Jennifer Leestma

Woodruff School Graduate Student Jennifer Leestma Awarded Fellowship for Mentoring

November 3, 2023
By Chloe Arrington

Jennifer Leestma, a graduate student in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, recently received a Woodruff School fellowship in recognition of her dedication to mentoring students. 

Mentoring is an integral part of the Woodruff School community, helping to build a supportive and collaborative experience for students. Leestma has been helping guide other students through their Georgia Tech journey since 2020. 

“Mentoring has been a huge part of my time at Georgia Tech, so it means a lot to receive this recognition from the department,” she said.

Leestma first started mentoring an undergraduate team of researchers, the Human Balance Augmentation team, in January 2020 during the second semester of her Ph.D. program. Since then, she's had anywhere from three to seven undergraduate students that she works with each semester. She has mentored students from varying fields including mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and computer science through the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program. In VIP, teams of undergraduate students work with faculty and graduate students in their areas of scholarship and exploration. Undergraduate students earn academic credit for their work and have direct experience with the innovation process, while faculty and graduate students benefit from the extended efforts of their teams.

Over the last few years, Leestma has not only been dedicated to the success of her mentees academically but has also cared deeply about their well-being and growth beyond the classroom.

“These students put a huge amount of work into our lab, typically more than 10 hours per week during the school year, and as a result, have been involved in nearly every project during my Ph.D. program. I could rave about each of the students for quite a while, but collectively the thing I’m most proud of is how much they grow in their confidence, resilience, and independence during the time that they work in the lab,” Leestma said.

She also pointed out the difference between research and classwork for students saying that research can be a hard thing to jump into, unlike many of the classes the students typically occupy their time with.

“Research is a world where there is often not a right answer,” she said. “We’re doing things that haven’t been done before so building up your understanding, diligently and meticulously working through problems, and trusting your knowledge can be a big adjustment.”  

One of the most rewarding parts of being a mentor for Leestma has been seeing students work through the questions and problems research entails and come to a discovery.

“Getting to witness the lightbulbs going off and being there when students start coming up with their own ideas is rewarding. I do my best to foster this growth and I think the key has been always encouraging students to understand why they’re doing something, to the extent that they can easily explain it to others, even if that means progress must slow down while you deeply work through a problem,” she said.

Leestma is grateful for the chance to be a mentor during her time at Georgia Tech and will use the skills she has gained during the experience as she moves to her next chapter. “This mentorship experience has been invaluable and completely solidified my desire to pursue an academic career after graduation."

Leestma with undergraduate students
Leestma with undergraduate students