'A phenomenal mentor'

Geography professor reflects on her method and a prize student

If you’ve ever walked near dunes at the beach, you’ve probably seen them — the snake-like shapes in the sand called streamers. They’re formed by the wind and are an essential component of coastal geomorphology. 

“We really didn’t understand, when the wind blew, how the sand would respond,” says Jean Ellis, an associate professor in geography and the School of the Earth, Ocean and Environment in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Now we know that sand transport is not uniform.”

A better understanding of how sand is transported by coastal winds is important in South Carolina, where much of the economy is supported by beach tourism. Ellis and her team conduct research on the Isle of Palms near Charleston and work closely with officials there on best practices for beach renourishment.

Ellis’ curiosity about how the forces of nature reshape the world’s beaches has spread to her students, including the university’s most recent Rhodes Scholar, Jory Fleming. 

Fleming, who is autistic, was a shy home-schooled student when he and and Ellis first met, unsure of himself and his ability to attend classes at the college level. 

“He was very nervous and would barely talk to me,” Ellis recalls. “Four years later, he’s hanging out on my couch all the time. I enjoyed watching him grow as a person and as a student.”

Ellis was one of several professors who encouraged the uniquely gifted young man to push his limits.

“Jean is a phenomenal mentor, a constant supporting presence and an active force pushing me to expand my horizons and test boundaries,” Fleming says. He’s now in England, is studying at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. “Whether in the field, in the lab or in life, Jean has a special knack for challenging you and yet giving you the tools you need to succeed.”

Ellis says much of her research is geared toward helping her students start and advance their own academic careers — from the Ph.D. level to undergrads. Students in her lab start on a defined project, but as the work progresses, they begin to pursue their own questions. 

“It’s like a tiered mentoring system,” she says. “I am able to provide experience to my Ph.D. students to learn how to mentor younger students, who are getting some experience in making presentations.”

Fleming worked in Ellis’ lab where she gave him the daunting task of creating an algorithm that would “crunch numbers” — millions of numbers, some important, some just “noise.”

“My memories from the lab, whether exploring dunes and beaches, rewriting Matlab code a seemingly endless number of times, or traveling the country to attend conferences were highlights of my time at USC and will stay with me forever,” Fleming says. “It is no understatement that without the growth I experienced as a mentee, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” 

Fleming turned out to be a whiz at not just understanding the data he was crunching, but also at presenting it visually. His work with the Matlab algorithm led to a winning presentation at Discovery Day — now called Discover USC. 

“I miss Jory so much,” Ellis says. “He is such a special person. His ability to digest material is frightening it’s so incredible.”

Share this Story! Let friends in your social network know what you are reading about