Hi my name is Dr. Frodo Baggins and I am a tenured professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Biomedical Engineering. I have been a researcher here for 10 years and have successfully advised 4 PhD students and am currently mentoring 3 more students. My research concerns the various aspects musculoskeletal tissue engineering and have had several publication within well-known journals such as Tissue Engineering A and Nature.
I have been reviewing for the NSF GRFP for 3 years and have noticed some qualities that stick out in successful applications. Most successful students are very creative and come up with a totally new way to look at an old problem. Their experiments are often framed so that they will contribute to the field even if they do not confirm their original hypothesis. Lastly it must be scientific, but not full of jargon. The field of Biomedical Engineering is quite large and as a result professors often get proposals that are not within their field of study.
As far as background, I find that volunteer work does show good character but may not be necessarily relevant. Some experiences such as helping out as a judge in a science fair/symposium or volunteering to mentor students stand out. It shows that the applicant has the ability to inspire the younger generation to pursue science and is a great addition to the broader impacts section. Aside from volunteer work research experience is key. Preferably the student should have demonstrated an ability to work both alone and as a member of a group to tackle a few different research projects.