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Jill Kelly, Forestry and Environmental Studies, Wins Public Service Award

June 11, 2015

Every year, the Graduate School honors one or more students who have given extraordinary service to our community. The winner of this year’s Public Service Award is Jill Kelly (PhD, expected 2019, Forestry and Environmental Studies).

Kelly earned her undergraduate degree from Yale in 1991 as a math major and then spent twenty years teaching, working in Yale’s libraries, taking (and auditing) a few graduate courses at Wesleyan, Yale, and UConn, and raising a family. After completing a master’s degree in geography from UConn in 2013, she decided to return to Yale for a doctorate.  

Kelly’s three children — Nora, 15; Owen, 13; and Eva, 11 — attend the Engineering Science University Magnet School (ESUMS), a 6-12th grade magnet school that has about 600 students. Kelly volunteers there in an astonishing number of capacities.

Some of her efforts at the school relate to her love of math and the pleasure she derives from helping kids solve problems. “It also drives me nuts to see math and statistics misused by decision-makers,” she says. To promote a love of math at ESUMS, she founded an after-school coding club at which she has taught Python programming every Monday for the past two years. This year, she added three-hour weekend practices to the middle school’s Mathcounts team, two members of which competed at the national level.

In addition, Kelly is vice president of the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization and co-chairs its Hospitality Committee. She founded and maintains a blog,, to keep parents informed about news and events both at the school and in the district. She regularly volunteers at Field Day, school dances, and the school’s “walkathon” fundraiser. She hosts a monthly “Coffee And…” gathering for parents who cannot attend evening PTO meetings.   

And that’s not all. Last year, Kelly served as the school’s representative to the Citywide Parent Leadership Team, where she advocated for hiring more full-time nurses by organizing a petition drive and lobbying the New Haven Health Department and state legislature. Kelly has also organized and participated in parent initiatives on school budgets, teacher problems, building approval, hiring, and school structure, and was briefly part of the Talented and Gifted program re-design team. Recently, she organized a small group of parents for an interview with the New Haven Independent about equity in school funding. (

Last year, the New Haven Public Schools honored her with a TAPS Award, which is given to parents, teachers, administrators or staff members who “go above and beyond in their efforts to help all kids engage in their learning and rise to success,” according to the NHPS website.

Why does she devote so much time and energy to her children’s school?

I love people, especially teenagers, and my graduate studies can be kind of solitary. My volunteer work is a study procrastination that actually does some good,” she says. She feels deep satisfaction “when progress gets made: when the kids are thrilled that their code runs or they win a big math competition; when the district actually hires more school nurses, raises the budget, or approves our building plan,” she says. The down side is “the volunteer work tries to infringe on the urgent work of writing my prospectus.”  

She chose ESUMS for her children because it “is the best school in the district academically.” She wanted them to go to public school, and she liked the high standards and emphasis on “nonviolent communication as a foundational principle, which somehow actually does carry through to how the kids treat one another. It’s very egalitarian and open, with poor organization but great creativity. Many of the teachers are crazy-dedicated. Where else could my 10th-grader take AP calculus, my 6th-grader design a playground in Autodesk Inventor, and my 8th-grader build a working solar cooker out of an umbrella and tinfoil?”  

Jill is a second year student in the PhD program in Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her research involves the estimation of forest biomass using lidar — a remote sensing technology that uses a laser to measure the distance to a target by timing the return of reflected light. Tim Gregoire is her adviser. While it’s “important to have accurate biomass estimates as a proxy for carbon storage in order to prevent deforestation and degradation of forests,” she says, the main reason she chose this topic is “because day-to-day I like to write code and geek out on all the ways the measured lidar points can be aggregated to areal statistics.”  

Her advice to graduate students: “Collaborate with your new town. Take some walks, take some risks, come out to the Freddie Fixer parade, Arts & Ideas, the free concerts on the Green. New Haven’s not scary or desperate. It’s a great town.”