Uncommon Chemistry

An award-winning professor, a female chemist, and a Catholic at BYU, Juliana Boerio-Goates is used to standing out.

illustrationAn award-winning professor, a female chemist, and a Catholic at BYU, Juliana Boerio-Goates is used to standing out.

If you ask Juliana Boerio-Goates’ colleagues why they chose to study chemistry, she says, many of them will say it is because they love creating explosions. But, like in so many areas of her life, she is an exception. “I don’t like loud noises, and I don’t like things that are likely to blow my eye out or cause me to lose a finger. I’m more interested in the logical explanation of things.”

In particular, Boerio-Goates is fascinated by solids—materials that look to the naked eye as though they can’t possibly contain movement but in fact do. They’re not changing position, but within fixed boundaries their molecules are doing calisthenics—twisting and bending and wobbling. “Wiggling and jiggling,” she calls it. Just how much wiggling and jiggling different materials do under various conditions, mostly temperature and pressure, is one of her main areas of research. Her laboratory at BYU is one of only a handful in the world contributing this kind of data about these phenomena.

illustrationBoerio-Goates’ ambition is to know the chemistry of solids so well that if you gave her even a single molecule or a collection of ions, she could predict how it would behave as a solid. “I would tell you what structure they form in, what properties they’re going to have, and whether they’ll do anything interesting like be magnetic or be a superconductor or have a dipole moment [a separation of charge],” she says. “To be able to do that is my dream.”

Her rare specialty augments Boerio-Goates’ already-anomalous vita. As a female in the sciences, she is outnumbered in staff meetings. As a chemist with firm faith in God, she stands out at professional conferences. And as a Catholic at BYU, the professor is unusual indeed. But when BYU singled her out as the 2005 Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, the university’s premier faculty honor, it was her research achievements and teaching prowess that set her apart.

“She is a consummate researcher and teacher, and she has served on more university committees and in more capacities than any other individual I know,” says Earl M. Woolley (BS ’66), dean of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. “In every role, she serves with total commitment and with enthusiasm.”

illustrationFinding a Passion

Boerio-Goates took a circuitous—and unexpected—path to BYU. The journey began in the small town of Latrobe, Pa., where she grew up with four siblings, including a fraternal twin. Chemistry didn’t particularly interest her until she was in high school, and even then her interest came slowly. Sister Mary Helen Meyer, her chemistry teacher at Greensburg Central Catholic, was a friend of the family, so Juliana felt comfortable expressing her true feelings. “I hated chemistry, and after the first two weeks, I said to Sister Mary Helen, ‘How can you like this? This is terrible. This is blech,’” recalls Boerio-Goates, betraying her Italian roots with ebullient voice tones and animated hand gestures. “I think she took it as a personal challenge to help me see the good in it.”

Within a few weeks, she started to enjoy the logic and the elegance of formulas. The periodic table in particular attracted her because she could explain so many things with such a small amount of information. “I compare the periodic table to Michelangelo’s Pieta—this beautiful sculpture that’s not terribly elaborate but you know immediately what the story is about. There’s so much information in the faces and the drape. It’s simple, it’s elegant, and there’s so much you can get out of it.”

The summer after her junior year in high school, she joined a science club started by Sister Meyer, who helped her put together a science project that she later took to the Junior Academy of Science. She missed her senior prom but solidified her commitment to chemistry. “She was a very curious young lady all her life,” recalls Sister Meyer, who has taught in Catholic schools for more than 60 years. “She wanted to know about everything. Everything came quite easily to her, and chemistry was a challenge.”

After high school Boerio-Goates decided to major in chemistry at Seton Hill, a small all-women’s Catholic liberal arts college in the gently rolling hills of Greensburg, Pa., about 35 miles east of Pittsburgh. Her second year there, she and a friend took physics classes at nearby St. Vincent, an all-men’s Catholic college. To that point, her mostly female teachers had sheltered her from sexist attitudes toward women in science, and she was in for a rude awakening. After the first day, the teacher, a Benedictine priest wearing a long black hooded robe, approached them.

“He stood there with his arms tucked into his sleeves and looked down and said, ‘I just want you two ladies to know that I’m well aware why you’re in this class. I know you’re here because of the favorable male-female ratio.’”

