Prodigies are rare. What are the odds that they would end up in the same academic family?
Julia Nepper’s academic family tree through graduate advisors. To see a somewhat more complete lineage starting from Douglas B. Weibel, including postdocs and other mentors, see academicfamilytree.org. Both Avery Adrian Morton and James Flack Norris are sometimes considered Woodward’s graduate advisors.
Julia Nepper began college at the tender age of eleven. By age fourteen, she had already earned two associate’s degrees. At age sixteen, she earned her bachelor’s degree. Now at age twenty-three, she has just completed her PhD in biophysics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she investigated lipid biosynthesis in E. coli biofilms. Nepper is a prodigy, but her story isn’t entirely unique.
We took a look at Nepper’s academic family tree, and hiding there was another prodigy: Robert Woodward, Nepper’s great grand-advisor. We contacted Nepper to share the discovery, and she was completely surprised.
“No one really expects to look at their academic pedigree and find a Nobel laureate,” said Nepper. “I remember hearing about him in chemistry and biochemistry. He was the person who synthesized vitamin B12 and lipids…that’s pretty cool!”
Woodward won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1965 for his work on the synthesis of complex natural products including guanine, cholesterol, and cortisone, which opened the door to a new era of synthesis. Woodward studied chemistry in primary school. By high school, he could perform the majority of experiments found in Ludwig Gattermann’s textbook of experimental organic chemistry, a university level textbook of organic synthesis.
Unlike Woodward, Nepper didn’t discover her interest in science until college. “I did well in all my classes, science included,” Nepper recalled. “In college it was more about what I was interested in doing. I ended up doing research because there was a requirement to either take a class or do independent research, and independent research sounded more interesting.” During that study, Nepper’s undergraduate advisor, Antje Almeida at University of North Carolina at Wilmington, inspired her to enter science. “She has been, was, and still is an amazing mentor to me, and I think she’s the one who really began to foster me as a scientist,” remarked Nepper.
Academically, Nepper comes from a long line of chemists and organic chemists who specialized in chemical synthesis. “I’ve definitely seen the impact [of this lineage] on the lab because we do a lot of chemical biology, a lot of dealing with antibiotics, small molecule discovery, and characterization and structure,” said Nepper.
The focus from general chemical synthesis began to branch out into more organismal chemical synthesis with Nepper’s grand-advisor, Jerrol Meinwald, a Goldwin Smith Professor, Emeritus of chemistry and chemical biology at Cornell University, who investigates chemical ecology and chemical signals in animals, particularly in insects and arthropods. He is often considered one of the founding fathers of chemical ecology, the field that studies the many ways that plants, animals, and microorganisms chemically interact. One of his major contributions was elucidating how chemicals act as repellents and attractants between organisms.
The idea of organismal synthesis, continued through to Meinwald’s advisee, Douglas Weibel, Nepper’s graduate advisor. Except Weibel’s team focuses on bacteria, not just bacterial chemical synthesis, but also on understanding the structure, function, and behavior of bacteria, both as individual cells and as communities and their interactions with host organisms. “I feel like there were two arms of the lab: one was more chemical biology, synthesis, and characterization, and one was more on the organismal side,” said Nepper, who chose Webiel’s lab because of the diversity of research questions in a variety of bacterial organisms.
Graduate school is hard, and being a prodigy possibly makes it even harder. In 1933 during college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Woodward neglected his classes so much so that he was excluded from returning the following semester. The university eventually readmitted him in 1935, and by 1936, he earned his bachelor’s degree. Just one year later he earned his PhD ahead of his cohort.
“I guess I feel hopeful because I know that in his early career, there were some pitfalls,” said Nepper. “It’s always encouraging to know that even despite the pitfalls that we encounter things aren’t insurmountable; you can still end up that successful and that renowned.”
Currently, Nepper is doing a postdoctoral fellowship in Weibel’s lab and hunting for jobs in basic research and academia. “There’s a lot that we still have to learn about the world. Applied science is very important, but I think maybe’s there’s been a little too much focus on it in the past decade or so, and we’re kind of hitting a wall where we can’t necessarily come up with novel applications unless we have new knowledge to base those on,” said Nepper.