could make intensive drug production much cheaper — expanding access for patients.

UI pharmacy student Jasmine Mangrum, 28, said she also hopes to use her Fulbright experience to solve grand-scale health problems — even if by starting small. The doctor of pharmacy and master of public health candidate currently is studying smoking cessation education for student pharmacists at Cluj-Napoca’s Medical University Pharmacy Faculty in Romania.

Inspired by her own mother’s struggle with smoking, Mangrum said she hopes to inject pharmacists into the global health workforce equipped with intervention techniques for patients looking to quit.

Romania is a country Mangrum has visited on multiple occasions, and it has a campaign to be smoke-free by 2035.

“If I can put a little footprint on what they’re trying to do here, that would be awesome,” she said.

Mangrum also takes seriously her role as an ambassador for Iowa and the United States.

“It makes me nervous,” she said, noting that as a black woman she also is serving as a race ambassador in a country with little diversity. “It can be very challenging.”


But William Reisinger, UI political science professor and 2017-18 Fulbright faculty mentor, said Iowa’s students are up to the diplomatic task.

“This designation is a reminder that University of Iowa students are among the most promising in our country,” he said in a statement. “Each new group of Fulbright winners deepens Iowa’s tradition of pursuing international connections at the personal level. And by forging such connections, they give a boost to how people overseas view our state and our country.”

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