“I can’t imagine doing chemistry anywhere else!”
That was what Julia Gensheimer (EC ’19) told her mother after going on a tour of the new addition to Emory chemistry’s Atwood Hall. With its soaring atrium, shiny new labs, and innovative teaching space, it’s easy to see how the Atwood Addition could get a student excited about chemistry. However, Julia’s tour took place in the summer of 2015, while the building was still being built.
“It was exciting to have an exclusive tour for students interested in chemistry,” says Julia of the hard-hat tour of the construction site led by chemistry Director Todd Polley.
Julia’s ability to see potential in the unknown brought her to Emory, and it’s part of what makes her such a successful chemistry major. Julia is excited about what chemistry offers—and what it doesn’t. “In the lab, you are looking for an answer to some research question and if you answer that question, you ask another one! You search and you re-search,” says Julia. “There is always something to discover.”
As a freshman, Julia enrolled in CHEM 221Z, an accelerated course for students with AP credit. The class was taught by Jose Soria and Dennis Liotta. Julia was excited to be working with top researchers as a freshman and the course further fueled her interest in chemistry. Dennis Liotta says, “Julia has excelled at everything she’s done at Emory. As far as I’m concerned, she’s a future superstar.”
“Julia is great,” agrees Stefan Lutz, Julia’s sophomore biochemistry instructor. “She is an enthusiastic student and a hard worker.”
While Julia is a rising star (and a self-described “chemistry fangirl”) that doesn’t mean coursework and research come easy. In fact, says Julia, “chemistry doesn’t come naturally to me at all!” Like many students, Julia found organic chemistry challenging, but the community she built in the classroom carried her through. “They are some of my best friends,” she says of her organic classmates, “We formed a little organic chemistry family and continue to take classes with each other. We study together and support one another.”
Outside the classroom, Julia has been involved in research in the Rafi Ahmed Lab in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology since February 2016. She’s building on experience she gained in high school after spending two summers in the lab of Dr. Michael Jensen at the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research in Seattle.
How did a high schooler end up traveling across the country to get involved in cutting-edge cancer research?
“I saw an advertisement about a cancer treatment without radiation or chemotherapy, known as immunotherapy at Seattle Children’s. The initiative was led by Dr. Michael Jensen and in minutes, I became his number one fan. So, I emailed him. To my surprise and utter joy, I received a reply and got the internship! I flew from my small town in Kentucky to Seattle where I volunteered full-time in the Jensen laboratory.”
The lab invited Julia back the next summer for ten weeks (funded in part by Emory’s Civic Scholars Program) where she completed an independent project. Her time in the Jensen lab also sparked another interest: triathlons.
Of course, in chemistry you can work hard and achieve. But triathlons—you must have an aptitude for those, right? Or at least experience?
“Maybe,” says Julia. “I did a triathlon my sophomore year of high school because I competed on the swim team at the time. After a triathlon hiatus, my lab members convinced me to participate in a triathlon relay over the summer. I enjoyed it so much that I joined Emory’s club triathlon team and finished my second triathlon last September. I will race again in the spring! I’m a terrible runner though so I really have to train for that part.”
Taken together, Julia’s accomplishments tell a story about a student who isn’t afraid to try, to test, to take risks. “I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t constantly challenged in some way.” Her next challenge? A summer research experience in the Ahmed Lab continuing her work in cancer immunology.
She isn’t exactly sure what she wants to do next – maybe a career in chemistry and biology research, most likely on the MD/PhD track. Or possibly on some track that hasn’t been built yet. Because if anyone can find the next cool thing and take off in pursuit, it’s going to be Julia Gensheimer.