WASHINGTON -- Retiring Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Paul Gray was one. So were Stanford University president Donald Kennedy and Harvard University paleontologist and author Stephen Jay Gould, not to mention Nobel laureates Thomas Cech, Walter Gilbert, and Burton Richter. Like many others among the nation's scientific leaders, these researchers got their starts as National Science Foundation Fellows.

Each year NSF gives out hundreds of three-year awards to the nation's outstanding graduate students. The program was set up in 1952 to maintain the pace of research set during World War II. Last year, the program offered its 25,000th award, and foundation officials marked the event by pausing to see what some of the fellows have accomplished. The longevity of the program is itself a cause for celebration. "That's no small achievement in a political system with continuous pressure to make and remake and rename programs," says Terence Porter, director of...

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