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Graduate Student Spotlight: Julia Zhao

Categories: Students

Chemistry Graduate Student Julia Zhao describes her research and answers 20 random questions as part of the Graduate Student Spotlight series.

Julia Zhao is originally from Kansas City, Missouri and received her bachelor’s degree from Rice University in Houston, Texas. She is currently finishing up her fourth year as a graduate student at MIT as a member of Professor Jeremiah Johnson‘s group, where her research focuses on polymer metal-organic cage (polyMOC) gels: solvated polymer networks where each network junction is self-assembled from multiple metal atoms and multiple organic ligands. Gels are made by connecting polymers between organic ligands, which self-assemble into different polyhedral architectures depending on the ligand shape. Because these cages are formed from a large number of organic ligands, gels can still be obtained even when combining polymer-connected ligand with free ligand. Free ligand functionalized with useful chemical groups allows us to make polyMOC gels for different applications, such as water purification and catalysis.

As the subject of June 2019’s Graduate Student Spotlight, Julia shares the subject she could give a 40 minute presentation on without any preparation, the house she would build with unlimited funds, and more!

  1. How did you decide to do the work you are doing now?
    I was pretty split between majoring in bioengineering and chemistry until a pivotal bioengineering class I took my sophomore year at Rice. Our team was given an open-ended problem that we were only able to solve through the design of a new functional material. Through this, I realized that new chemistry was fundamental in developing new technology and materials. Polymers seemed like the perfect way to interface my interests in biotechnology and advanced materials.
  2. What could you give a 40-minute presentation on with absolutely no preparation?
    Best places to eat in Boston and Cambridge on a modest budget.
  3. If you had unlimited funds to build a house that you would live in for the rest of your life, what would the finished house be like?
    Tall ceilings, big windows, central AC, a home gym, an outdoor pool, and a cozy place to nap in every room.
  4. What did you think you would grow out of but haven’t?
    My sweet tooth. My interest in sugary drinks has waned, but I’m powerless when it comes to dessert.
  5. What is special about the place you grew up?
    Kansas City is known as the City of Fountains and has some pretty good BBQ. Burnt ends originated from KC BBQ!
  6. What chance encounter changed your life forever?
    This is less of a chance encounter and more of a designed encounter, but I was persuaded to join the Olsen Group as a visiting MIT REU summer intern by a very skinny and very friendly postdoc Mingjiang Zhong, who happened to be co-advised by Professor Brad Olsen in chemical engineering and Professor Jeremiah Johnson in chemistry. A large part of the reason I came back to MIT for graduate school was because I had such a great summer working with Mingjiang. Even though he’s an assistant professor at Yale now, he’s continued to be a long distance mentor and unwavering in his support of and confidence
    in me.
  7. If you could have a never-ending candle that smelled like anything you wanted, what fragrance would you want it to be?
    White cheddar cheese dust.
  8. If you could pick any career other than the one you’ve chosen, what would it be?
    Artist, cartoonist, or animator.
  9. What was your favorite book as a child, and what is your favorite book now?
    When I was younger, I couldn’t get enough of Harry Potter and almost anything by Meg Cabot. The Awakening meant a lot to me in high school, but I think my most recent favorite is The Help.
  10. If someone narrated your life, who would you want to be the narrator?
    The love child of John Mulaney and Ali Wong.
  11. What irrational fear do you have?
    I’m terrified of being smushed while exiting the subway fare gates.
  12. If you suddenly became a master at woodworking, what would you make?
    I’ve always low key wanted to make violins.
  13. What’s worth spending more on to get the best?
    Glasses. And running shoes.
  14. What is something that a ton of people are obsessed with but you just don’t get the point of?
  15. What are some small things that make your day better?
    A morning run, Dunkin iced coffee, and free cookies.
  16. If you were given five million dollars to open a small museum, what kind of museum would you create?
    Museum of Flaming Hot Cheetos (MoFHot for short). Conceptually similar to the World of Coca-Cola and most definitely includes interactive sampling exhibits.
  17. Who would be the best person you could be stuck in an elevator with?
    Iron Man… because he could probably get us out.
  18. What is the best vacation you’ve ever taken?
    Visiting the Yellow Mountains last spring on a trip to visit my grandparents in China was definitely one for the books. We spent the first day hiking up the mountain in a nasty drizzle, but the next morning the sun came out and the mountains were ridiculously picturesque–taken straight out of the classic Chinese paintings.
  19. Who are three of your favorite fictional characters?
    Hermione Granger, Rocket Raccoon, and Captain America.
  20. What bit of trivia do you know that is very interesting but also very useless?
    Jackie Chan voiced Captain Li Shang in the Chinese dubs of Mulan. It’s very important to me that everyone knows this.

Many thanks to Julia for these thoughtful answers! Stay tuned for more Graduate Student Spotlights in the months to come!