The Journey to Georgia Tech: Jess Eskew Shares Struggles, Learning Lessons, and Advice

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Jess Eskew will be the first to admit that her path to a Georgia Tech degree has been anything but traditional. Before arriving at the Institute, Eskew attended two other universities, where she shares she struggled through classes and was told by those around her that she would never be accepted into Georgia Tech.

Now, Eskew plans to graduate in December with a degree in Physics from Tech with a concentration in astrophysics. Coupled with extensive research in nuclear energy and gravitational wave astrophysics, including a research internship with the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and working with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) along with involvement in organizations such as the Society of Women in Physics and the Society of Physics Students, Eskew has certainly proven her place at Georgia Tech.

Family Traditions and the Path to Tech

From a young age, Eskew says she felt at home on Georgia Tech’s campus. Growing up, she attended countless football games with her father and grandparents and quickly began to love the Institute.

Her grandfather, Robert “Bob” Eskew, BS Business Administration ‘49 and MS Industrial Engineering ‘55, served as a faculty member for 19 years, including 7 years as a business manager and as Treasurer of the Georgia Tech Athletic Association. He was also heavily involved in the Georgia Tech Alumni Association, where he served as a trustee.

“We’re pretty intense Georgia Tech fans because of my grandfather. And my grandfather was able to do so many great things because of Georgia Tech. Progress and service, oh my gosh, that’s how he really did live his life. I look at him, and my mom and what her family has gone through — and putting those together makes me want to have this same thing, and give back in the ways that they did,” Eskew says.

Bob Eskew was also an active supporter of the City of Atlanta and was an early proponent of bringing the Olympic Games to Atlanta. As detailed in an Atlanta Magazine article, he sought out corporate support to make an unsuccessful bid for 1984 Olympics in Atlanta, and ultimately succeeded in developing the Atlanta 2000 Sports Committee and subsequently the Atlanta Sports Council for the Chamber of Commerce. His influence helped save the Peach Bowl and also won support for the Georgia Dome.

“My grandfather was able to do so many great things because of Georgia Tech,” shares Eskew. “Progress and service is how he really did live his life.”

Her grandmother, Iris Eskew, also worked closely with Georgia Tech students through Villa International, an organization she started through First Presbyterian Church to support international students studying in Atlanta.

And Jess Eskew’s father, Charles “Dick” Richard Tomkins Eskew, attended Georgia Tech and received a BS in Architecture in 1982. Inspired by her family’s love for the Institute, Eskew says she knew that she would one day end up at Georgia Tech. However, she adds that she couldn’t have predicted that she would study physics and nuclear fusion — much less gravitational waves produced from binary black hole mergers.

“Originally I had pictured myself as a doctor, or a lawyer,” Eskew shares. “I just knew I wanted to help people, that's what I wanted my career to be.”

In high school, Eskew studied Latin for four years to aid a career in intellectual property law, her initial career goal upon beginning her undergraduate study. In fact, though Eskew now concentrates in astrophysics, she remembers that, “to be honest, I was absolutely horrified by space when I was a kid, I was scared to death of all of that.”

Eskew’s interest in physics was first sparked while viewing Interstellar, a drama film that explores the limits of space exploration and is based on theoretically possible ideas.

“When I was in high school, after I saw Interstellar, I asked for Christmas for books on physics, space exploration, and all that good stuff, and I read them,” shares Eskew. Specifically, Eskew was intrigued by physicist Kip Thorne’s non-fiction novel The Science of Interstellar that explained the theory behind the film. “By learning more about the film I was able to see the better side of space exploration and just answer my questions.”

This initial interest in astrophysics inspired her major; however, Eskew shares that in any career, "I pictured myself in a role that could help people,” and upon beginning research projects, she says she first realized that she excelled in nuclear energy and plasma physics.

“My advisor, Dr. Xiaochun He at Georgia State University, told me that if you really want to help the world, you need to do something that will help us right now,” says Eskew. “Space exploration is not going to happen right now. You need to focus on right here and right now, because you can make a difference, and your difference needs to be on something right now. At first, I was taken back, but I realized that he was giving me harsh love. He saw that I could use my skills to help the world with something immediate.”

Eventually, Eskew got involved in got involved in fusion energy and plasma physics research, where she felt that she could best utilize her research skills and abilities while positively affecting the world in a timely and genuine manner.

Radical Research and Remote Outreach

More recently, this past summer, through the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships with the Department of Energy, Eskew virtually interned at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). Though widespread changes caused by the Covid-19 pandemic upset Eskew’s original plans to travel to the lab in Princeton, New Jersey, she quickly adjusted to an online research environment.

“My project was studying the ion incident angle distribution for various plasma configurations,” shares Eskew. “It was basically computing the whole time, which is so interesting because I never thought I would be a computational physicist, I thought I would be an experimental one. But I ended up realizing that I really did love doing that, because it’s fun to get the data and analyze the outputs.”

Even though Eskew had to adjust twice to different research projects, her positive attitude and willingness to learn in any capacity assisted in an easy transition to various projects.

“It was a great learning experience, especially with classes being virtual this semester,” she adds.

Through her undergraduate career, Eskew has explored various areas of research, from high energy nuclear physics at the Nuclear Physics Group at Georgia State University, to gravitational wave astrophysics for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration under professor and Center for Relativistic Astrophysics Director Laura Cadonati at Georgia Tech. Following advice from her advisors, Eskew honed her focus on nuclear fusion, where she discovered that she both succeeded in her research and classes and felt inspired by her work.

