About the Researcher
"I just stumbled across it, a little by accident and a little by luck," Julien Wang says about her current career path.
Wang's parents thought she should follow the family trade, medicine. Her grandfather was a renowned anesthesiologist. Her mother, an M.D,. brought the family from China to the United States while she was doing postdoctoral research.
Nine-year-old Julien spoke no English when she arrived in the United States in 1993. She credits "the sheer volume of cartoons that I watched, books that I read, and music that I listened to" for making her fluent. Whatever she did must have worked well, because she had success writing stories and plays in her new language at school.
‘There was nobody to run the group. [So] I started taking a leadership role.’
By the time she was in high school, "I had my hand in all the arts," she says. Her parents were still urging her toward a medical career, "but after growing up in a hospital, I didn't want to do that," she says. She was leaning toward a humanities major.
Then, as a junior, she wandered into the environment club. "I don't know why I went," she says. "I was just in the mood for something different."
She joined at an opportune moment. The club officers were all seniors, so the following year "there was nobody to run the group. I started taking a leadership role."
Wang lived in a well-to-do Baltimore neighborhood, but even there, she noticed the air pollution, and people littered the local stream. "It would bother me. I think when most people see trash, they just look the other way. But if you keep on like that, eventually we're not going to have a stream. If you ignore something long enough, it's not going to be there any more." Her club organized a stream cleanup.
High school was also the first time that she ran across a real academic challenge. She credits her parents' high expectations for making her a straight-A student—until she hit a precalculus class taught by a notorious teacher. "That teacher wasn't good at answering questions, she wasn't personable, she wasn't approachable, and the rumor was that she only gave, like, 2 A's. That was one of the first times that I realized that you cannot be perfect in everything you do and that there will be people who will not be very understanding along your way.
‘I realized that you cannot be perfect . . . and there will be people who will not be very understanding along your way.’
"In retrospect, I really needed that experience," she says. "Academically, I learned something about problem solving; socially, I learned something about dealing with people."
When it came time to choose a major, Wang was torn between the arts and her growing interest in the environment. Finally, she chose environmental engineering. She graduates from Johns Hopkins University this spring with a master's degree.
Being truly fluent in English as well as Mandarin Chinese has given her a distinct advantage in her schoolwork, Wang says. "Language education in China is very weak. I have a lot of Chinese classmates who don't really speak English—even the [teaching assistants]. Some TAs ask me to translate very simple things for them. I don't know how professors pick TAs, but it's not for their communication skills.
"Now that I am job hunting, I always put down [on applications] that I speak Mandarin. That will come in very handy if I get a job that has offices in other parts of the world."