Julia (Rosolovsky) Greer ’97 is a scientist and a classical pianist. Her nanotechnology research breaks new ground, and her music lifts people up. Fittingly, Fast Company named her one of its “Most Creative People” in 2014; CNN named her a “2020 Visionary” in 2016.
Greer is the Ruben F. and Donna Mettler Professor of Materials Science, Mechanics, and Medical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology and director of its Kavli Nanoscience Institute. Her work hinges on the fact that, when reduced to some billionths of a meter—the nanoscale—materials behave differently. Her research group investigates the unique properties of nanomaterials and then uses them as building blocks in a LEGO-like construction process to “architect” materials with larger overall dimensions while retaining the benefits offered by nanoscale. These architected materials can then be deployed in chemical and biological devices, energy storage systems, and more.
While most people might associate the word materials with familiar items such as ceramic or glass, “We develop and synthesize materials not found in nature,” Greer explains. “These could enable technological advances like, for example, airplane components that are durable yet lightweight or clothes that can reconfigure their fiber weaving pattern with the weather.”
Her lab includes more than 20 PhD students, as well as postdoctoral scholars, visiting scientists, and undergraduates.
“My favorite part of the job is interacting with students, making discoveries with them, and developing their careers,” she says. “I’m a people person. I enjoy helping them develop into who they can be and learning from them. They’re smart, full of energy, articulate. Just a pleasure.”
Current student projects from her lab include creating impact-resistant lightweight textiles, fabricating flexible membranes that can chemically bind to chemotherapy medication, and developing new electrode geometries for battery cells that can improve the performance and range of electric vehicles.
Managing a demanding career as well as parenting three children who range in age from 3 to 12, Greer finds an outlet at the piano. “The piano and I have a symbiotic relationship. It allows my brain to relax,” she says.
The piano and I have a symbiotic relationship. It allows my brain to relax.
She began playing as a young girl growing up in Moscow—“like all Russian girls do,” she says with a laugh—and continued the discipline when her family moved to Rochester, New York. As a high-schooler, she was accepted for training at the Eastman School of Music. At MIT, she received a prestigious audition-only Advanced Music Performance Scholarship (now known as the Emerson Program). In this capacity, she staged recitals on campus, at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and even at the Museum of Fine Arts, all while balancing chemical engineering coursework with rowing crew. She continued to play while working for semiconductor manufacturer Intel and earning her MS and PhD from Stanford University. She gives chamber music concerts even now on the Caltech campus and beyond, and she makes sure to practice for at least 20 minutes each day—favoring Brahms, Prokofiev, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, and Beethoven. (She’s not a Mozart fan.)
“I think many people in my shoes would have quit,” she says. In fact, lapsed pianists have pulled her aside after concerts to express regret over having done just that. “But my day is never complete without touching the piano.”
“I have kids, a career, and a busy life,” she says, noting that exercise is also a key part of each day for her. “It’s hard to carve out time to practice. But I do, every day. When you do it, you feel so much better.”
In December, Greer delivered a talk titled “3D Nano-Architected Meta-Materials” at MIT.nano, the Institute’s newly built center for nanoscale research. While visiting campus, she was able to play in her former practice room, which brought back happy memories. MIT is as much a touchstone as the piano, she says—a place where she made lifelong friends (including her best friend, Tina (Pinto) Slottow ’97, now a renowned cardiologist) and found an intellectual home.
“I now realize MIT’s effect on me profoundly,” she says.
A point of personal pride: One former student is currently interviewing for an MIT faculty position, and she’s delighted.
“I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but as I’ve been moving through life, it’s amazing to me how much of my success is built upon what MIT gave me. Now, when I meet alums, we instantly feel connected,” she says.
Photo (top): Julia Greer giving a December 2019 talk at MIT.nano. Photo by Tom Gearty.