Published 12 October 2023 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Julia Gensheimer

Julia participated in the Lindau Meeting in summer 2023. All photos/credits: in courtesy of Julia Gensheimer

Julia from the US is an MD-PhD Candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), USA.

She studies T cell development from hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells in the Crooks lab at UCLA. Specifically, she is interested in the role of hematopoietic stem and progenitor cell aging and the aged thymic microenvironment on T cell decline with age. She hopes the findings will influence regenerative medicine and therapies for age-related diseases.

Julia participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Julia and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

I first joined a research lab at age 16 as a student at a residential STEM high school. Before that time, I did not know what research was or that research careers existed. I fell in love with the freedom to ask questions and look for answers in the lab environment. My first research experiences as a high school student in chemistry labs at Western Kentucky University confirmed that research was a career I wanted to pursue seriously, and I was eager to contribute to more medically related projects. As a senior in high school, I learned about cancer immunotherapy through a magazine advertisement for Seattle Children’s a year before these therapies were FDA-approved. After sending an email to Dr. Michael Jensen, an internationally recognised leader in chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell immunotherapy and Chief Therapeutics Officer at Seattle Children’s, I was accepted into the lab as a summer research intern. This is where I first fell in love with immunology, and my motivation to study immunological mechanisms only grew once I joined the lab of world-renowned immunologist Dr. Rafi Ahmed, as an undergraduate student at Emory. I have since dedicated my research life to T cells. I love studying the immune system because it connects to everything, and my desire to become an immunologist, coupled with my motivation to serve patients directly in the clinic led me to the physician scientist path.

Who are your role models?

I am thankful to have had many wonderful role models throughout my life: my parents, my late Nana, my research mentors, and physician scientists at all levels of training. Some mentors that come to mind are my former PI, Dr. Rafi Ahmed, my current PhD mentor, Dr. Gay Crooks, and my long-time physician scientist friends and former labmates, Dr. Agne Taraseviciute and Dr. Christiane Eberhardt. I admire all of them for their expertise, work ethic, and, importantly, how they treat people, advocate for others, and confidently and compassionately lead a team.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

Growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I never imagined I would be an MD-PhD student in the UCLA-Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) in Los Angeles, California. I first learned about the physician scientist path at a residential STEM high school, where I had the unique opportunity to take college courses and conduct research at a young age. I soon learned I had to make my own opportunities, and I did this by cold-emailing principal investigators across the country, only later finding out that they were leaders in their fields. Looking back at the emails I sent at age 17, each of them confidently says: “I will earn an MD-PhD to become a physician scientist.” 10 years later, after years of fulfilling patient interactions and research experiences, I am still motivated to achieve my goal of becoming a physician scientist. I have just finished my fourth year in the MSTP, with an expected 4-5 years left of graduate training. I completed the first two preclinical years of medical school at the David Geffen School of Medicine (DGSOM) at UCLA and the first two years of my PhD at UCLA.

Before graduate school, I attended college at Emory University, where I studied Chemistry and Biology and participated in immunology research and clinical volunteer opportunities. These experiences further motivated me to apply for the dual degree because I still loved research and gained a newfound interest in patient care. Being premed meant I would need to complete premedical requirements, like certain classes, clinical volunteering, physician shadowing, and the MCAT. I developed a plan to accomplish all of these tasks early on in my college career, and I applied to MD-PhD programs during my senior year of college to start medical school in the fall of 2019.

Research was my first love, so my decision to pursue the dual degree was less about choosing MD vs. MD-PhD and more about choosing PhD vs. MD-PhD. I spoke with people of different training backgrounds and took note of the pros and cons of each path. Ultimately the MD-PhD felt right for me since I could not see my career without research or without patient care, so I chose both. I credit my family for their unwavering support as well as research mentors and labmates at WKU, Seattle Children’s, and Emory, who helped me with my career choice.

