UA Little Rock student awarded prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship

John Siratt. Photo by Ben Krain.

Four years ago, John Siratt was struggling to support himself through college, working full time as a groundskeeper while taking classes at the College of the Ouachitas. 

Now, Siratt, a graduate student from Malvern studying mathematics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, could not be more thankful to be a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

The fellowship provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period through a $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the student’s graduate institution.

“I am very excited and stunned by the news,” Siratt said. “There was a rumor online that the fellowship results were going to be posted on April 2. I woke up that night and saw the email at 1:30 a.m. I showed the email to my wife who was still awake working. I wasn’t sure I had read it right until she started jumping and celebrating.”

Siratt was one of 2,000 fellowship recipients from a nationwide pool of more than 12,000 applicants. The program recruits high-potential, early-career scientists and engineers and supports their graduate research training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Launched in 1952 shortly after Congress established the National Science Foundation, the fellowship program represents the nation’s oldest continuous investment in the U.S. STEM workforce.

“To support U.S. leadership and innovation in science and engineering, we must recognize and nurture talent from all of our nation’s communities,” said Jim Lewis, NSF acting assistant director for Education and Human Resources. “I am pleased that again this year, the competition has selected talented students from all economic backgrounds and all demographic categories. In addition, NSF worked successfully to accommodate students from U.S. islands devastated by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, so that they could still compete for a fellowship.”

Siratt will graduate with a master’s degree in mathematics from UA Little Rock in 2019. Afterwards, he is considering pursuing doctoral programs at UA Little Rock, Carnegie Mellon, Notre Dame, Indiana University Bloomington, and the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.

John Siratt works on algebraic equations in his office at UA Little Rock. Photo by Ben Krain.
John Siratt works on algebraic equations in his office at UA Little Rock. Photo by Ben Krain.

Siratt remains thankful to his wife, Chassidy, a UA Little Rock art student who proofread all of his application materials, and his advisor, Dr. Lakeshia Jones, assistant professor of mathematics who Siratt described as both his “guiding light” and the “whip behind me when I started slacking,” for encouraging him to apply for the fellowship. 

“John’s life experiences, academic record, and work ethic have provided him with an innate potential for research and the potential to advance knowledge in the mathematical sciences,” Jones said. “I have learned that John has a keen ability to process a lot of information in a short period with limited oversight. He holds himself and his work to a very high standard and does not settle for mediocre.”

After graduating the College of the Ouachitas in 2014, Siratt began his studies as a part-time student at UA Little Rock. He could afford to attend full time after Dr. Allen Thomas, a former UA Little Rock faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, hired Siratt to work as a research assistant in 2015.

“I call myself a second-chance student. I wasn’t successful in college when I was younger because I didn’t have clear goals,” he said. “Growing up, most people around me didn’t understand the concept of going to school for math if you weren’t going to become a school teacher.”

Now Siratt is well on his way to a successful career in mathematics. This summer he will begin his second internship with the Formal Methods Research Program at the NASA Langley Research Center in Norfolk, Virginia. His 2017 internship was supported through a Workforce Development grant from the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium.

“To me,” Siratt said, “the most important part of this story for other students is that I spent years being rejected. I never thought something like this could happen to me, but I never stopped trying to open doors.”

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