Last week, Ela Rockafellow ’18, now a junior at the University of Maryland (UMD) College Park, was named a 2021 Goldwater Scholar, an award given to select undergraduates in each state who demonstrate leadership in their study of natural science, engineering, or mathematics. In the press release from UMD, one of Ela’s course instructors wrote, “Ela’s level of scholarly activity and publication is rare and exceptional, and I can say without qualification that Ela is the one of the best undergraduate students I have seen at the University of Maryland. She exhibits a rare combination of intelligence, creativity and dedication that I seldom find, even in graduate students.”
Ela received the honor based upon her work in physics on ultra-fast, high powered lasers, her publication in Physical Review Letters, and two poster presentations given at national American Physical Society meetings. However, Ela’s story is also noteworthy because of how difficult it is to categorize and quantify all she’s into. High School science teacher Polly Martin describes Ela as a renaissance person with “one of the most diverse portfolios I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t limit herself in one category; she was always out there exploring different things. She never let stereotypes and other people's opinions quantify her as a person.”
Polly, who taught Ela in 10th grade Extended Chemistry, explained that Ela was one of the few girls to take Quantum Mechanics at GDS (with Matt Friel and Kevin Cornell), one of just a few female wrestlers, a prolific artist, an avid horseback rider, and a “potential glass ceiling breaker.” Polly went on to describe Ela as personally driven, self-aware, and “one of the most compassionate and empathetic individuals” she’s ever known.
This winter, Ela hosted a Zoom conference for students underrepresented in High School physics to generate interest and support. She hoped, just as she did when encouraging other GDS girls to join the wrestling team, to help students who might leave physics to rethink their decision and stick with it.
Below are interview excerpts:
Let's do this in reverse—tell us a bit about your art/painting from GDS and how you continue that today. Where do you see your art and creativity overlap with your STEM/STEAM work?
Ever since starting at GDS with both [HS studio art teachers] Adrian [Loving] and Michelle [Cobb], drawing and painting regularly has been an essential component to maintaining my mental health. I try to spend at least four hours drawing or painting a week, and when I don't, I sorely miss it. Beyond the actual act of drawing and painting, I actually think my experience—especially with Michelle in AP Drawing and Painting—helped develop my design thinking skills in a way that has been really beneficial to my research. When developing a concept for a drawing or painting, you have to come up with an idea, sketch it, and then figure out how to effectively execute it. Figuring out an effective execution was always my favorite part because I liked to experiment with materials—and it didn't always work. Research is very similar to this process in the sense that you can have a theory, but figuring out how to test that theory in designing an experiment is difficult. Then, dealing with the multitude of issues that come up as you go along can be utterly exasperating (and something for which science and math classes simply don't prepare you). However, Michelle's class was more than enough to prepare me to think about how to execute experiments and adjust when things go wrong.
How did wrestling at GDS prepare you for being one of the few women in a largely male-dominated field?
Before I started wrestling, I was very shy. I would sit in the back of classrooms and silently let my peers ignore me. I didn't feel particularly welcome in STEM environments. Competing as one of the only female wrestlers in my league for five years transformed me into someone who no longer gave my peers the opportunity to disregard my presence and opinions. I learned to exude the same confidence my male counterparts displayed, and it transformed my experience in STEM classes entirely. If you ask [HS science teachers] Aden [Richards] or Polly, they'll confirm that by my junior year of High School, I was no longer shy in classes. In fact, probably quite the opposite. These changes in my character have been astronomically helpful in the research lab, where I am the only woman in the collaboration and therefore need to assert myself in order for my views to be heard.
Favorite teachers, people, or programs at GDS you want to shout out or that had a lasting impact?
Michelle, Polly, Aden, Kevin Cornell, Katherine Dunbar, Nathan Vish, Andy Lipps, and Suzi Hamon all had the largest lasting impacts. Each shaped my love for critical thinking, problem solving, or resilience in one way or another, and I don't think I would have achieved this scholarship without them. You could talk to any of them, although I'm not sure which I would prioritize over others (besides Polly of course, I sometimes refer to her as my best friend from GDS :) ). The STEM club gave me a lot of exposure to research and outreach that has contributed to my endeavors in the lab and through the Society of Physics Students.
Tell us more about the DEI-focused physics course you are designing! Would you be interested in connecting with GDS students around this work?
I've been interested in DEI work for a long time, but working with the community of students at GDS was the first time I felt that I could actually do something to improve the environment. My grade was very involved in Crisis Week (2016) and the resulting programs, and I even recall running discussion seminars about how we can improve GDS and increase transparency through my senior year. The DEI-focused seminar is an idea of the UMD chapter of the Society of Physics Students, for which I am the outreach chair, developed in a DEI-focused Town Hall meeting I organized. We have eight objectives:
- Investigate how various identities affect how students experience the world. Use this knowledge to develop a toolkit to help students be considerate of how others experience the world (and try to make it as inclusive as possible).
- Identify aspects of students' own identity and how those identities influence how students fit into the physics community.
- Educate students on how different experiences and language affect different people (including history, personal stories, etc.).
- Teach students how to reflect on their educational experiences—what they have learned, what surprised/didn’t surprise them, and how they can use their new knowledge to make change in the world.
- Educate students on tangible ways to implement change in their community. Help students learn to identify problems with DEI in their communities and propose realistic and effective measures to create solutions.
- Help students build supportive relationships in this class.
- Develop super-TAs (people who can establish community and help improve inclusion as well as act as point person for other students). Give advanced, experienced students leadership roles and the new students a role model/ person to turn to for help.
- Develop a final product to be presented to the UMD Physics Climate Committee addressing UMD physics-specific problems and realistic solutions. The projects will be a measurable, tangible product of the class to teach students how to implement change.
In my experience, GDS students have been at the forefront of implementing change at GDS, pressuring the administration to change and adapt to improve inclusivity at the school. For this reason, I would definitely like to collaborate with GDS students (should they be interested) in implementing this course. My hope is that it will greatly improve the UMD physics department and then expand to other institutions as a standard practice—perhaps GDS would like to be one of these institutions.
Why lasers? What's the appeal and what are the applications that fascinate you most?
I find intense laser-matter interactions and related applications fascinating. The high amount of power that you can focus in a precise area for such a short amount of time makes many applications possible that would have never even been considered prior to the laser, and on top of that, you can control the energy by controlling the laser wavelength. This area has already yielded many exciting breakthroughs in compact particle acceleration, spectroscopy, ultraviolet and x-ray light sources, laser-based manufacturing, and optical communication. I love the idea of designing and running experiments that take advantage of new laser wavelengths or unprecedentedly powerful pulses to make similar discoveries and technological advances.
Ela offers private and group tutoring in physics and math and is currently starting “a nonprofit that offers tutoring to those who can afford it and uses some of the money to pay tutors offering sessions for students from lower-income areas or disadvantaged groups who cannot afford it.” If you are seeking a tutor or are interested in learning more about Ela’s program, please reach out to her by email: email@example.com.