Being a STEM Gem is more than having a career in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering or Math. It’s about overcoming obstacles, never taking no for an answer, eliminating barriers and making a path for others where no path previously existed. In the STEM Gems book, we take a close look at the paths of forty-four women in diverse STEM fields while offering advice and actionable steps that encourage and inspire young girls and women everywhere to live their dreams. Today’s spotlight shines on renowned professor Julia Greer, professor of Materials Science and Mechanics at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech). Read more about how her research in the nanoworld is changing the landscape of materials available today.
Who: Julia Greer is a professor of Materials Science, Mechanics and Medical Engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the California Institute of Technology.
What: Armed with an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a M.S. in Materials Science and a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering, both from Stanford University, Greer researches lightweight, 3-dimensional nano-architectures and designs experiments to assess their properties and deformation mechanisms. In doing so, she has shown that materials can get much stronger when reduced to microscopic sizes.
When: Upon completion of her undergraduate degree at MIT, Greer began working as an intern in the Components Research Department of Intel Corp while pursuing a M.S. in Materials Science at Stanford University. There she worked on a research project with an adjunct faculty member who had Intel funding, which was used to build a novel X-ray diffractometer in order to study mechanical properties of materials in computer microprocessors. However, this research project was not without its challenges. While she was accepted to Stanford after applying late, they could not guarantee funding. As a result, she began working with the adjunct faculty member with Intel funding. In a 2012 interview with Nature Journal, Greer recounted that things had ended poorly when the professor lost his funding and criticized her work. She ended up working at Intel for two years, where she felt it was during this time she began to come into her own. “I learned to champion my own work and became a self-starter,” Greer said. “I decided not to let one bad experience limit me, so I returned to Stanford to do my PhD with materials scientist William Nix. It was the most meaningful experience in my life.” It was there Greer focused her research on nanopillars, discovering that when you reduce the dimensions of a metallic nanocrystal, it becomes stronger. This phenomenon — known as smaller, stronger — sparked a revolution with many groups who began making nanopillars out of gold.
How: Greer created a ceramic that operates like a conventional ceramic minus its usual characteristics. Unlike conventional ceramics, Greer’s is one of the strongest and lightest substances ever made, and it is also not brittle. Producing this material in large quantities would change the composition of a wide range of materials used in a number of applications because they’d have the same strength but at a fraction of the weight. Greer has also spearheaded research that can increase the amount of energy stored in the electrodes of today’s batteries. By constructing specialized machines, the end result can produce electrodes made by coating a metal nanolattice with silicon; the end result has a crack-resistant toughness in its own structure.
Why: “Everyone deserves to have a mentor who is there for them,” says Greer, which is why her research lab at CalTech has no more than 15 people. She created subgroups and meets with students in groups of two or three, depending on their projects. Today, Greer and her team are designing and building nano trusses — materials made up of tiny, intricate geometric structures linked together — in their Caltech labs. The thought behind this research is if they could fabricate nanotrusses in such a way that might resemble the crisscrossed struts of the Eiffel Tower, a hunk of metal engineered from nanotrusses could be stronger and lighter since it’s mostly air. Determined to use her nanofabrication methods for a variety of materials, she is currently working with two battery developers to use her nanostructures to study electrochemistry. Additionally, she has joined forces with a team of biologists to determine whether or not the nanostructured ceramic she developed could serve as a scaffold for growing bones, like the tiny ones found in the ear whose degeneration is a cause of deafness. To make these applications feasible, she is working to speed up the high-resolution laser-printing process.
Greer has taken the research world by storm and is changing the landscape of materials available today with the use of her ‘nano-metamaterials.’ She has received numerous awards recognizing her for her work. In 2014, she was recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. In the same year, Fast Company Magazine also named her one of “100 Most Creative People” and as early as 2012, she received the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award. Greer also pursues her secondary career as a concert pianist! She has studied at the Moscow’s Gnessin School of Music, the Eastman School of Music, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at Stanford. She has also performed numerous solo recitals, chamber music concerts and as a soloist with an orchestra throughout her scientific career.
For more inspiration from Women in STEM, get your copy of STEM Gems: How 44 Women Shine in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and How You Can Too! This vibrant, full-color 8.5″ x 8.5″ square book exposes girls and young women to the many and varied options within STEM, gives them female STEM role models and helps them create their own unique paths.