From the time she was 12, Grace Johnson’s course was set: She was on a path toward becoming a physician. After all, her mother is an OB/GYN– her grandmother, an internist and the second woman to attend medical school at the University of Utah.
But then she got to exploring at Loyola Marymount University, where she added an applied mathematics minor to her biochemistry major. She took an advanced physical chemistry class from Emily Jarvis, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Green Chemistry Committee Chair, and a linear algebra class, and something different began to click.
After practicing to take the MCAT medical school entrance exam in November of her junior year she experienced a “two-week period of existential crisis.”
“I knew that I wanted to follow my curiosity and learn more about the quantum side of chemistry and be a part of the discovery process for technology advancement and sustainability,” Johnson recalls. “In a period of one month, I completely switched course and realized I wanted to go into computational or theoretical chemistry like Dr. Jarvis.”
Johnson’s research with Jarvis and experimental collaborators in Russia looks at the effect of surface oxygen depletion on the ability of titanium dioxide to act as a catalyst for solar energy conversion. She presented the work in April at a special Computational/Theoretical Chemistry section of the 253rd American Chemical Society National Meeting & Exposition in San Francisco – a huge event attended by some 18,000 scientists. Her poster was one of five undergraduate winners honored with the prize and $100 check.
Funded by a 2016 research scholarship program from alumni of Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering, she did the bulk of the research over the previous summer. (Hunter also earned a summer research scholarship.) Johnson spent the fall crafting her honor’s thesis from this work and collaborating with Jarvis on a publication that is under review in the journal Surface Science.
After a summer spent backpacking in the Grand Tetons and Southern Utah, then month-long travels through Spain, Scotland, London, and France, Johnson will head to Stanford University to begin work on a doctorate in chemistry.
Is her family disappointed about her choice of chemistry over medicine? Not one bit. Her father had suggested she might look at other choices, after all he’s a physicist, stay-at-home dad, writer, and book reviewer. Her paternal grandfather was a professor of physics at the University of Utah.
“Science flows in my blood,” Johnson says.