Student Q&A: Julia Borowski

By Wendy Plump
Tuesday, Apr. 28, 2020

Julia Borowski has known she would study chemistry since her early days in high school. People thought she would change her mind along the way. She thought she would change her mind along the way. She didn’t. As a second-year graduate student in the Doyle Group with Professor Abigail Doyle, Borowski loves where chemistry “sits” relative to the other physical sciences, with opportunities for research ranging in scale from the atomic to the macro. Borowski comes to Princeton with a B.S. in chemistry from Yale University. Here, she discusses her research, her motivation, and her experience as a member of the Frick community.

SO, YOU ALWAYS KNEW YOU WANTED TO STUDY CHEMISTRY?

I had the chance to take so many interesting courses in college outside of the sciences, and I still found that chemistry provided a good core of how I like to think about things. There are so many things that you can geek out about. When I was in high school, they made us send a letter to our future selves. It came in the mail this year from my teacher, and in my letter I’d said, ‘Maybe in 2019 you’re doing a Ph.D. in chemistry.’ And, funny enough, here I am!

Julia Borowski
Julia Borowski, second-year graduate student in the Doyle Group
Photo by Alyssa McAnany

WHY DOES CHEMISTRY APPEAL TO YOU?

I study organic and organometallic mechanisms. I like how you have to think about the problem structurally and electronically and the energetics of the overall process – it brings in physics and it brings in this mathematical, geometric way of thinking. But I also just like that there are so many different ways to apply chemistry, whether it’s doing this kind of fundamental research where you’re studying mechanisms or developing drug molecules that are societally relevant. I’ve always found chemistry to be very elegant.

GRADUATE SCHOOL RELIES HEAVILY ON THE MENTOR-MENTEE MODEL. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THIS ARRANGEMENT?

You are dependent on the way that your P.I. thinks and the way they approach problems, yes. What is fortunate in my experience is that, with Abby, I don’t feel that it’s working ‘under’ so much as working ‘with.’ I think there’s a lot more give and take, a lot more mutually working on our project and pushing it forward. The benefit of having a P.I. is that there’s so much out there in chemistry that’s been done, and as a first- and now second-year, I couldn’t possibly know all of that. It’s nice to have this encyclopedia of knowledge and experience that your P.I. has that you can turn to. You can’t beat time when it comes to getting experience in this field.

ANY ADVICE ON HOW TO CHOOSE A P.I.?

That’s super important because you spend a huge chunk of your life doing things based on the research programs that this person has established. For me, it was a combination of I liked the science, but also I thought Abby’s mentorship style would be well-suited to my goals and personality. Abby’s lab really spans the field. We have people who are doing very traditional methods development; we have a lot of mechanistically driven work; and now, we’re introducing a lot of data science and machine learning to our work, which has introduced me to things that traditionally one wouldn’t expect in a chemistry Ph.D. So, in that regard, choosing a P.I. should be based both on what you are interested in studying and how you want to grow as a scientist.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE PRINCETON CHEMISTRY?

When I came on my visit, it just felt right. I felt like the department was a good size, people in different labs knew each other and interacted, and there was community feeling in the department. That was something I was looking for. It would be a tough five years if you just went into your lab and never stepped outside of it. I’ve found a good community in the department and I’m very grateful for that.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH...

We’re studying the effects of phosphine ligands in nickel catalysis. We’re investigating various steric properties of ligands and how those impact cross-coupling mechanisms, and how we can use that information to further develop Ni-catalyzed methodologies as viable alternatives to Pd-catalyzed methodologies. One exciting direction we’re going in is using data science and machine learning techniques to parameterize these ligands: we have numerical descriptors for ligand properties and then we see if we can extract mechanistic information by developing statistical models.

WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A WOMAN IN STEM?

In one regard, having spoken to female faculty who have been in the field for a while, I can say that things are much better than they used to be. But there’s still nowhere near gender parity. There are so many questions I have as a woman in science: what if I’m the only woman in the department when I have a job, or how do I navigate my professional and personal and family life? There’s a really great community of women in STEM who are working toward developing a more diverse workforce and making more girls and women feel that this path is viable for them, but there’s still so many lingering questions, and so many stereotypes remaining.

On the first day that I got to grad school, I sat down in Abby’s office. She told me, ‘I want you to develop as a scientist and a thinker and a chemist, but you also need to take care of yourself as a person and an individual outside of your work.’ I really value that perspective. It’s really easy for us to become consumed by our work and think that’s all that we have or all we should focus on. I appreciate having been reminded that ‘scientist’ is just one part of who I am.

WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN THE FUTURE?

There are a couple of things that I think I could be happy doing, and I’m sure when I get to fifth year I’ll feel differently. I’ve thought about industry. I’ve thought about a career at a primarily undergraduate institution. But then on some days, I think maybe I want to go into science policy or science communications, because I do really value the idea of scientists taking the time to kind of connect to the rest of this society that we live in. We can get very focused on our own work and we need to remember that the way our work will be the most impactful is if we’re engaging ourselves with all kinds of people and communities.