Small Molecules, Big Ideas: Julia Greer

Small Molecules, Big Ideas: Julia Greer

Professor Julia Greer is a materials scientist at Caltech. Her research focuses on creating and studying lightweight nanomaterials. These nanomaterials have a wide range of applications, such as energy, construction, transport, prosthetics, and electronics. We spoke to Julia about her work, and also touched upon some of the challenges she faces as a woman in STEM. Watch the video below, or keep reading for a summary of our conversation!

Lightweight yet Strong

Julia’s work operates on the fact that for centuries, whenever we require materials that are strong, they also end up being heavy. This is because strength is coupled with density. Materials such as foam are very lightweight, but not strong, whereas steel would be extremely strong but also heavy. Julia’s work seeks to find out how we can create stronger materials that are also lightweight. Her research combines architectural design, materials science, and nanotechnology. A great example of when such a lightweight yet strong material would be useful is in the development of prosthetics. The materials are used to construct three dimensional cellular scaffolds which can be used to guide the growth of bones, which can then be induced to differentiate to create tissues that won’t be rejected by the human body. For learning more about Julia’s research, you can watch this excellent 10 minute talk she gave at Solve for X earlier this year

We asked Julia how she first became interested in nanomaterials, and how it lead her to her current career path. Julia explained that she actually did her undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering, which is a subject where people typically focus on liquids or gases, and how she completely switched to working on solids as a materials scientist after that. Between her undergraduate and graduate degrees, she did a one year internship at Intel, which is where she became a materials scientist, a subject where people generally study the behaviour of solids. During her internship, she got the opportunity to work with a technique known as Focused Ion Beam (FIB).

“Using this technique, we were among the first people to start making these small molecules. It was so very enabling and empowering to be working on these very very small structures ourselves. The ability to create my own structures brought in my interest for working with nanomaterials”

Academia Vs Industry

Having interned at Intel for one year, Julia had valuable insights to share with us on the Academia versus Industry topic. Julia has worked in Industry both during her internship, and her postdoctoral research at PARC

“In Industry, a lot of the decisions are driven by business. So it is a culture and environment of a business-driven approach. If something didn’t work, and you manage to fix it, then that was the end of that story. There wasn’t so much interest in trying to understand why things didn’t work, or making sure it doesn’t happen again”

Julia observed that she didn’t find industry very intellectually challenging, and she didn’t feel intellectually satisfied in the positions she was in. In contrast, working in Academia as she currently does (she runs her own research group in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech), she notices that she has a tremendous amount of access to resources, both in terms of people, and opportunities to travel and network with leaders in her field.

“The academic culture at Caltech is really invigorating. Not only do we have the freedom to do what we want to do, but we drive it, which is where the creativity comes in.”

My years in industry weren’t as conducive to being creative, but the academic freedom is something I find really empowering. – Prof. Julia Greer

Breaking Stereotypes: Creativity in Science

In science, there are a lot of narrow stereotypes about what scientists should be like. People have this idea that a scientist is always in a white lab-coat, hiding in a basement somewhere. Yet scientists are real people, with diverse interests. We asked Julia about her interest in playing the piano, and how that inspires her to be more creative with her science. Julia explains that as scientists, although we spend a lot of time in the lab, we ultimately spend our time thinking about science, as science is about solving problems. To be able to think of solutions for solving scientific problems, a scientist must also be a whole, complete person. All of the extra-curricular activities that we do define who we are as individuals and as scientists.

“For example, I love music. I play the piano a lot. I also love rollerblading and hiking and interacting with people. So all of these experiences and aspects of my life form who I am. Whatever shapes you into who you are makes you a more complete person, and from that comes a better scientist”

Julia also observes that science has become so interdisciplinary that narrow stereotypes no longer fit, as it is increasingly difficult to find sharp dividing lines between different types of scientists. Many of these boundaries have become grey, especially in the nanoscience field, because there is so much involvement between various disciplines. Julia used her own research group as an example, made up of graduate students and postdocs from a wide range of backgrounds; aerospace, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, materials science, and chemistry. She explained how having such a diverse group allows her to learn from them too.

