From Harvard: Women in STEM – “Drawing from experience” Julia Grotto

Harvard University
Harvard University

May 12, 2017
Stephanie Schorow

This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.

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Eager to take advantage of the resources she wouldn’t have access to in her native Zimbabwe, Julia Grotto ’17 took every opportunity to explore her interests, becoming the program leader for Dreamporte, a campus kindness ambassador of Harvard College Faith in Action, and a research assistant with a graduate student’s project developing 3-D printed lithium-ion batteries. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

On the walls of Mather House hangs a painting by one of its residents. Julia Grotto ’17 has layered acrylic paint onto paper, transforming the exterior of the House’s Brutalism architecture in an intricate play of light and shadow.

The painting’s mix of light and dark also reflects peaks of achievement and valleys of struggle in its creator’s life. A talented painter who majored in physics, Grotto brought with her to Harvard a deep curiosity about the nature of reality along with a dedication to service. “My experience here has had wonderful highs and also some very low lows,” she said. “I needed to go through stages like that to gain the perspective I have now.”

Grotto wears a medallion of glass from Venice — on a necklace given to her by her sister — that reflects her Italian heritage. Born and raised in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, Grotto is one of three children, her father an electronic engineer who managed the family business, a shoe factory, and her mother an art teacher who filled the house with paintings.

“Ever since I was very, very small, I was curious about things,” she said. “I’d build things out of Legos and ask my parents why things were a certain way. When I was in high school, physics was the subject that seemed to let me delve into that, to figure out why.”

She arrived in the United States for the first time just before her first week of class. Adjustment created a few issues, not only the cold but also the extreme humidity in summer, so different from the dry heat in Zimbabwe. Back home, it could be difficult getting power and water. “My dad dug a well, and we collected water from the roof gutters in rainy season. It was just a normal part of life,” she said. And remembering shortages of food gave Grotto a perspective on what the developed world can take for granted. “In the dining room, I always eat everything that I have on my plate,” she said. “Not everybody does that.”

Her course load was a blend of physical sciences, engineering, design, and the arts. Physics was enthralling — and challenging. “I learned a lot, but you also realize there are so many more ‘why’ questions,” she said. “It has opened up my understanding of the world, maybe opened up more questions than answers.”

In Professor Jennifer Lewis’ lab, Grotto worked as a research assistant with Teng-Sing Sean Wei, a graduate student, on his project for developing technologies for 3-D printing lithium-ion batteries. A course she took at MIT focused on fabrication methods, laser cutting, and 3-D printing. “We milled our own circuit boards,” she said. “That opened so many doors; communities can begin to design and manufacture specifically to their needs.”

Which touches on another aspect of Grotto’s Harvard education that connected with a concept emphasized in her high school: “servant leadership.” “I work better when I know I’m able to do something that is beneficial to someone,” she said.

She was one of the organizers for “Mob-Malaria” as part of the Defeating Malaria Initiative in 2014; with a team of friends in Zimbabwe, she put together a malaria-education event in a Harare stadium. As a Program Leader for Dreamporte, Grotto helped develop materials and teaching tools (and taught classes) that would bring virtual reality adventures to students who might not have the means to travel to other countries.

Grotto also has been a Campus Kindness Ambassador of Harvard College Faith in Action, a reflection of how her faith helped her at Harvard when she felt overwhelmed and joyless, like she was running on an endless treadmill. “My faith has grown over the past couple years, but the challenges with faith and the questions with faith are going to be a lifelong struggle,” she said.

This spring, she is a teaching fellow for an electricity and magnetism class; meanwhile, she looks into graduate programs that focus on engineering design. She hopes to combine science, art, and service in a career and perhaps return to her beloved Zimbabwe someday.

“I was extremely fortunate to be able to come here,” she said of Harvard. “Everyone should be able to have that accessibility to effective education.”

See the full article here .

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Harvard University campus
Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, established in 1636 by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was named after the College’s first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown, who upon his death in 1638 left his library and half his estate to the institution. A statue of John Harvard stands today in front of University Hall in Harvard Yard, and is perhaps the University’s best known landmark.

Harvard University has 12 degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The University has grown from nine students with a single master to an enrollment of more than 20,000 degree candidates including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. There are more than 360,000 living alumni in the U.S. and over 190 other countries.

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