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Mastering the Challenges of STEM

ROTC cadet Isabella Lee is a physics and neuroscience major who perseveres through difficult work and then enjoys sharing what she’s learned with other students.

Portrait of Isabella Lee

Isabella Lee’s academic journey involves arduous uphill climbs, but reaching the summit is a matter of staying true to her interests. “If I’m going to school, I should be studying what I’m passionate about,” says Lee ’22, who is combining a major in physics with an integrated learning major in neuroscience in the College of Arts and Sciences . “If I don’t, I’m setting myself up for failure.”

One reason Lee enrolled at Syracuse University is the myriad opportunities. “None of the other schools I applied to offered as many options as Syracuse and the ability to combine programs,” she says. Along with her academic pursuits, Lee is a peer coach for the physics department, a cadet in the U.S. Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) who serves on the recruitment team, and a member of the international STEM sorority Alpha Omega Epsilon. As an ROTC scholarship recipient, she is honored to be part of the country’s longest continuously running Army ROTC program. “It’s one of the best programs in the nation, and I wanted to train with the best so I’ll be the best officer I can be when I graduate,” she says. “Not only is the ROTC a great way to build your leadership skills and professionalism, but I’ll be serving my country, and I think it’s important to find a way to serve.”

Pursuing Interests with Determination

Lee amplifies her commitment to service with a fearless, determined attitude when she takes on challenges. As a first-year student, she struggled with physics but turned to the Physics Clinic for help and realized she could succeed if she was dedicated and worked hard. She appreciated the encouragement she received from faculty, teaching assistants and peer coaches, and she felt at home in the collaborative environment. “I didn’t think I possessed that natural skill or talent to get there because I’m not the best at math and physics,” she says. “But being in the Physics Clinic showed me that not only can I do this, but anyone can do this. It really changed my perspective on myself and challenges in my life.”

The revelation inspired Lee to change her major from environmental engineering to physics, where she finds satisfaction grappling with quantum mechanics and other topics. “I wanted to know the root of why things happen the way they do,” she says. “I saw that I could understand it, and if I put enough work in, I could predict things that will happen—like when you shoot an electron at a certain surface.” After embracing physics, Lee decided last fall to couple it with another passion—her intrigue with how the brain functions—and added neuroscience to her studies. “The brain is the most fascinating thing that has ever existed,” she says. “It holds our personality and our perception of reality. There’s a connection between physics and reality and time and space. The fact that who we are and what we do is built up with millions of these little neurons just firing electrical impulses is amazing to me.”

I wanted to know the root of why things happen the way they do.

Lee says her classes went smoothly amid the University’s shift to remote learning in the spring semester, acknowledging the faculty’s flexibility. She completed an ROTC research project on the history and future of artillery use and delivered a virtual 35-minute briefing on the topic. “I was really excited because I don’t often get to share my knowledge about physics outside of the department,” she says. “To share my passion for physics with my cadre members was rewarding.”

Carrying on a Family Military Legacy

Isabella Lee outside smiling wearing camouflage military uniform holding rifle

As an ROTC cadet, Lee represents the fourth generation of a military legacy in her family. Her father is an Army veteran, and two older sisters serve in the military. Like many military families, they moved frequently during her childhood, with Hawaii, Virginia, Texas and Germany among the stops. “I’ve been all over,” she says. “Honestly it was difficult, because you don’t have that hometown and have to keep making new friends, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world. It was amazing. I got to see Europe when I was only 12 years old.”

Lee arrived in Syracuse from Buford, Wyoming, where the family settled when she was a junior in high school. Buford, she says, is well known for its lone gas station with a sign touting the town’s population of one. She gets a kick out of sharing this quirky nod to the history of the town as her go-to fun fact in class ice-breakers.

Learning and Teaching

When Lee reflects on her studies, she cites the important role that learning from others has had on her progress. And, likewise, she loves to contribute as a teacher herself, recognizing people learn in a variety of ways. She’s taught summer swim lessons, worked with swimmers at Special Olympics events and tutored for Spanish in middle school. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching, because I know that whenever I was in class and I found that one person who could explain something to me and make it click, it helped me to succeed,” she says.

Lee’s fondness for teaching has been reinforced through her work as a peer coach for General Physics I: Mechanics (Physics 211). “I looked forward to it every day,” says Lee, who plans to continue as a physics peer coach in the fall. “Plus, it gives me the opportunity to fasten down my own physics skills.” Along with enjoying helping other students, she lauds members of the physics department for their guidance and enabling her to teach—“the best people you’ve ever met,” she says. “They’re so kind, supportive and wonderful.”

Walter Freeman, assistant teaching professor of physics, knows Lee as a student he’s taught and as a peer coach for his General Physics class. He cites her “incredibly positive attitude” toward academics and says she’s motivated by her curiosity. “Something that Isa doesn’t understand yet is simply an opportunity to learn a new thing, and she approaches this opportunity with the confidence that her own intellect is up to the challenge,” Freeman says. “She is creative, always seeking ways to combine her interests in physics and the military. She is also an excellent and patient teacher, since she understands that students who are asking her questions and seeking her insights are just following in her own footsteps. By simply being her confident and curious self, she provides a wonderful role model for others on all sides of the classroom.”

I’ve always enjoyed teaching, because I know that whenever I was in class and I found that one person who could explain something to me and make it click, it helped me to succeed.

Lee is grateful that the physics department’s welcoming atmosphere has allowed her to thrive and have a positive impact working with other students. It’s also reassured her that she isn’t alone in grappling with the challenges of complex science problems. This summer, Lee is remotely assisting researchers in a soft matter physics lab—work that she hopes to continue in the fall. Among her future plans, she’s considering entering the Army Reserve Forces after graduation and putting her scientific knowledge to work at a business developing military technology. She’s also thinking about teaching at a Department of Defense international school for children of military personnel—like one she attended in Germany—as well as pursuing a doctorate in physics education research, which blends the science with exploring ways to improve teaching methods. This, of course, sounds like the right fit for someone who discovered physics can be for everyone—and no one should shy away from it if they’re interested. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist from the day you’re born to be able to be a rocket scientist,” Lee says.

Jay Cox

This story was published on .

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