Schmidt Science Fellows Program: The Brilliance of “Plan B”

Being an expert in one area is good, but it is even better to be specialized in two. This tenet, according to Dr. Stuart Feldman, Chief Scientist at Schmidt Futures, lies at the very foundation of the Schmidt Science Fellows Program, launched in late 2017.

Dr. Stuart Feldman, Chief Scientist at Schmidt Futures

Dr. Stuart Feldman, Chief Scientist at Schmidt Futures

Administered by the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation in partnership with the Rhodes Trust, the Schmidt Science Fellows program enables select candidates to conduct new research in a field that is outside their existing area of expertise. This past October, Dr. Feldman delivered a talk to current U of T nominees, faculty, and staff about this extraordinary opportunity for recently graduated PhDs in STEM disciplines (natural sciences, mathematics, engineering and computing).

Dr. Feldman described the selection process as “brutal,” involving nominations by universities, expert panel reviews, video interviews, and a final session of face-to-face interviews in New York. The rewards are worth it, as Schmidt Science Fellows receive a stipend of $100,000 to conduct an approximately 11-month postdoctoral research study and attend four global meetings at the world’s leading academic institutions. The global meetings, which take place in the UK and US, are designed to hone Fellows’ communications and leadership skills, and to build their research networks. Dr. Feldman noted that new research partnerships have already emerged from the inaugural class of Schmidt Fellows, all of whom are profiled on the Schmidt Science Fellows website.

Dr. Feldman acknowledged that the timing of the fellowship is crucial. Offering it as a postdoctoral opportunity means that applicants have the opportunity to “get safely off the treadmill” before launching into a career. Because they have been immersed in their PhD research, these candidates may not have had the chance to “think too broadly yet.” As Schmidt Fellows, they will have the time and support to explore an alternative route (what Dr. Feldman calls “Plan B”), expanding their minds and their skills as they delve into a new discipline. Dr. Feldman argued that today’s world demands interdisciplinary thinking in our scientists. Some Schmidt Fellows may also discover that they prefer their Plan B to their Plan A!

Remarkably, in the program’s inaugural year, two U of T alumni became Schmidt Science Fellows: Xiwen Gong (read her profile), from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Jielai Zhang (read her profile), from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The quality of this 2018-2019 cohort, Dr. Feldman noted, “outstripped our expectations.” He described the Fellows as a supportive group who, “in five to ten years, will do something that will make us all proud.”

This year, University of Toronto was invited to identify seven rather than five nominees based on its stellar record. The 2019-2020 class of Schmidt Science Fellows will be announced this spring. Graduate units will submit nomination packages for the 2020-2021 cohort in early summer 2019.

Interested in learning more about the Schmidt Science Fellows Program? Explore the Schmidt Sciences Fellows website.

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