Awards and Honors, Student News

Power in Knowledge

Julisa Juarez ’22 discusses her National Science Foundation Fellowship, which will enable her to go to the University of Washington to pursue her PhD in Chemistry.

By Mary Brothers '22

Image of Julisa Juarez

When Julisa Juarez ’22 got the email that she had received a National Science Foundation Fellowship that would assist in her pursuit for a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Washington, she almost couldn’t believe it.

“It's hard to believe because it had been my first time writing a research proposal,” said Juarez. 

About 12,000 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) students apply for this highly competitive annual fellowship, and only 2,000 are selected each year. Juarez had never written a fellowship application before. Before coming to Bennington, she had never even thought that she would be seeking an education in STEM.

“Growing up in South Texas, I was raised with the notion that women don't do STEM. They don't do science. They don't do math. They're not good at it. And there are a lot of people in my life that reinforced that message for me,” said Juarez. 

So, when Juarez began her studies at Bennington, she assumed that she would be focusing on the things that people had told her she could be good at– including psychology, literature, and music. In her second year, however, she began to feel more comfortable exploring different disciplines. Then, she decided to take her first chemistry course, partially due to her interest in her mother’s job as a chemistry teacher. 

“The course was called Sustainability in the Modern World, and it was a chemistry class on sustainability—solar energy, wind energy, all those things. And I really liked that,” said Juarez. “Coming from where I come from, which is a huge immigrant area, and seeing the immigrant crisis, I saw how much of it has to do with the climate crisis. When I took that class, I learned there's a lot of different ways to battle climate change.”

Once Juarez realized what her passion was, she also realized the work that she was going to have to put in to pursue it. 

“I was like, snap, I'm gonna have to take math and physics and everything I was so scared of,” said Juarez. “But this time, I was willing to take it on because I had found the love of my life. I took chemistry classes and physics classes. Right now, I'm taking quantum physics.”

That same year, Juarez got accepted into the University of Washington’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. 

“I didn’t know I wanted to go to grad school until I went to that REU. [REU] is a major thing for science students. It gives you the chance to go to another university and do research, and they pay you for the research and  pay for your travel and where you stay,” said Juarez.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, she decided to postpone the experience until her third year, so she could experience the university and Seattle in person. 

“It changed my life. It changed the course of everything I thought it was going to do,” said Juarez. 

For her research project, Juarez focused on something she had studied in that first sustainability chemistry class: perovskite solar cells. Typical perovskite compositions are made of harmful lead and break down easily compared to current solar technology, so Juarez began exploring different mixtures of tin and germanium to see if she could improve their stability.'

After the REU was over, the Chief of the University of Washington's Clean Energy Program, Dr. David Ginger,  asked Juarez to present her research in a conference with the other graduate students. 

“A lot of other REU students don’t get to do that,” said Juarez. “So it was an amazing opportunity.  I got to meet a lot of grad students and learn from them.” 

After the conference was over, she received the Clean Energy Bridge to Research Outstanding Undergraduate Research (CEBR OUR) Award for her work.

“I came back to Bennington and told everyone about it because I was so excited. After the REU was up, I was like, ‘This is where I want to go and this is what I want to do,’” said Juarez.

She applied to the University of Washington’s Graduate Program and was accepted early on. Then, she applied for and received the fellowships that helped her to turn her dreams into reality: the 2022 Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) and the 2022 National Science Foundation Research Traineeship program (NRT): Accelerating Quantum-Enabled Technologies (NRT:AQET) Fellowship.

“I know it's a big deal, but at the same time, it doesn't feel real,” said Juarez.  “I think it won't feel real until I go and start my research and am actually in the environment. It’s scary being in a place where other people have been doing research for a long time. I came here to Bennington not even knowing I wanted to pursue science.”

Once she has completed her PhD, Juarez is most excited to have the opportunity to teach others. 

“Right now, I’m thinking I willI do a postdoc and then become a professor somewhere. It sounds great to be able to make your own curriculum somewhere and teach chemistry the way you want to. I liked the way I was taught [at Bennington], and I would like to see if I could do the same thing somewhere else,” said Juarez. “I'm not learning this just to learn. I'm learning it to teach.”

Despite all her success, Juarez has still faced opposition and belittlement as a woman in STEM. Her advice to other women trying to find their place in the field?

“Don't be afraid to ask questions. That was something I struggled with so much. That's why I came to Bennington, because I was scared of going to a place that was huge and an environment where I would feel like I didn't have a voice. I'm glad that I came to a place instead where there's professors that are itching for you to ask questions,” said Juarez. “Being brave enough to ask questions about things I thought other people knew gave me so many opportunities. It's given me the REU and the NSF and more.” 

After her REU experience, Juarez wrote a guide for other students applying to REUs, and she’s already heard from others who have used it to their advantage. 

“It feels good to have other people also get the same experiences I'm getting and give them confidence in themselves. You don't need to know everything to get these opportunities. We're all learning, and we're all beginners, and we all start from somewhere. That's nothing to be ashamed about,” said Juarez.

As she prepares to graduate, Juarez reflects on how her journey is coming full circle.

“The first chemistry poster I ever made at Bennington was on perovskite solar cells, which is exactly the research I'm going to be doing in graduate school. I had no idea what they were at the time. It’s still in my room hanging there, the beginnings of it,” said Juarez. ”I'm so excited to start a new chapter, to become more of the person I want to be, to learn things I love. I'm glad that I'll be able to do  more of that, especially in a place like Seattle.”

Juarez feels grateful for “everyone who has come [her] way,” especially her advisor John Bullock. She’s even grateful for the people who have doubted her. 

“Today, there are still peopleI know who look down on me as a woman in science. They can’t believe I’m doing math or quantum mechanics, this little girl,” said Juarez. “But there's something so powerful about having knowledge about things that are so daunting to people. It is scary to learn how to ask questions about something you have absolutely no idea about, but it's also powerful. I hope other people get to experience power in knowledge like that.”