Spotlight on Natural Sciences Alumni: Julia Tomoyasu Silveira

Julia Tomoyasu Silveira
Age: 26
Education (UR and additional): B.S. in Chemistry, University of Rochester, 2008; Pharmacology Graduate Student, Weill Cornell Medical College.
Current city/state of residence: New York, NY
Job Title: Graduate Student
Employer: Weill Cornell Medical College

Why did you choose to attend the University of Rochester?

I chose to come to Rochester because I thought the school had a perfect size with very good science departments. My dad is Brazilian and my mom is Japanese, so they were clueless in giving me suggestions on where I should go to college. But the only thing my dad who works in a pharmaceutical company told me was, if I want to become a scientist I should go to a university with a graduate program instead of a liberal arts college. I wanted to study liberal arts with emphasis in chemistry but I wanted to do research, so I thought Rochester would be the perfect combination, and it really was!

When and how did you choose your major?

I chose Chemistry as my major because that was the only subject I remained good at while I learned English in high school, and I was very interested in how molecules interact with each other in nature. I started to realize that everything we see and touch are chemical molecules and interact with each other based on chemical principles and physics. I wanted to learn the “language of nature” in a way. I was fascinated that even though we think life is very complex, it all comes down to how atoms and small molecules interact with each other. As a chemistry major, I thought I would be able to get an overview of chemical interactions in nature.

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

I spent most of my time in Dr. Robert Boeckman’s lab doing research and working at Java Cart (I don’t think it’s there anymore, it was right next to ITS). I just loved chemistry so much so I did everything to earn more chemistry. I was a Chemistry TA for two years (Organic Chemistry workshop leader and General Chemistry TA) and learned how to teach. I also learned that explaining concepts are very hard and appreciated the work of teachers so much more!  I was also in ADITI and learned about Indian culture. At first I was hesitant to join because most of the students are Indian in ADITI, but they were very welcoming. Not only I learned how to dance Bhangra and Garba, I learned that Hinduism is close to Buddhism and found so many things in common between Japan and India. It was really fun to learn about various Indian customs and dances through ADITI.

What resources did you use on campus that you recommend current students use?

I recommend using the writing center. I am half-Japanese and half-Brazilian, and I moved to the US when I was 16, so I am not good at writing at all. I was very shy about asking for help in writing, but they are very helpful, and they always answered my questions patiently. My English improved a lot after I started going to the writing center.

Who were your mentors while you were on campus? Have you continued those relationships?

Dr. Robert Boeckman and Dr. Dinnocenzo have been my mentors in Rochester. I was pre-med until I graduated but I had interest in research, so they gave me advice on what career to choose and they were always encouraging me to pursue my passion. They knew that I was interested in both biology and chemistry, so they asked me hard questions to make the right career choice for my future. I always looked up to them and I started thinking about going to graduate school when I met these professors. I thought if I could think about science all day and advice students like they were doing to me, it must be a fun job. They always talk about their work with such passion and I want to become a scientist like them.

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

I worked at the NIH as a post-baccalaureate fellow for a year right after graduation. I was a chemistry major, but I was pre-med and loved doing research, so I decided to try medicinal chemistry research at the NIH Chemical Genomics Center. I thought it could be a perfect combination of chemistry and medicine. I synthesized small molecules that were screened for potential inhibitors for various proteins. I realized that I wanted to learn what molecules do in the body to have an effect, so I decided to switch to another job. For two years, I worked at Uniformed Services University at the Naval Medical Center under Dr. Brian Cox looking at the endogenous opioid gene expression in the brain (amygdala region) after stress. I did not know anything about neuroscience, but I learned while I worked there. I really enjoyed studying neuropharmacology and working with Dr. Cox made me decide to go to graduate school.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

I am pursuing a Ph.D. in Pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. I am still a first year, so I have not joined a lab yet, but I am interested in neuropharmacology. I am especially interested in addiction and fear. I chose this career because I like doing research and I like asking questions about science. I find our brain so fascinating and I want to learn more about how our bodies work in such an intricate and an elegant way.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

I started to exercise and cook after I graduated from college. It sounds very obvious, but it is important to eat well and move your body as well as working. After exercising and eating well, I realized I work more efficiently, and it has been really good for my health.

How are you still connected with the University?

I still keep in touch with professors and I see friends from college all the time. Professors wrote me recommendations for graduate school admissions without any hesitation and they were very happy to hear that I got accepted to Cornell.

I moved to Washington D.C. without knowing that many people but I went to a happy hour run by the U of R alumni, and made new Rochester friends there. It is amazing how you become close friends with people from college even if you didn’t know that person when you were there! Just because I went to Rochester, I felt close to my classmates and become close friends. I was very pleasantly surprised to make new friends after college this way.

What advice do you have for current students?

I would just enjoy more and stop complaining about the cold. I remember when I was there, I was always thinking about the next exam, and how cold it was and I wish it were over soon. I wish I just took some time off to appreciate all the resources and went out to Eastman and participated in student clubs more. Now that I think about it, if I didn’t complain about the cold too much, it wouldn’t have gotten to my nerves as much. Of course, I also would advice to study hard! Even though I do not use what I learned in class while I was in Rochester now, I know how to analyze and criticize scientific work. I learned how to study in college, and I am so glad I did.