Tracy Paltoo's transformation is a result of her fierce determination and natural ability, along with support from Adelphi professors and staff.

Tracy Paltoo, Physics DeptIt’s pretty common for first-year students to worry about whether they’d be able to do college-level work. What’s rare is for one of those students to become a bona fide science star.

Tracy Paltoo ’17 is one of those rare students. Behind that transformation was her fierce determination and natural ability, along with motivational support from one of her physics professors, Matthew Wright, Ph.D.

And what a transformation it was. Coming to Adelphi as a shy graduate of Grover Cleveland High School in Queens, she felt intimidated and struggled in her first science classes. But by the time she got her bachelor’s degree in physics last spring, she had been selected as a McDonell Fellow at Adelphi, completed a summer research experience at Cornell University and served as regional representative of the Society of Physics Students.

Today, she is finishing her first year of two as a civil engineering major at Columbia University as part of the combined program with Adelphi.

“I grew so much in my first two years at Adelphi,” she said. “I was so afraid of failing when I got there, but Professor Wright was a constant source of encouragement and assurance. He always made me believe that no matter what I did, I would be pretty good at it, and if I failed at something, it was not the end of the world.”

She received similar support from other professors and students in the department.

“It was so easy to talk with people in the physics department,” she said, “and it gave me a level of comfort I hadn’t experienced before.”

The support she received led her to seek out learning opportunities. She asked Dr. Wright if she could come into his lab over the summer to observe, shadow upperclassmen, pick up tips on lab etiquette and learn more about lasers, his area of research. She visited two or three times a week, while still finding time to write about her experience making the transition from high school to college in “Journey of Creation,” an essay published online in Physics Today.

That experience helped her earn a McDonell Fellowship the next summer, giving her a stipend to spend 10 weeks on campus doing her own research on lasers.

The fellowship opened a succession of doors for Paltoo. She presented her research at the American Physical Society March Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, at a Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program meeting in Bolton Landing, New York, and at the annual research conference at Adelphi. It also led to spending the following summer at Cornell doing research in astrophysics.

In the meantime, Paltoo became vice president of the Society of Physics Students chapter at Adelphi and soon was elected to a regional leadership position. In that role, she was sent to the society’s 2016 Quadrennial Physics Congress in California to meet with the national council of the Society of Physics Students and assist in workshops. While there, she got what she said was one of the most exciting opportunities of her life.

The congress happened to take place soon after the announcement of a major scientific breakthrough, the detection of gravitational waves from the collision of black holes by scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). One of those scientists, Patrick Brady, Ph.D., spoke at the congress, and Paltoo was granted the opportunity to meet him before his talk and present him to the audience.

“It was incredible,” she said. “I even got a chance to pick his brain a little!”

Now at Columbia, Paltoo has turned her attention from physics to civil engineering. She actually spent the previous summer as an engineering intern for the New York City Transit Authority on the rehabilitation of the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) Bus Far Rockaway Depot, and hopes eventually to join the organization once she graduates.

“I got so much from my education at Adelphi,” she said. “It gave me so many opportunities, and has led me to where I want to be. And it taught me something that everyone should know: You need to fail in order to learn.”

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