Carnegie Mellon University
November 20, 2023

Postdoctoral Fellow Elisa Bellah Offers New Lessons

By Kirsten Heuring

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS
  • 412-268-9982

Elisa Bellah's interest in math started in an undergraduate math class. Now as a postdoctoral associate in Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Mathematical Sciences, she wants to spark the same passion for math in others.

"Specific courses and specific professors got me really excited about math," Bellah said. "I had always sort of enjoyed math, and it was something that felt natural to me, but I didn't really know what it meant to be a mathematician. Those few years in undergrad were really transformational for me."

Bellah started as a teaching assistant and a tutor in while working on her undergraduate degree at Portland State University. She attended the University of Oregon for her doctorate and taught one class each quarter. She said the experience made her interested in pursuing teaching as a career.

"I really loved my research in grad school, but I found it hard not to be drawn toward teaching and mentoring," Bellah said. "As I was thinking of what I wanted to do after grad school, I really wanted to find a position that valued what I found most meaningful."

Bellah joined Carnegie Mellon's Department of Mathematical Sciences as a postdoctoral teaching fellow in 2022, the first year the fellowship was offered. Prasad Tetali, Alexander M. Knaster professor and department head of mathematical sciences, said that the idea behind the fellowship was to help increase the number of effective math instructors who can also engage with undergraduates in research.

"The idea is to recruit and train postdoctoral fellows whose career path might be that of a teaching track faculty in a research university or a tenure track faculty in a 4-year college," Tetali said. "We also hope this provides another vehicle to help with our diversity efforts."

Bellah has taught multiple courses, including differential and integral calculus, matrices and linear transformations and number theory. Though she enjoys all the courses she has taught, she particularly enjoys number theory because it is her research area.

"It's been a lot of fun. The students are so excited about the material," Bellah said. "They engage a lot in the lecture. They ask great questions. Many of them stay after class just to chat about related topics, which has been a fun experience."

Bellah also has helped with summer programs at Carnegie Mellon. In 2023, she worked with students in the Summer Undergraduate Applied Mathematics Institute (SUAMI) and in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF), programs which allow undergraduate students to gain research experience. She has also taught summer classes for the Summer Academy for Math and Science (SAMS), a program that allows high school students to take college-level summer courses, where she taught a class focused on number theory and cryptography.

"The summer students have this experience like, 'I didn't know this is what math was. I didn't know math was solving puzzles and making arguments,'" Bellah said. "They come here because they want to learn. They're so excited and motivated."

Bellah said the experiences she has had at Carnegie Mellon will help her find a permanent professorship where she can work with undergraduate students. Tetali said that there are plans to expand the fellowship in the future, and Bellah has done an excellent job as the inaugural recipient.

"Elisa truly lived up to all the expectations she had set and even exceeded on some grounds," Tetali said. "The teaching duties we had assigned to her during her first year were tough, but Elisa weathered those and other challenges in her first year with much determination and poise."