By Meghan Chua
Julia Martien’s philosophy in life is to have fun while trying to make the world a better place.
That includes the work she did for her graduate study as part of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.
“Going into lab, I’m just asking questions that I’m genuinely interested in knowing the answer to,” Martien said.
So, she found it overwhelming when she began to receive awards recognizing the contributions she’s made to UW–Madison. She recently received the Jennifer L. Reed Bioenergy Science Award, which recognizes an early-career woman who has made significant contributions to the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center’s research portfolio.
And this month, she’ll be the flag bearer for the Graduate School at the Winter 2021 Commencement ceremony, where she will graduate with her PhD in microbiology.
Martien initially came to UW–Madison for her undergraduate degree. Her first experience in microbiology research was in Jae-Hyuk Yu’s laboratory of fungal genetics where she studied how fungi break down toxins in the environment. She continued into graduate school, working with associate professor of bacteriology Daniel Amador-Noguez.
“I was really inspired by the potential to use microorganisms to help solve a lot of the sustainability problems that we’re facing,” Martien said.
When she started working with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center for her graduate studies, she was excited to continue conducting research that would contribute to environmental sustainability. Along the way, she became fascinated with the biofuel-producing bacteria Zymomonas mobilis. Z. mobilis is a quirky bacteria with a unique way of converting its food into new bacteria, Martien said.
Her dissertation examines how Z. mobilis physiology changes in response to changing environmental conditions and how these responses can inform strategies to improve biofuel production. Rewiring the metabolism of Z. mobilis to increase production of biofuels and bioproducts could provide a new way to create chemicals that are currently made from petroleum, Martien said.
“I really was intrigued with Z. mobilis physiology,” Martien said. “Every bacterium is so unique and has its own sort of personality that, beyond the impact on society, it became really interesting to just think about this bacterium and how it lives and interacts with its environment.”
Alongside her research, Martien participated in the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation’s Wisconsin Idea STEM Fellows program, where researchers develop hands-on science education projects to share with elementary-aged children and their families. Martien said it was great to see how others think about the topics she studies in-depth.
“It gave me the opportunity to think really creatively and try to find a way to make what I think about every day accessible and fun and interesting for young people,” she said.
During graduate school, she also volunteered at the food pantry at Porchlight, a nonprofit which aims to reduce homelessness in Dane County.
“I learned a lot about my fellow Madisonians and got to meet a lot of people who live on campus, who I otherwise probably wouldn’t have gotten to meet and get to know,” she said. “That was another experience that I felt really helped me kind of connect with the community outside of the academic sphere and make me feel more grounded in the city of Madison.”
Martien found other ways to connect with the city during her time here. She enjoyed going to coffee shops and restaurants around town. Each year she attended the uniquely Madison event Shrekfest. She also loves the museums in Madison, like the Chazen Museum of Art and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
Originally from California, Martien has found some things she enjoys about winters in Wisconsin, despite the cold.
“When the lake freezes over, being able to walk out into the middle of the lakes, either Mendota or Monona, is pretty thrilling for me,” she said with a laugh. “That was one that I had never been able to experience that I was super glad I got to do.”
Reflecting on her experiences in graduate school, Martien was struck by how many incredible people she got to meet.
“I’m really excited to see where we all go and what we all do, and to stay in contact with all these people,” she said. “An unexpected aspect of graduate school that I really have enjoyed was meeting so many incredible people who I feel like are going to be lifelong friends and also do really interesting work.”
Some of the people who have had the most positive impact on Martien’s experience at UW–Madison were her advisors and mentors along the way, such as her thesis advisor Amador-Noguez and other faculty members who have taught and mentored her.
“Both as an undergrad and as a graduate student, I’ve had really supportive and positive mentors,” Martien said. “My thesis advisor was a joy to work for. He put a lot of faith in my abilities and was always really supportive of whatever direction I wanted to go in with the research. I felt like I had a lot of freedom, but also a lot of support, and I felt that from most of the faculty members that I interacted with.”
After commencement, Martien plans to move back to California. She’s looking into many different options for her next step, including academic jobs, research positions at biotechnology companies, working in food production or brewing, and education. Though she’s keeping her options open, they’re all connected by a common philosophy.
“I’m trying to really cast a wide net in terms of what I imagine myself doing in the future to make sure that it’s something where I’m going to be learning a lot, and also having a lot of fun,” she said.