There have certainly been challenges along the way, including feelings of doubt and insecurity about my abilities, coupled with the tendency to compare myself to others. Moving to Los Angeles taught me a lot more about work-life balance, and I have gotten better at managing my time and taking time to rest. I am also a perfectionist, which is still an ongoing challenge, especially in the lab, where things often do not go as planned! Research has taught me a lot about learning to deal with failure, as “failed” experiments can teach us something that will help us with the next one.

Getting to this point in my life is truly by the grace of God and the support of my family and friends. I learned from my parents the importance of doing your best and making your own opportunities. This mentality allowed me to go after things I never thought I would be able to achieve. I am endlessly grateful for the people who have helped me get to where I am now and continue to provide support and encouragement along the way.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

Within a lab, I think it is easy to pick your favorite project (if you have more than one), but comparing projects between labs since I started research ten years ago is quite difficult because I genuinely think all are cool! Instead, I’ll speak about what I think was my most influential. My first project was an exciting and explosive introduction to research as I was studying a 2D nanomaterial known as graphene in an industrial-style chemistry lab. That was a memorable experience because I was given so much freedom to design experiments and test different hypotheses as a high school student. As I have gotten older, I find that my research experience now is a bit less freeing than it was when I knew nothing about the lab. At the time, I had no worries – no pressure to publish or earn grant funding or graduate – and really no other obligation than to simply learn something new! I try to channel my 16-year-old self when I get stuck on a project now and keep the enthusiasm alive.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

Getting interviewed (and eventually accepted) by MD-PhD programs across the country and speaking with scientists I looked up to about my experiences and research projects was a special time in my life when I directly felt all of the hard work and cool experiences “pay off.” It provided validation that this was the path for me and I felt encouraged that complete strangers saw my potential. It is special to have this feeling again after being accepted to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting!

What is a “day in the life” of you like?

Julia Gensheimer in the lab
In the Crooks lab at UCLA

The fun part about science is that every day is different. As a Ph.D. student with a supportive mentor and lab who value work/life balance, I dictate my own schedule. This was initially challenging after coming from medical school, where almost every part of my day was scheduled for me, but now I love the flexibility. I usually wake up around 9 am and arrive in the lab around 10 am unless I have a big experiment day where I might start as early as 5 am, depending on how long it takes. I usually walk to work, eating a granola bar along the way. I arrive in the lab and check emails or print out the protocol for the day if I’m doing an experiment. Then, I get to work – normally in the cell culture hood feeding organoids, harvesting cells for flow cytometry analysis, or dissecting mice to extract stem cells from their bone marrow. If I don’t have an experiment, I do what I would call maintenance – making media, checking my antibody stock, ordering necessary supplies, and restocking lab items. My lab almost always eats lunch together, usually sometime between 12 and 1 pm, depending on how busy we are. Then we go back to working at the bench or at our desks on the computer. If I have to do computer tasks – like reading literature, writing a grant, analysing data, or preparing a presentation – I normally work from home or go to a coffee shop. I appreciate the flexibility to work where I am most productive, and as my lab is very social – we often have to isolate ourselves if we really want to focus! Once a week, we have lab meetings, where we either present original data or discuss new papers in the field. I also have other meetings throughout the week with my PI and collaborators. We are encouraged to attend seminars on campus (often with free lunch!), and I also attend events for my organisation called Med Mentors, like coffee chats between medical students and premedical students. I usually leave work around 5 pm unless I have a long experiment day which has gone past midnight before! I like to eat an early dinner and usually watch whatever show I’m currently on to relax in the evening! I might grab dessert with friends or go for a walk after that. Oftentimes weeknights are about doing chores, running errands, and, if I’m feeling up for it, working on some of those computer tasks that I didn’t do during the day. Weekends are when I explore LA and hang out with friends or sleep in and watch movies. I am cherishing this time before I go back to medical school!