"Extra-curricular activities help with interdisciplinary science as they allow the scientist to approach problems with a unique perspective, and work well in a team." Prof. Julia Greer
“Extra-curricular activities help with interdisciplinary science as they allow the scientist to approach problems with a unique perspective, and work well in a team.” Prof. Julia Greer

“Follow your passion”

Next we asked Julia to share some tips and insights for the benefit of any young girls who might be interesting in following a similar career path to hers. Julia observed that many young people do not think about careers when they are young, because a career is so far away into the future and is therefore difficult to define. Therefore, she said the most important thing is to follow their passion, and to follow their gut feeling.

“If something appeals to you, if something is fun, you should do it! Sometimes we meet a lot of resistance in our lives, because we are programmed to listen to figures of authority that can sometimes stifle that impulse to do something that we think is exciting. We end up stifling our curiosity. If you meet someone inspiring person or if you get engaged in an inspiring project, by all means you should follow it. Become obsessed!”

“Follow your passions, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to speak out! Give yourself permission to be wrong.” - Prof. Julia Greer.
“Follow your passions, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to speak out! Give yourself permission to be wrong.” – Prof. Julia Greer.

From a more practical point of view. Julia expounded the value of getting an internship, especially for high-school students, as it allows the student real hands on experience to ‘try out’ what science is like.

”Just Do It”

Julia has two young children, so we asked her to talk to us about how she manages the work/life balance, and to address the redundant idea that women cannot be mothers and also successful in STEM. Julia expressed her frustrations at this redundant idea.

“There will never be a good time to have kids. There will always be reasons not to. So if at some point you want to become a mom, just do it. It’s a fantastic experience. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, it’s exhilarating, it’s empowering, and it completely changes your world forever. I wouldn’t trade it for anything”

As practical advice, Julia shared with us how having two young girls has taught her better time management skills, and also taught her to become much more patient. She views her time with her children as exclusive, meaning she does not work when she spends time with her children, typically between 4 and 9pm. She also has a strong parental support network at Caltech. Having a defined boundary between work hours and non-work hours also requires her to be more efficient, and not waste time when she does work. Overall, it has made her more productive because of stricter time management. She also delegates more to her students and postdocs, which benefits them as it allows them to be more independent. She finished by saying how she does work a lot, but it really helps that she loves what she does, which was very evident from the energy and passion she displayed during our conversation with her!

How Academia Can Support STEM Women

We asked Julia how she thinks Academia could be more supportive of working mothers, particularly in STEM. Julia observed that being a mother while having a STEM career is a lot easier now than it was 10 years ago. Being pregnant used to have a lot of stigma attached to it. Julia gave us some examples of some of the negative things she has been told regarding her gender:

“I’ve been told by an advisor “you’re not a good scientist, and women in general should not get PhDs”. I’ve heard colleagues say “You’re just here because you’re a girl”. You just have to get over it. In the end, they’re going to look like [fill in your own word of choice!]. You have to be above that.”

Julia explained how in the U.S.A., universities are now particularly amenable to family life. One such measure that is implemented by universities is that for each child that an academic has (up to two), a year gets added onto the ‘tenure clock’. The tenure decision is one of the most important decisions in academia, as tenure results in job security for life. Applying for tenure is a time-sensitive process, as it must be done within a certain time-frame, typically 7 years. Before applying for tenure, scientists must produce as many publications as they can, and also demonstrate their ability to bring in independent funding, by successfully obtaining research grants. Understandably, this is difficult for many young researchers that have families, so having extra years added onto the ‘tenure clock’ eases the pressure.

Caltech has great support for parents, in that there is a pre-school on campus. The Children’s Center at Caltech has a parental network, as most of the other professors that are Julia’s age also have young kids in it. But, she explained that it is very difficult to get into it, and it is also very expensive. So more often than not, many working mothers struggle to find suitable childcare. So it would be tremendously helpful if affordable childcare that didn’t have long waiting lists were available to these working mothers.

Julia also talked to us about how conference travel is one of the hardest things she faces. She never leaves her children for more than three days, and she wishes she could take her children with her. But childcare at conferences are very difficult to find. She told us how she took her 6 year old daughter with her to the Materials Research Society conference, one of the biggest materials science conferences, and how they said they provide childcare. But that childcare was just a hotel room, and Julia understandably found it difficult to leave her daughter in a stuffy hotel room all day.

“We constantly get asked, “how do you do the work/life balance?” Well we would love to be able to bring our kids with us. If conference organisers were able to provide us with resources and the permission to travel with kids it would allow us to stay for the whole conference, and be a lot better for everyone.”

Over to You!

Have you got additional practical advice for managing work/life balance as a working STEM mother? How else can academia support women?

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