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Julia James ’04
Rhodes Scholar, Scientist

"I wouldn't be the scientist I am without also being an artist."
-Julia James '04

James is the first William Smith student to become a Rhodes Scholar. In 2003, she was one of only 32 students in the nation selected for the prestigious award for two or three years of support at the University of Oxford in England.

James was awarded a B.S. in Chemistry magna cum laude from William Smith in 2004. The chemistry major and aesthetics minor applied for the Rhodes scholarship due to her interest in collaborative research at Oxford involving long-term nonprogressors with HIV infection. James was intrigued by how some people exposed to HIV remained healthy in spite of the devastating effects of the virus in most people.

Her burgeoning interest in the molecular dynamics of the immune system was ignited during her undergraduate research at the Colleges in the laboratory of then-Chemistry Professor Carol Parish. James focused on HIV/AIDS and studied the difference in molecular flexibility of protease inhibitor drugs. At William Smith, James earned the nationally recognized Barry M. Goldwater award for excellence in science as well as the 2001, 2002 and 2003 American Chemical Society (ACS) Scholars award. In addition, she was one of only 15 undergraduates to receive a 2003 United Negro College Fund – Merck scholarship. James presented papers and poster sessions at national and international chemistry association conventions in Chicago, Denver, Boston and even on Capitol Hill.

After graduating from William Smith, James matriculated at Green College in Oxford as a Probationer Research Student and simultaneously pursued a taught postgraduate diploma in the inaugural MSc Integrated Immunology course. In 2005, James continued her studies in immunology focusing solely on immunology research at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM) at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Headington, Oxford, in the Andrew McMichael laboratory. Also in 2005, James applied and was accepted into the NIH-Oxford Biomedical Research Scholars program. A new historic collaboration between the Rhodes Trust and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allows Rhodes Scholars to complete two years of study at Oxford and up to three additional years of doctoral research at the NIH.

James is one of the first two Rhodes Scholars to participate in this program and is currently completing a collaborative project at the Vaccine Research Center at the NIH.

What was your biggest hurdle in adjusting to life at Oxford?
The sheer size of the student body at the University of Oxford meant that I would have to adapt to life in Oxford (the city where the 40 University colleges are located). As a Rhodes Scholar, I was able go to Rhodes House and meet with other scholars (approximately 300 are currently in Oxford) and that made me feel at home in Oxford early in my studies there. The hardest part of living abroad turned out to be the same as any graduate student might experience: When to find time to cook a decent meal? How much is too much time to spend in the laboratory? To deal with these challenges, I enlisted a mixture of good friendships, potluck dinners and late-night outings to a nearby ice cream parlor. While I still don’t have the perfect formula, my experiences at Oxford have taught me a great deal about time management and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Were you able to maintain your writing and dance there?
It has been challenging to continue dancing in Oxford. There was no nearby dance studio (Winn Seeley…) to escape to at night, so at one point I was reduced to stretching in my room at Green College. I have participated in a few formal cultural activities at Oxford including South African gumboot dancing and organizing a benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina survivors. While I’m at the NIH, I plan to join a dance and choreography class in town (if only for use of the dance studio!).

Writing has always been a critical part of my life so I have made a concerted effort to continue writing. I spend more time than average on correspondence. I still keep several journals and write down the writing projects I don’t have time to finish while completing my Ph.d. Balancing writing and science is integral to my development as both a writer and a scientist (I’m busy writing my qualifying report these days).

What do you miss most about Geneva?
I miss the beautiful Seneca Lake and park in Geneva. I miss waking up early to watch the sun rise over the lake in the summer, a perfect place to draw inspiration. I miss meeting Deborah Tall or Carol Parish for lunch in the campus dining room to talk about writing or science or just about life. I even miss the snow! After two years in England with little more than a centimeter of snow, I’m looking forward to a white winter!

How do you define leadership?
According to Shirley Ann Jackson, one of my role models, “being a trailblazer is only a good thing if one does not allow ‘high weeds’ to grow back because no one was inspired to follow.” This quote is close to my views on what constitutes leadership. Leadership takes many forms. The unwitting leader inspires others by example and is unaware that others will follow. The seasoned leader is an experienced orator, debater and facilitator. Leadership is embodied across a broad multidimensional spectrum.

Do you think women lead differently than men?
I do not prescribe to the idea that there are biological differences in men and women that enable them to lead (or understand math or science) differently. I think that any differences amount to differences in personality rather than gender.

Who is your role model?
I have several role models and the list keeps growing. I prefer to call role models ‘mentors’ because ‘role model’ seems less participatory. Shirley Ann Jackson, Benjamin Carson, Paul Farmer, and Francis Collins are unwitting mentors whom I’ve never met yet feel inspired by their struggles and triumphs. My witting mentors include HWS professor Deborah Tall and University of Richmond professor Carol Parish, among others.

How did you get where you are today? Can you trace it to a certain moment, experience or personality trait?
I have thought a lot about this question. How did I arrive here? After winning the Rhodes, I spent a good part of a year trying to deconstruct how I was afforded this tremendous opportunity. Still, I honestly have no straight answer. This is because my path has been cyclical and even, as they say in England, pear-shaped. While I cannot settle on one Eureka moment that has afforded me this success, this much is true: There really is no substitute for hard work.

There is a long list of individuals who have inspired me at all levels of my education, without whom I would not have had the confidence to apply myself in the most seemingly unpromising circumstances. While I cannot settle on one person who has afforded me success, it is overwhelmingly true that: There is no substitute for good mentorship.

Was there a person or a place in your background that you feel nurtured
your potential?

I am still in the process of discovering my potential. Still, I was blessed with an encouraging grandmother who nourished my drive to learn and realize my own potential.

Deborah Tall helped me realize my writing potential since before arriving at HWS I had not publicly read any of my writings.

Cynthia Williams at HWS entertained my ideas about dance and choreography despite my lack of formal dance training.

Carol Parish challenged my decision to withdraw from a course once during college and never said another word about it, even after I had earned a top grade.

I have been blessed with being acquainted with a number of individuals, at HWS and beyond, who have challenged my assumptions about my capabilities and have inspired me to learn more. The possibilities are endless.

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