CAER had the chance to interview Julia Parker, a graduate research fellow at CAER. Parker started her academic career at the University of Kentucky in 2014. As an undergrad, she studied biology on the pre-med track, and following her sophomore year, Parker chose to change her major to biosystems engineering.
What did you do at CAER as an undergrad?
I started working at CAER as an undergraduate research assistant for the biofuels and environmental catalysis group in the summer of 2018. Specifically, I worked with the algae group assisting on research projects to further the development of biofuels and bioplastics from microalgae utilizing CO2 from a coal-fired power plant at DUKE Energy.
What does your day to day look like?
My current work focuses on the development of methods for the depolymerization of lignin, this being one of the main constituents of biomass. In so doing, my work aims to convert this largely waste material into a sustainable source of chemicals and fuels, thereby significantly improving the economics of biorefineries. The multidisciplinary nature of this work has required me to acquire a working knowledge of catalysis, analytical chemistry and organic chemistry, as well as developing new laboratory skills such as working with high pressure equipment.
I am in the writing stage of my master’s project, so for the most part, I spend my days writing at my desk.
How did you become involved in CAER?
Funnily enough, in the beginning, I was not aware of the research opportunities at CAER or even that CAER existed. The spring semester of 2018 I was rejected from a handful of REUs for the summer and was desperately searching for any kind of opportunity. Luckily the college of engineering sent out an email, via the listserv, asking for any underrepresented students interested in algae to please reply. I responded without asking for any further information and later found out that I was joining the NSF broadening participation in the engineering project that Eduardo was managing.
I was very lucky to accept a graduate research assistant position in BAE starting in august 2019. My academic advisor, Czar Crofcheck, has an extensive history working with Dr. Crocker and the BEC group on algae research and thermochemical processing. So, under the mentorship of Czar Crofcheck and Eduardo, I performed my research at CAER developing methods for the conversion of lignin into a sustainable source of fuels and chemicals.
Can you talk about your mentee relationship with Eduardo? What has he helped you within your UK research career?
I understand that I worked hard to get where I am currently in my life, but I must say I owe a lot to Eduardo. He pushed me to apply for internships, fellowships, workshops abroad, etc. I have been an invited guest to a workshop in Berlin, Germany free of charge, I am currently an NSF funded graduate fellow in the bridge to doctorate program, I’ve spoken on panels and presented at conferences/symposiums. The list goes on. One thing about Eduardo, if you’re willing to put the work in, he is going to advocate for your success.
Can you give an example of a time he really helped you out?
I was speaking with a professor at the time in my department about class scheduling, etc. Since I had to factor in driving to CAER, and the individual I was speaking to scoffed and said, “I’m not sure if you belong here.” I mentioned this story to Eduardo not thinking much of it and he immediately told me how unacceptable it was for them to say that to me. To drive the point further, he polled other professors at CAER to emphasize that I did in fact belong. Eduardo is the kind of mentor that doesn’t allow you to forget your worth. He’s taught me how to confront difficult situations and navigate them in a professional manner.
What has your overall experience at CAER been like?
I have had such a positive experience working alongside engineers, chemists, and biologists to research and develop new strategies to solve grand challenges facing our planet. I have been able to learn how to ask questions and engage with professionals in a way that has molded me into a more focused and driven researcher. Doors have been opened for me that I would have never thought were an option. To be a first-generation student as well as a woman of color, I aspire to provide opportunities like the ones I have had with this university. The passion to see students succeed and feel represented in science is commendable and speaks to my personal values, and I know that by pursuing a graduate degree through this college will provide me with an opportunity to one day be the representation and resource future generations look for in engineering.