Triple major set to attend top-ranked graduate school

Posted on April 19, 2018

Julie Butler

Like a number of other Erskine College seniors, Julie Butler of Bradley, S.C., has been considering where to go to graduate school. She recently decided to attend Michigan State University (MSU), where she will pursue a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. Michigan State is ranked first by U.S. News & World Report among graduate schools for nuclear physics.

Young Professor of Chemistry Dr. Howard Thomas, Julie’s academic advisor, calls her “a remarkable student,” and praises her as “superb academically” and “a great contributor to the college.” In addition to keeping up with her three majors—chemistry, mathematics, and physics—she has been busy with research, on campus and off, during fall and spring semesters as well as during the summer. “She has one of the best backgrounds in research of all our students in recent years,” Thomas says.

Julie worked one summer at the College of William and Mary, then spent last summer at the University of Notre Dame. Both opportunities were part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

At William and Mary, Julie did data analysis on a nuclear physics experiment performed at Jefferson National Lab. At Notre Dame, she was engaged in theoretical nuclear physics research. “These experiences were invaluable to me because they allowed me to perform research in fields that I was not exposed to in my Erskine physics classes,” she says.

Julie Butler in Erskine’s science center

On the Erskine campus, Julie has done collaborative research, working with Professor of Chemistry Dr. Joel Boyd, her research advisor. “I have been a member of Dr. Boyd’s research group since the spring semester of my sophomore year,” she explains. “I have worked on several different projects but the one that I am currently working on involves modifying the photocatalyst titania with iron to improve its abilities to degrade antibiotics in water.”

Boyd notes that the project Julie describes is one that she has “developed from the beginning: literature work, experimental design, experimentation, data processing, and communication.”

Julie started the project during last year’s Winter Term and worked on it through the spring semester. Mikhayla Clothier, a homeschooled student from nearby Honea Path, worked on the project during the summer when Julie was doing research at Notre Dame. Julie and Mikhayla worked together during the fall semester to “tie up loose ends” on the project. They are working on writing a manuscript to submit to a peer-reviewed journal. Mikhayla was recently awarded a Presidential Scholarship and will enter Erskine College as a freshman in the fall.

“This work was my first introduction to scientific research,” Julie says. “It has taught me about the ups and downs of research as well as the process of writing and publishing a manuscript. There have been times when the project was challenging, when an experiment failed or an idea did not pan out, but that is a part of scientific research.”

In mathematics, too, Julie has spent time on research, working with Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. Art Gorka in the area of mathematics called optimization, “an applied science used not only in math but also in engineering, business, biology, medicine, and in many other industrial applications, where the task is to find an optimum (a minimum or a maximum) of some functions subject to some constraints,” says Gorka. He notes that Julie’s role in the research required her to learn advanced calculus methods.

Asked how she has kept up with the work for her majors, Julie says, “The only way I manage to do a triple major is because the majors are related. Most of the classes I take count for at least two of my majors,” and adds, “There is no way I could have completed three majors in four years if they were unrelated.”

Julie praises her academic advisor for his assistance. “Probably the person who has helped me the most during my time at Erskine is Dr. Thomas. He has not only been my academic advisor, but he has advised me through the process of applying for summer research and for graduate school.”

Julie Butler, second from left, served as a marshal at Erskine’s 2017 commencement.

Amazingly, in addition to doing classwork, lab work, and research, as well as serving as a Supplemental Instruction leader, Julie has made time for involvement in the Erskine chapter of the American Chemical Society and has volunteered with the Due West Robotics Club. “She is not a one-dimensional person. She does a lot of helping others,” Thomas says.

Julie says she did not get involved with any organizations during her freshman year. “I believe that this was a wise choice because it allowed me to focus on my classes and adjusting to college life without having to worry about other commitments.”

As Julie gears up for graduate school, her Erskine experience, along with the enrichment of her off-campus work, should serve her well. “Julie is an excellent scientist and has done great work as an undergraduate,” Boyd says, adding that she has presented her work at national and regional chemistry and physics meetings.

Young Professor of Mathematics Dr. Kokou Abalo observes that in addition to her intelligence, Julie also possesses self-discipline. “It’s been a joy and a blessing to teach Julie,” Abalo says. “Of all the students I’ve had so far, she stands out because of the rigor, the precision, the ease, and the humility with which she does what she does. Julie is very special.”

Associate Professor of Physics Dr. Ekaterina Michonova agrees. “Julie is an outstanding student,” she says, noting that in addition to her excellent performance in the classroom, Julie has served as a leader in the Supplemental Instruction program for several physics classes and as a lab assistant. “It is wonderful to know that she is on her career path for a Ph.D. in nuclear physics.”

“Her off-campus research activities have allowed her to participate in much larger collaborative environments, similar to the graduate school program that she will be in next year,” Boyd says. “She truly has the best possible undergraduate research background in preparation for graduate school.”

Julie visited Michigan State in mid-February and returned to Erskine “even more excited about the prospect of going to MSU,” where she will begin doing research this summer and will receive a stipend if she participates in an assistantship, either focused on teaching or on research.

Joking about the winter weather she will have to endure as a graduate student, Julie said that during her February visit, “It was not that cold actually. Apparently there was a warm front moving through and the highs were in the upper 30s!”