Physicist Tesla Jeltema wins Mentorship Award from American Physical Society

An accomplished astrophysicist, Jeltema is also a champion for diversity and a dedicated supporter of students at all levels

Tesla Jeltema
Tesla Jeltema

The American Physical Society (APS) Division of Particles and Fields has awarded its 2020 Mentorship Award to Tesla Jeltema, associate professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz and a member of the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics (SCIPP).

The award recognizes Jeltema “for her dedication to mentoring young physicists through hands-on, heartfelt, and effective engagement with diverse students at all levels, demonstrating how particle physics can be an inclusive and productive environment.”

SCIPP Director Steven Ritz said, “Tesla’s sustained dedication to mentoring is outstanding. I am grateful to have inspirational colleagues like her.”

Jeltema, whose research addresses cosmological questions such as the nature of dark matter and dark energy and the evolution of galaxies, founded the UCSC Women in Physics and Astrophysics (WiPA) group in 2011 and serves as its faculty adviser. WiPA was awarded a UCSC Chancellor’s Achievement Award for Diversity in 2014.

WiPA has had a continuing, positive impact on both the Physics Department and the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department,” said Ritz, a professor of physics.

In Jeltema’s research group, both graduate students and undergraduates benefit from a supportive, collaborative environment. Over the past six years, in addition to supervising five Ph.D. students and two visiting graduate students, she was the research supervisor or senior thesis adviser for 17 undergraduate students, of which 16 were from groups underrepresented in physics. Those who applied to graduate school are all now in Ph.D. or masters programs.

Lena Eiger, who as an undergraduate worked with Jeltema on a project for the international Dark Energy Survey collaboration and is currently a junior research specialist in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, said Jeltema’s support and encouragement have been crucial to the success of many students.

I have witnessed Prof. Jeltema change the lives of several students at UCSC,” Eiger said in a letter supporting Jeltema’s nomination for the award. “As a teacher, she is a powerful role model for women in science; as a research mentor she leads students through the thought processes needed to discern some of the universe’s most elusive secrets. Her belief in me through even the darkest times has given me a strength that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”

Erica Bufanda, now a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, said Jeltema taught her invaluable research skills as her senior thesis adviser and introduced her to programs that were crucial to her success as a student and scientist.

She made it possible for me to attend numerous career and higher education workshops that opened my eyes to career options and the potential of graduate school studies, and through these events I made connections with other under-represented faculty and students in STEM,” Bufanda said. “I truly do not believe I would be where I am today without her guidance.”

Devon Hollowood, who began working with Jeltema as a first-year graduate student, said she was a fantastic mentor from day one.” Now a software engineer at Google, Hollowood said, “Professor Jeltema helped me come out of my shell in graduate school, and guided me from a bewildered first-year student to a successful software engineer. She was always excellent in her explanations, comforting about whatever problems I faced, and I always felt that she was on my side and that I could talk to her, even about difficult topics.”

Jeltema is active in numerous STEM diversity efforts at UCSC, advising students in UC CAMP (California Alliance for Minority Participation), UC LEADs (Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees), and the Julie Packard summer research experience. She also participates in numerous workshops, panels, and talks for organizations and programs such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), and the College Scholars honors program.

Jeltema was the lead co-organizer of the 2015 APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at UC Santa Cruz, and she has been leading the organization of the 2021 CUWiP meeting, which was to be hosted again at UCSC but will now be held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.