Such Great Heights

Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree encourages young physicists to take flight

The KITP Graduate Fellows Program combines talent with mentorship and access to a global scientific community. Since 1999, over 75 graduate students from around the world have arrived at KITP for a six-month research experience and returned to their universities with a broader understanding of physics. Over half of KITP graduate fellows now serve in esteemed faculty positions. Others reside at leading research organizations such as the Los Alamos National Lab and CERN. Over 20% of recent KITP graduate fellows are women, nearly double the national average of women pursuing graduate degrees in theoretical physics. All this is possible through the generosity of supporters like Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree, who helps visiting scholars soar beyond the realm of their experience at KITP. 

Lady Leslie is not constrained by the expectations of others. She defied convention in 2005 by taking over her late husband’s business manufacturing airplane parts as chief executive officer and chair of Pacific Air Industries in Santa Monica. The company is not the only organization that has risen under her leadership; Lady Leslie is a trustee and former board chair of the UC Santa Barbara Foundation. She dismisses those who expect her to support exclusively “feminine” causes like art and theater. 

“People don’t see that you can have wide interests,” said Lady Leslie, who has a 20-year legacy of student support at UC Santa Barbara. 

“Science is the beginning of the world, the beginning of us all, and if you start with that, it’s simple. I find that very exciting.” That sense of wonder and exploration is encouraged in graduate fellows. While at KITP, each fellow is mentored, encouraged to participate in KITP programs and invited to give talks to the local KITP community. Fellows receive invaluable experience and exposure. 

“Science can help us realize we are all connected.”

“As a student supported through the Graduate Fellows Program at KITP, I’m grateful for receiving what I truly believe is a unique opportunity for young scientists to witness how science progresses through productive collaborations, inspiring discussions and the subtle exchange of ideas that only occurs under special circumstances,” said Gautam Reddy, a 2019 graduate fellow who is now an NSF-Simons Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard. “I believe KITP does indeed nurture such an environment, and I’m very thankful for the opportunity to experience it.” 

As a KITP graduate fellow, Gautam researched how creatures navigate complex and turbulent environments. He presented a Café KITP talk on the ways that gliders and birds soar using thermal currents. These fundamental insights can be applied to machine learning and the physics of turbulent transport to model decision-making in noisy conditions. Donors like Lady Leslie gave Gautam the lift he needed to take his research to new heights. 

“It’s unusual for graduate students to have access to such a large group of leading scholars and have that freedom to explore,” said Lady Leslie. “For me, it’s about breaking barriers.” Lady Leslie has high expectations for KITP scientists. “I hope they will discover the formula for peace,” she laughed. Then seriously, she added: “Science can help us realize we are all connected.”

KITP 2020 Impact Report