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

My goal is to become an independent physician scientist. I see myself as a principal investigator of an immunology lab and as a clinician treating patients with immunological disorders and providing immune-based therapies. It is my top priority to be a good physician and scientist and a good leader, mentor, and advocate for people. I want to do good science and make the world a better place, even if it’s just helping one person.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

At this year’s Med Mentors banquet with some of the med student mentors

I stay busy. As a member of the MSTP community, I run the MSTP social media accounts and assist with admissions, outreach, and recruitment. Mentorship is extremely important to me, which is why I founded Med Mentors, one of the largest student organisations at DGSOM that provides free resources and mentorship to premedical students at UCLA and beyond. We host medical student and physician webinars, offer 1-on-1 advising, edit application essays, conduct mock interviews, run hands-on clinical skills workshops, and share premedical resources. Follow us @medmentorsucla!

Many people ask if I still have time to have fun in med school/grad school, and my answer is YES! To start, I can’t count the number of full seasons of TV shows I have watched just in the last month. Being in LA has fueled my interest in TV and movies, as many of my friends and labmates are also avid binge watchers, and we always enjoy sharing recommendations and talking about the latest episodes. What has been really exciting is attending premieres and TV show tapings in LA through the organisation 1iota, which gives free tickets to fans. In the last two years, I’ve attended talk shows, movie premieres, and even the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony! I also love food, and LA is the perfect place for a foodie. I love trying new cuisines and am constantly looking for the best spots​. As a PhD student, I started being a part of Yelp Elite, which is a cool opportunity to support local businesses, get free food, and go to fun events around LA! I love exploring LA and checking things off my LA bucket list, like beaches, hikes, concert venues, and museums. Lastly, during COVID, I started going on long bike rides on the weekends (sometimes 50+ miles!). It’s a dream to get to ride my bike along the beach, and it has helped me see a lot of LA without a car. Thus, I’ve since gotten really into bikes with the help of my parents, who are avid cyclists. My next goal is to complete a century (100-mile ride)!

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

In 2018, Ahmed lab at Emory University

This is for anyone – don’t compare yourself to others! This is something I still struggle with, but it is important to remember that everyone has their own path to medicine and science and it is ok if your path is different. You also don’t have to be perfect. I founded the organisation Med Mentors partly because I wanted to help debunk common myths about medical school and provide premedical students with diverse opinions and examples from medical students of different backgrounds. I also encourage others to create their own opportunities – send cold emails to PIs you want to work with and apply for things you think you’ll never get (like the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting for me!)! Finally, lean on your support system to get you through challenges. It is important to take care of your mental and physical health!

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

The first thing I thought of was universal CAR T cell therapy, i.e., a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell that doesn’t react against normal antigens in someone’s body and thus can be prepared and mass-produced to serve all patients who need it. Since I no longer work in the CAR T field myself, I haven’t followed much of the literature to know how close we are to that goal, but it is something that a lot of labs around the world are working towards, and I will be thrilled to see when that happens.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?

I am sure every stage needs improvement, but I think it is less about helping girls and women get interested in science and more about continuing the encouragement and support to stay in science. Mentorship is key, and it doesn’t always have to be a woman mentor – it just has to be a good mentor. There are also institutional, national, and global systems in place that need to be improved. Many folks on this blog have mentioned paid (and extended) maternity and paternity leave, financial support for and accessibility of childcare, eliminating gender bias and discrimination, and seeing more women in leadership positions. I have been lucky to have so many fantastic mentors throughout my research training. Still, it was only until my PhD that I had a PI who is a woman (and I am also, for the first time, in a lab of mostly women and have three women on my thesis committee!). I do think having mentors who are women is great, as I can learn from them not only about science but also envision my future and get an idea of how they balance work and family and other obligations. It’s not that I couldn’t do that with my mentors who are men, but it does, in many ways, make my PI and other mentors who are women clear role models for me. They are often more open to sharing their experiences and their struggles and this makes my goals feel more attainable knowing that people I admire faced challenges along the way too!

Further Information

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.