“I’ll say it all the time, I am dedicating my life to this,” Eskew shares. “There is nothing else that I want to do. Even before I was with PPPL, I knew that I wanted to be in the energy industry. I knew that I wanted to use my physics knowledge and education, all the skills I’ve learned through school, to make the world a better place and to help others.”

This summer at PPPL, Eskew used an ion angle distribution code to simulate particle trajectories and how they became distributed within the ‘sheath’, the first plasma facing component, for various fusion device plasma configurations, including PISCES-A, a linear plasma at University of California San Diego.

“Once we can figure out which material is the best to use for fusion reactors, we can then determine what it’s lifetime can be, so how long it can last during operation, how feasible it is to be implemented throughout different areas, and how we can implement the type of reactor into the power grid,” she explains.

In the future, Eskew hopes that nuclear energy is widely adopted as an environmentally friendly alternate to traditional fuel sources. Through her research, physicists may be one step closer to improving their fusion reactors. She virtually presented her research on the topic at the American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics Conference on November 10.

Coming from an underrepresented background in the sciences, Eskew shares that she’s used to being in a classroom where she is the only woman. And, in her workplace, Eskew greatly values representation and fair treatment of all people.

“When I started with PPPL, I was blown away by the community there, it is just amazing,” says Eskew. “They are so nice and kind and really do believe in the younger generation really being the ones to help us get there. They really put a lot of emphasis on that. It’s wonderful to have a community that is so aware of diversity, equity, inclusion, all those things that are very important to me, and to want to support more people that are underrepresented.”

This summer, Eskew was also a part of in-depth  discussion with Chris Fall, Director of the Department of Energy's Office of Science and Steven Cowley, Director of PPPL, on the future of fusion energy research, with a focus on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Leaders of the discussion put out a form to add questions for the directors to answer.

“My question was ‘How can students better voice their experiences and point of view to initiate change in the community which is better suited for younger generations?’” she shares.

Eskew was the only woman on the call  and says that the leaders on the call with her were receptive to her comments and concerns.

“I’ve got purple hair, and I’m Pakistani-American, and they wanted to hear what I had to say,” says Eskew. “To have someone at such a high level was really important to me, because as the president of SWIP (Society of Women in Physics), when I was the vice president, and when I was president at Georgia State, I wanted to include everyone’s point of views.”

Lasting Lessons and Some Advice

With graduation a few short weeks away, Eskew reflects on her path to her degree with gratitude and pride.

“I had a lot of people doubt me because I didn’t have that perfect linear path to my education,” she shares. “But I found something I was really passionate in, and I went for it, and I didn’t listen to what they said because I had confidence in myself.”

Now, Eskew is taking the lessons she learned and helping younger students discover their passions and achieve their goals. Through the non-profit organization Skype a Scientist, earlier this year Eskew spoke with high school chemistry and physics classes about her research and provided advice and mentorship.

“The questions they have for me are so interesting,” she says. “They want to know how to code, they want to know how to get to even where I am right now. When I think about where I was at that age, I’m like oh my gosh, I had no clue — but I did have those questions.”

Eskew’s biggest bite of advice to anyone interested in studying science? Be aware of what makes you excited and seek more information on it.

“If there’s something that sparks something inside you, and you’re like ‘that’s interesting,’ or even if there’s something that you don’t understand, look into it,” encourages Eskew. “That can be from watching YouTube videos, reading books, literally Googling it and doing a deep dive on the internet. You will find at least something that will lead you towards that and follow that.”

Eskew also encourages others to speak up and let their voices be heard in academia. Following a chilly email exchange about a disagreement in decisions for the Society of Women in Physics, Eskew set up a time over Zoom to discuss the issue with a faculty member in a friendly manner.

During the conversation, the two quickly recognized that they had similar goals but poor communication in the situation. Ultimately, Eskew says that getting to know the professor better resulted in being offered a position working with the College of Sciences Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force  — which ultimately also helped utilize a Federal Work Study grant and continue research on LIGO with additional income to help tackle tuition.

“I am so glad that I spoke up and I said: please do not treat me like this,” she says. “I have put in so many hours of volunteering to be an advocate for the School of Physics at Georgia Tech — I love it with all my heart. And I really appreciate the listening, and openness, and open mindedness.”

Eskew is currently leading “Potty Parity,” a project to increase female bathrooms in the Howey Physics building, which was constructed in 1962 and, along with several other buildings at Tech, was built with significantly more bathrooms designed primarily for men.

Over the coming months, Eskew will also be working closely with professors that have mentored her: Tamara Bogdonavić, J.C. Gumbart, and Laura Cadonati.

“It’s great because these are all professors I’ve really looked up to and have really been able to have great conversations with — and learn from them and have mentorship from — so it’s just going to strengthen those even more.”

Following graduation, Eskew plans to continue nuclear fusion research to discover environmentally friendly solutions in science. She leaves her undergraduate career with an awareness of the struggles she has been through and obstacles she’s overcome, and with gratitude for the lessons she says have helped her emerge as the person she is today.

“The only setbacks I’ve gotten are ones that have given me better opportunities to learn. Adversity creates opportunity.”


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