Professor Julie Granger- A Marine Science Trailblazer

This International Women’s Day I celebrate the very witty, Professor Julie Granger. Professor Granger’s work tries to understand what controls the fertility of different parts of the ocean. Granger is originally from Quebec, the only Canadian province that acknowledges French as an official language. She was raised in this part of the world within a middle-class family until the age of 12 years old. Thereafter, Julie’s family moved to the other side of the world, North Africa- Morocco. Her father is a petroleum geologist and worked for an agency that was “supposedly trying to look for oil from Morocco”. Upon moving to North Africa, Julie attended an American high school which was one of the English speaking schools in the capital city, Rabat, at the time. This is where she first learnt how to speak the English language. After the age of 18 years, Julie moved back to Canada to continue with her studies while the rest of her family stayed behind in Morocco. She enrolled with McGill University for her undergraduate degree in Biology, majoring in aquatic ecology. This was not her original plan however as Julie was mostly interested in Political Studies and wanted to be a spy and this all stemmed from her being so good at languages. But one of her friends pointed out that she was always talking about her snorkelling trips and suggested that Julie should study marine biology instead. Not that she was bad at science, but Julie never really saw herself taking that route in life. She developed a great love for her new suggested field so much that she was propelled towards taking it further to Masters level and becoming the only oceanographer in the entire department. Working with a young and very dynamic Professor, Dr Neil Price, her topic was based on iron binding ligands that are produced by bacteria.

After the completion of a very exciting and enjoyable MSc, Julie was not so keen on pursuing a Ph.D. as most Professors made it look very stressful and she definitely did not want that for herself. In addition, there was not a single woman Professor who modelled “woman in academia” for her. In hindsight, she did not have any role models. To top it all off, Julie’s father has a Master’s degree while her mom has an undergraduate degree and in all her years while growing up she had never heard the mention of grad school. All these combined led her to decide that she wanted to be a technician. Julie says she remembers her MSc supervisor, Price, telling her that she would be miserable as a technician because she is the type that does what she thinks she should do instead of what she is told to do. Julie did not listen to Dr Neil Price and proceeded with her plans of becoming a technician. She went to work for Dr Bess Ward at Princeton University and that is where and when she was first introduced to biogeochemistry. This allowed her to be part of an Antarctic expedition for two seasons. However, it turned out that Neil Price was right because she soon discovered about herself that she disliked being told what to do when she thought what she was supposed to do was wrong. This resulted in her often doing two things at once, what she was told to do and what she thought should be done. Interestingly, what she thought should have been done was usually more successful than what she was told to do. Julie exhausted herself and ended up being very unhappy at her workplace. After two and a half years of being a technician, she left the position, took a year off and re-evaluated what she wanted to do with her life.

One day it clicked to her that research is the only thing she likes and this was enough motivation for her to enrol for a PhD with The University of British Columbia. British Columbia offers a parallel career in skiing and mountaineering and Julie wanted exactly that. Upon registration, Granger found herself a supervisor, Professor Philipe Tortell who she had studied undergrad with at McGill. But Tortell had gone straight through with no Masters and no Postdoc to become a Professor at age 28. In that time, Julie reconnected with someone she had met at Princeton, Professor Danny Sigman who was a Postdoc when she was a technician. Danny struck her as one of the brightest people she has ever met. Professor Sigman had just developed a new technique at the time, the denitrifier method to measure nitrate and nitrogen (N)-related ratios. She admits that she was not entirely sure what this new technique was going to reveal about the ocean, but because she knew how brilliant Sigman is she wanted to be part of it. No one was going to tell her what to do because no one knew what to do. It was novel research, a big deal and would uncover new secrets about the ocean. Now, soon to be Dr Granger’s work entailed culturing phytoplankton at British Columbia, send samples or go to Princeton for a few months and measure samples on the mass spectrometer. This allowed them to see how phytoplankton fractionate not only the N isotopes but also the oxygen isotopes of N, together. This work had never been done before! After publishing, Julie says she knew that there would be some sort of impact, but when people started coming up to her exclaiming in excitement, “Oh my gosh you’re Granger”, is when she realised how much the work and field had mushroomed. After PhD, she continued to pursue a Postdoc with Princeton in The Sigman Lab where at some point she was advised to get a real job. Professor Granger says she was never ready for the working world and probably would have stayed for much longer as a Postdoc if Danny had not pushed her to get a real job.

Screenshot 2019-03-07 at 17.37.23
Professor Granger with Dr Katye Altieri and Dr Sarah Fawcett’s Ph.D. (yes that’s me) and MS.c students after a Science Festival we had at the University of Cape Town’s Oceanography Department

Lack of self-confidence was very crippling for Julie. Even though she never had confidence problems when it comes to asking questions, her confidence levels seemed to drop when she thought about what it took to become an academic. She never believed that she would be good enough. Men around her were getting promoted more than her even though she knew that she was as capable or more capable, often. This heightened her self confidence issues. She points out that in life we tend to foster what we are and the leaders and individuals who were at the helm of authority at the time were men and of course this meant that men would have greater chances of success for promotions, for example. She additionally admits to being in denial about this for some time but now sees the same pattern in herself where she encourages and nurtures women more. Professor Julie Granger recommends to anyone who would like to become successful in the science field to first know what they want. Science has many paths and research is just one of them, she says. She especially advises about post PhD where she says there are many options to explore, one does not necessarily have to go into academia. Julie further suggests reading a lot because she knows it works to build self-confidence as it did for her. Speak up, ask questions and do not be afraid!

“Make sure you are the weird personality type that nerds out with bubbly until odd times of the night. Read, read, read so that you know as much as you can. It builds confidence”- Professor Julie Granger

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