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Faculty Spotlight: Julia Kalow

Julia KalowJulia Kalow, the Dow Chemical Company Associate Professor of Chemistry, has been a member of our faculty since 2016. She was recently awarded the prestigious 2023 Early Career Research Program award from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Kalow Lab aims to understand and manipulate polymeric materials through the lens of physical organic chemistry, particularly using light to control polymer synthesis and properties.

Describe your career path and the reasons why you chose chemistry?

I was able to take organic chemistry as a first-year undergraduate with Ron Breslow, who passed away in 2017. On the first day of class, he showed the mechanism for the biosynthesis of lanosterol from squalene. Now that I teach first-quarter organic chemistry, this seems like a completely insane choice of first-day material, but I guess it worked—I thought that it was so cool and so different from all the other science courses I'd taken. Unfortunately, I did terribly on the first exam, so much so that when I returned to the department to give a talk in 2015, Prof. Breslow took out his gradebook and reminded me how poorly I'd done! After that I really buckled down and started studying by doing every problem in the textbook. What really made me want to be a chemist, though, was the opportunity to work in a research lab. I started doing research in the Leighton group that summer, and just really enjoyed the process of trying to make molecules that (maybe) no one had ever made before.

What is the best way to explain your research to someone who is not a chemist?   

Polymers are really big molecules made by linking many smaller molecules together. My lab is interested in making these polymers with light since it's an abundant, renewable energy source; in particular, we're trying to control the structure or length of these polymers using the color of light. In other projects, we control what polymers feel like—soft or stiff, stretchy or oozy—using different colors of light. Here, we make some materials that mimic tissue and others that can be repaired or recycled to increase their sustainability.

Earlier this year, you were awarded an Early Career Research Program Award from the U.S. DOE.  Can you tell us more about the research you plan to conduct with this funding?  

This project is inspired by directed evolution, where scientists can apply an artificial selection pressure to obtain macromolecules with useful properties. I'm interested in applying selective photochemical reactions to rapidly identify molecules with useful photophysical properties. Instead of "survival of the fittest", you can think of this as "reaction of the fittest". We'll combine these selective photochemical reactions with a high-throughput analytical technique developed by the Mrksich lab.

How would you describe the Kalow Lab environment and your expectations for those working in the lab?  

My goal is for the environment in my lab to be collaborative, respectful, and intellectually stimulating. My expectations, which I share every fall at a "State of the Lab" presentation, are that members of the lab are prepared for everything they do, are responsible lab citizens, prioritize safety, actively participate in meetings, take ownership of their projects and education, and use their time in lab wisely.

What advice would you give to young researchers considering a career in academia?  

Practice being creative. No one is born with great chemistry ideas; I have never found it possible to sit down ahead of a deadline and will myself to come up with a great idea. Start a list of all your ideas, good and bad, and whenever you read a new paper or attend a talk, try to come up with ideas inspired by it. Talk to your colleagues about your ideas and seek their critical feedback. That way, when it's time to come up with proposals for fellowship or faculty job applications, you'll have exercised that "muscle" and will be ready to develop and defend your ideas.

What is something you would like us to know about you that is not on your CV?  

Since moving to Evanston and having a backyard, I've come to enjoy gardening, mainly vegetables. I've had some successful experiments as well as some big fails, like my recent attempt to grow corn this past summer. This year, I was very proud that I was able to grow a pumpkin that was large enough to make it into a jack-o-lantern. I like to start from seed so every spring I'm desperately trying to give away my extra seedlings and have found some takers among my students and colleagues.


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