Julia Kerr Business Development Fellow UC Davis

Julia Kerr
Using nuclear magnetic resonance to understand food in high pressure processing

Note: Julia Kerr was a Business Development Fellow in 2019/20. This interview was conducted in winter 2020.

Julia Kerr is a fourth year Ph.D. student studying analytical chemistry at UC Davis. After earning a B.S. in chemistry and mathematics cum laude at Miami University, Kerr worked as an undergraduate researcher in their chemistry department, analyzing the effect of weather on the pH and ion levels in ponds on campus.

Tell a little about yourself, with a focus on what drew you to study analytical chemistry.

During undergrad, I studied chemistry, mathematics and entrepreneurship. I have loved science since I was a kid. I spent many summers in science camps and many years in after-school science programs.

When I graduated with my bachelor’s, I wasn’t done with learning. In my senior year of college, I became fascinated by the possibilities of analytical chemistry, so I came to Davis to start my Ph.D. To give context, the most popular example of an analytical chemist is Abby from NCIS with her lab and numerous instruments.

The longer I have been at UC Davis, the more it has become apparent to me that there is a need for scientists who can understand business and can work with non-scientists.

In a nutshell, describe your project or venture.

My graduate research focuses on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), which is the same technology as medical MRI. I use NMR to understand what happens on a chemical level at elevated pressures. I have developed my own hardware to look at samples under pressure. This type of work can be valuable in arenas like biofuel development, oil drilling, geology and food science. Currently I am working with food scientists to understand what happens to food as it undergoes high-pressure processing, either for high pressure pasteurization (HPP) or pressure-assisted nutrient infusion. HPP is a popular cold pasteurization technique that is used for many commercial foodstuffs, such as guacamole and hummus. The hardware I have developed can simulate high-pressure environments in the lab so that chemical changes during pressurization can be studied.

What are you most passionate about in your work?

Bridging the divide between scientists and non-scientists. I think it is crucial for scientists to be able to communicate the importance of their work. Furthermore, I work not only in the lab on scientific research, but also as a part of the social media outreach committee for the chemistry department at UC Davis. We work on communicating the inspiring research that is done in the department to the greater chemistry community, as well as prospective students and the general public.

What was the most important thing you learned at the Entrepreneurship Academy?

The significance of a refined elevator pitch for both myself and my research.

Rapid and effective communication of goals and next steps to others is essential.   

What is most valuable about attending classes at the Graduate School of Management alongside MBA students?

The chance to be exposed to different points of view and ways of thinking by being in classes at the GSM is invaluable. Getting out of the science bubble to see how other disciplines approach problems has been a wonderful experience. The GSM classes are reframing how I think research and business interact. It has been transformative in understanding how research can turn into innovations.

What is the most useful thing you have learned in the GSM classroom?

Innovations and new technologies are not always developed in the way the media would like us to think: by one lone individual. New technologies are brought to market by a knowledgeable team working together. 

A good network leads to the success of an innovation. The network around a team, and the people on a team, are just as important as new technological capabilities.

How will your experiences as a Business Development Fellow help you to change the world?

I am hoping that my experiences as a Business Development Fellow will launch me into a role in industry where I can bring science and business capabilities together to push forward innovation and be successful in helping emerging technologies come to market.

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