The grandson of Alabama slaves, Percy Julian worked tirelessly—transitioning from university classrooms to private laboratories; from the U.S. to Austria and back—to find a place that would allow him to work in chemistry. After one year as a department head at Howard University—a stint that ended in his resignation—Julian would go on to work at DePauw University, where he became the first to ever totally synthesize physostigmine, an alkaloid used to treat glaucoma.
His other successes, which include synthesizing cortisone (used to treat arthritis) and progesterone (used to prevent miscarriages) improved society. They also helped pave the way for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in STEM, and inspire the next generation of scientists.
One of those scientists is Percy Julian’s granddaughter, Katherine Julian. A physician and associate dean of graduate medical education at the University of California, San Francisco, Katherine trains medical residents and fellows, and researches medical education. Her work of practicing science and educating others mirrors—and honors—her grandfather’s legacy, and she sees Percy Julian’s sacrifices reflected in the work she and other Black scientists do today.
A lot of Black people “have to work three times as hard” to be taken seriously, Katherine says. “I think that kind of work ethic is something that I have to continue to uphold—certainly in my professional world. That has been instilled in me in a lasting manner.”
Katherine spoke with NOVA about her memories of Percy, her career, and the effect his life and work has had on the way she perceives progress in STEM today.
Hanna Ali: Black scientists and hobbyists still face discrimination in the lab and in public, much like Percy Julian did himself. More often than not, the onus is on Black, Indigenous, and other people of color to push their way into STEM environments and educate their peers on what it means to treat them with humanity.
Do you often find that your cohort of students is fairly diverse, and have you seen more strides being made at UCSF to make more opportunities for students of color?
Katherine Julian: In my almost 25-year career—and I think this is not just at UCSF, this is on a larger scale—we’ve made great strides to become more diverse in science. Do I think we are where we need to be? No, of course not. And I still feel like we have a ways to go.
We are not perfect. We have many things to learn and change. But I do feel like we are at a unique point—particularly now—because, unfortunately, of many current events. There is more consciousness-raising presently than I have seen in the last 20 years. I feel like that’s an incredible opportunity to be able to continue to make change.
HA: In the time that your lives overlapped, did you witness your grandfather working as a chemist? If so, what impression did this leave on you?
KJ: Well, he passed away when I was pretty young. The side that I saw of him was not necessarily the scientist side. I saw a side that was super passionate about gardening: the garden he had, around his house [in Chicago] and on the grounds of his home. He loved tulips—and planted thousands and thousands and thousands of tulip bulbs in the ground. [He’d] go out and garden every morning before going to work.
I think it does reflect that he was someone who worked so incredibly hard. I think he was someone that put himself fully into many, many things. Obviously he had science. And moving that forward and to do the things that he did, I think required such incredible fortitude.
HA: Did your grandfather use gardening as a way to educate the younger children in your family?
KJ: I definitely remember being out there with him. I was probably too young for there to be any sort of education aspect. But I do think after he passed away, there has been an education aspect: from my grandmother and my father and my aunt, in terms of his legacy and what that meant, and almost a responsibility for that legacy. And that goes a little bit toward having to work twice as hard and how important education is. I think that there was very much a feeling that he had worked so hard to be able to advance Black and African Americans and to be able to provide for his family.
HA: It seems like, instead of a hands-on teaching approach, there was more of a legacy of learning.
KJ: That’s exactly right.
HA: “Forgotten Genius” offers a perspective of Percy Julian’s career and also suggests that he made lots of friends along the way, including some overseas in Austria, that came to do research with him in the States later on. Are you in touch with any of them?
KJ: You know, I actually am in touch with a family friend—she's now of advanced age. Her family worked with my grandfather. She now lives in Israel.
She travels to the U.S. once a year—well, not in COVID times—usually for competitions. She's a scientist herself, and we get together every year when she comes. So there is some of that connection, obviously, because my grandfather now would be very old, and a lot of those connections have now passed. Staying in touch with her [has] really been terrific. And [being] able to hear old stories has been great.
HA: It’s interesting to think about how Percy Julian had to go out of the country just to get more research and work experience.
KJ: And to encounter all of the racism and barriers there—just even to try and live in the community of what he was trying to live—I think required incredible fortitude.
HA: My family members are immigrants, and we don’t have that sort of long story of a family legacy in America. It’s more like, “Your parents came here to go to school and they made a life for themselves. Any sort of family history is back in Somalia.”
KJ: I see an immigrant's story in a way very similar to the way you think back to fortitude. How hard it is to leave everything behind, to go someplace new to try and make a better life—whether it's for you or often really for your kids—right? So I see it as very, very similar. I can't speak for children of immigrants, but having spoken to several of my friends, I do think they also feel a big responsibility. It's like, “Wow, my parents went through all of this for me…I have a responsibility to pay that forward in a way.”
HA: We’ve been highlighting "Black in X" weeks at NOVA, talking about what it means to be a Black scientist. Being a physician, do you find yourself having to explain the most basic inequities in health care or STEM to your peers, where you say something like, “I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but I do?”
KJ: You know, not so much now. Some of that is a function of the stage I'm at in my career, [and] where I'm at, being at UCSF, where I do think people are really looking at health equity in a real way and thinking deeply about it. I do feel fortunate that I am not having those conversations in my workplace, at least presently. I have, years and years ago, [but] I do feel that that's a marker where I am in terms of change. Because I also recognize that's not the case for many, many other people and where they are.
The current pandemic has just uncovered so much health inequity. And I think people—at least the folks I’m working with—realize that. I do think folks are really looking and thinking about “How can we, as a medical community, make a difference in terms of really trying to eliminate those disparities and help?”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.