WOMEN IN CHEMISTRY
CHEMICAL AND MUSICAL SUPERCONDUCTOR
Julia Chan followed her love of music, and it led her to a career as an inorganic materials chemist
Julia Y. Chan credits her decision to become a chemist to the excellent undergraduate teaching at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. The fact that she chose the school based on its music department is a testament to her pursuit of a balanced life. "You need to strike a balance in science; you need to present and relate to people--that comes from my liberal arts education, and I think it's very important."
Chan has taken her well-rounded interdisciplinary approach to several places in the U.S. and now to Louisiana where she is an assistant professor of chemistry at Louisiana State University (LSU). As an inorganic materials chemist, she looks for new superconductors by making new materials, characterizing them, and measuring their properties. Chan points out that her materials can be used for data storage and sensors--or any use that involves detecting small magnetic fields.
||PHOTO BY JIM ZIETZ/LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY
Born in Malaysia, the 30-year-old chemist moved to the U.S. when she was eight. She has since lived in New York City; El Paso, Texas; and Honolulu. As a Baylor undergraduate, she lived in Waco, then went to the University of California, Davis, for her Ph.D. She has done research at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, and she did a postdoctoral stint with the National Institute of Standards & Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.
Did the young student sense a magnetic field pointing the way to chemistry? Not exactly. Chan arrived at Baylor with a curiosity about how things work and why they work. Her current research in materials science lets her investigate these questions. But as a college sophomore, she was most impressed with her opportunities for hands-on research experience. She emphasizes how literally she means "hands-on" by relating her lab time to her musical talents: "I enjoy using my hands--I play the violin and the piano."
Chan complemented her laser spectroscopy research with evenings playing in her church orchestra. "I thought it was kind of cool--doing research, using the scientific method," she recalls. But she says playing music remained important to her and helped her to keep her sanity.
At Baylor, it made an impression on her to have a female inorganic chemistry professor--Marianna A. Busch. "It helped to see her there. It's nice to see women scientists, especially teaching in a university."
At UC Davis, Chan met her Ph.D. adviser, Susan M. Kauzlarich, who was a "wonderful mentor--she was definitely my role model in science. She taught us how to enjoy science and took us to a lot of meetings." Kauzlarich had many graduate students, about half female, as well as undergraduate students, which gave Chan an opportunity to learn how to be a mentor.
Kauzlarich's group was interested in using Zintl phases to find new materials exhibiting unusual electronic and magnetic properties. The mentoring didn't stop at the laboratory door--Kauzlarich sent her students out to work with different groups by having them interact with the physics department.
Chan's work at LSU has capitalized on the interdisciplinary research and mentoring skills that she learned at UC Davis. She was not afraid to introduce herself to new colleagues outside of her department. "Meeting once a week is very helpful. Because of that nice interaction, we've discovered two new superconductors already. I've only been here two years, so that's really exciting," she says.
Getting together with physicists has opened new areas for research. "It's a very synergistic effort because all of us have common interests in finding superconductors or materials exhibiting unusual properties such as magnetoresistance," she says.
Back in her own lab, Chan says: "We do a lot of synthesis, make a lot of samples. We grow crystals. The idea is that if you have a single crystal, you can measure the properties without worrying about impurities.
"I'm also doing experiments with single crystals up to a centimeter in size. If we have a single crystal, we can orient the crystal, and we can measure the different properties. We really want to understand the structure/property relationship." Chan believes her major accomplishment is being able to grow single crystals of compounds with complex structures that also have complex properties. "There are lots of beautiful crystal structures out there," she says. "How do you decide what to make and what will be interesting?"
Chan currently has three graduate students and three undergraduate students, all freshmen. She explains: "You need to get them before you lose them. If the students do the measurements, they will remember the concepts." Two of Chan's graduate students take part in a community outreach program where they perform chemistry demonstrations for high school and junior high students.
Chan shares her own experiences with her students. "Being in academia is a lot of work. You have to balance your lifestyle. I have to make time for my music and my social life. It's not impossible if you're very organized."
But organization skills are not enough. "The interdisciplinary aspect of research is very important," she says. "Whatever jobs these students get, they are going to have to interact with people outside their four walls. A lot of funding agencies are very interested in multidisciplinary research, and students will have to think about this."
This profile was written by C&EN Online Editor Melody Voith.