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Student awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship

 

Jake Peters goes by a simple motto: "Be bold," he says, "and things happen."

He is living proof of it.

A 2012 University of Wyoming graduate who grew up in the picturesque mountain town of Buffalo, where Interstate 25 meets Interstate 90 in the shadow of the Big Horns, Peters has coupled courage and determination to build a budding scientific career that will take him to Harvard University in the fall.

There's more: At Cambridge, Peters' study of biomechanics and ecophysiology will be funded through a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship worth nearly $150,000.

 One of the nation's premier fellowships for students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, the NSF grant is typically awarded to graduate students who are already enrolled in a graduate program. Of the 700-1,200 annual recipients, of some 20,000 applicants, less than 2 percent are finishing undergraduate students like Peters.

Not bad for a kid who arrived at UW in 2008 with no intention of studying biomechanics.

"I hardly knew what science was when I came to the university," says Peters with a laugh. "I came here as a pre-medical student. Then I met a professor named Carlos Martinez del Rio."

In truth, Peters made sure they met.

"He was a student in one of my classes, one of about 150 students," recalls Martinez del Rio. "But he sat right in the front and always asked very, very inquisitive questions. Difficult questions."

The professor cracks a smile and adds, "He was hard to miss."

It's that type of boldness that has catapulted Peters.

After Peters says he "insisted" that he join Martinez del Rio's laboratory, Peters became consumed with ecology, changed his major to physiology and began pursuing a career in science.

Peters' commitment paid off in 2010, when he was one of just 278 national recipients of a Goldwater Scholarship, the premier undergraduate award for students in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering.

"Our undergraduate research support is unparalleled. At many schools, undergraduate researchers are simply volunteers who work 20 hours a week on somebody else's project," says Peters, who counts Martinez del Rio and Duncan Harris, director of the UW Honors Program and another of his mentors, as two of his dearest friends. "But the University of Wyoming gave me an opportunity to tailor my education to my interests. They gave me independence. That's why I was able to get the NSF fellowship. It's what got me into Harvard for graduate school. It's why I have such a strong research background.

"I really feel like I could not have done better than coming to the University of Wyoming."

Before he begins his Ph.D. program at Harvard, though, Peters will spend three months studying butterfly migrations in India with Sanjay Sane, a neurobiologist at the National Centre of Biological Sciences in Bangalore.

How he ended up in India is another example of Peters' boldness.

"I read that [Sane] wanted to study these insect migrations in India but didn't have the manpower to do it," says Peters. "So, I just called him on Skype after a short email conversation and he said, ‘Yeah, I'd love to host you and help you out in any way.'"

Peters has relied on bravery in his personal life, too. Rather than succumb to mental illness, including bi-polar disorder, which was diagnosed while he was schooling at UW, and bouts with depression, Peters says he has used those challenges to help shape himself into a stronger person.

"Some people choose to ignore their problems," says Peters, who only recently told his parents about his mental struggles and now hopes others can be motivated to persevere by hearing his story. "But to succeed, you have to accept them and keep going. I just think it's so important to continue with the comfort that you can stop and the pride of knowing that you won't stop."

He adds, "I like to road bike. A lot of my friends look at the ground as they're climbing up a hill so they don't see what's ahead of them. But I look up, take it all in, accept the pain and keep going. And that's liberating."

Today, his mental challenges behind him, Peters says he's "soaring" and riding a wave of confidence.

"I love what I do so much that I can't help but be successful," he says.

Adds Martinez del Rio, "He's unusually critical -- and that bodes well for a scientific career."

His boldness will help, too.

"Opportunities don't fall in your lap," says Peters. "You have to be willing to open your mouth and ask. You have to pursue your opportunities."


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Jake Peters

Jake Peters, a 2012 UW graduate, will begin his Ph.D. program this fall at Harvard University. His study of biomechanics and ecophysiology will be funded through a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship worth nearly $150,000.
Jake Peters, a 2012 UW graduate, will begin his Ph.D. program this fall at Harvard University. His study of biomechanics and ecophysiology will be funded through a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship worth nearly $150,000.

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