Who Wins the Sloan Research Fellowships?

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation just announced its latest round of research fellowships, which grants each awardee a nice chunk of cash as well as the honor of holding the esteemed title. So who exactly wins these things? Here’s a closer look at the new class. 

A Sloan Research Fellowship is one of the most prestigious awards a young researcher can earn, not just because of the $50,000 cash prize, but also the symbolic gold star that often sends these young, promising scientists on paths to greatness. For example, since the program started in 1955, 42 fellows have gone on to win Nobel Prizes in their fields, 16 have won the Fields Medal in mathematics, and 63 have won the National Medal of Science. Wow. 

As far as who can win one, the fellowships go strictly to researchers early in their careers. They must hold tenure track positions in the United States or Canada, hold a Ph.D. in eight eligible fields, and their most recent doctorate degrees must have been awarded no earlier than a set date (2008 for the current requirements). They usually hold a lower rank than associate professor. Candidates must be nominated by fellow scientists, and a panel of senior scholars decides the winners, weighing not just past experience, but also reading the tea leaves of future potential.

The latest round, announced this month, named 126 scientists as Sloan fellows. The winners, by the numbers: 

  • Originally for just physicists, chemists and mathematicians, scientists in eight disciplines were awarded fellowships this year. Chemistry and physics were most awarded, with 23 fellowships each, followed by mathematics with 20 fellowships. Next were computer science and neuroscience, with 16 awards each. The original emphases seem to retain priority, but other fields like ocean science and molecular biology make a good showing.
  • Fellowships went to researchers at 62 academic institutions. The leaders of the pack won’t surprise you, with MIT nabbing nine fellowships, and Harvard, Stanford and combined UC schools each with seven. But from there, things are divvied up quite a bit. In fact, North Dakota State University and Claremont McKenna College each won their first fellowships. While the top schools clearly have an edge, Ivy League pedigree is not a requirement.
  • The Sloan Foundation has a stated commitment to improving diversity in science, but some combination of the nominators, judges, and the overall science community still has a ways to go, at least in one regard. Only 30 of the Sloan fellows were women, a sad 24% of the winners.

Beyond the stats, the 2014 fellows are working on some compelling projects. One chemist is investigating nanoscale materials with potential to help clean up toxic gases, or convert sunlight or carbon dioxide into fuel. A mathematician is working on a reliable 30-day weather forecast. An economist is studying how government institutions and policies like the Affordable Care Act can impact inequality. 

Learn more about the Sloan Research Fellowships here.

Read IP’s profile of program director Daniel Goroff and our guide to Sloan’s research funding here.