Shocked, the two young women told him, “We knew these guys in high school. We’re not at all interested in dating any of them.”

By the end of the school year, Boerio-Goates was first in the class and her friend was second. On the last day of class, the teacher, humbled, approached them. “I was very wrong about the two of you,” he said. “I owe you an apology. I will never make assumptions like that again.”

“He was 65,” Boerio-Goates recalls. “It was a real measure of the man that he was able to do that.”

During her junior and senior years, she worked as an intern at both the Argonne National Laboratory and IBM’s research labs in Burlington, Vt. At IBM she met fellow intern Steven R. Goates (BS ’76), a BYU undergraduate majoring in chemistry. They fell in love, but when the summer ended Julie returned to Seton Hill and Steve to BYU. They kept in close touch, and a year later both were accepted to the graduate chemistry program at the University of Michigan. In July 1977 they were married in Seton Hill College’s soaring, cathedral-like St. Joseph chapel.

By 1981 both Julie and Steve had finished their PhDs, and it was time to settle into employment. Their first child, Sarah, was less than a year old, and they hoped to find a situation where they could take turns being at home with her. BYU beckoned with a tempting offer, and in 1982 they joined the chemistry faculty under an arrangement that would allow them to accommodate Sarah’s needs. Throughout their careers at BYU, the chemistry department has scheduled their teaching so that one or the other could be home until the children were off to school.

Charged Instruction

On an early fall afternoon, Boerio-Goates plies the aisles of an amphitheater-style classroom as she teaches Physical Science 100, a general-education course about basic principles of physics, chemistry, and geology. With the help of a wireless microphone, her voice carries easily to her 100 or so students. She takes a multimedia approach, employing slides, video, and live demonstrations. Today she’s teaching that the quantities of mass, charge, and energy in the universe always stay the same. None of the three can ever be created or destroyed, though all three can change from one form to another, and they can transfer from one object to another. When a student asks how the principle works when people consume food, she walks over to the student and answers that the mass—the food—will always be conserved. Some of the mass will be transformed into energy while some might be stored. “If you don’t exercise enough, the food turns to fat,” she says, leaning in and pinching her own cheeks to prove her point.

Sean M. Mosman (’11), a freshman from San Mateo, Calif., says Boerio-Goates is a master at communicating difficult concepts: “I was having trouble understanding Newton’s first law, especially the part that says an object in motion will stay in motion, because I had never thought about the role friction plays. Dr. Boerio-Goates did a demonstration with a car on a frictionless track, and all of a sudden the whole concept became clear to me.”

Such experiences are among Boerio-Goates’ favorites, she says. “I love watching the light bulbs go on in students’ eyes.”

She also delights in the challenge of catching the interest of students who think they’re just passing off their general-education science requirement. She thinks it’s critical that everyone understand the basics of science. “We need to have some understanding of where we come from, how we have gotten here both in cultural issues and technological issues so that we can make informed decisions in the voting box, in how we raise our families, in how we choose to buy our cars. We should understand that there are some natural laws and natural limits that we may not like but we can’t circumvent.”

Her effectiveness in the classroom is attested by the Karl G. Maeser Excellence in Teaching Award she received in 1994; a year later she was presented the Karl G. Maeser General Education Professorship, given to teachers who design rigorous GE courses and convey high expectations.

Boerio-Goates’ influence on students extends beyond lecture halls, however. On a fall day in her corner office in the Ezra Taft Benson Building, she answers questions from three female students gathered at her small round table. When one of them apologizes for asking a “dumb question,” Boerio-Goates quickly instructs, “Don’t apologize. You have every right to ask questions. And don’t say, ‘This is a dumb question.’ Maybe it is a dumb question, but I can assure you the male students ask an awful lot of dumb questions too, and they don’t preface by labeling it that way. You lose your credibility if you waffle like that.”

When Boerio-Goates was a college student, few women were science majors, and even now at BYU, she is one of only four female professors in the 40-professor chemistry department. As support for women in science has risen, the numbers have gone up, but the environment still can be uninviting, and young women need extra support and mentoring.

Students in Boerio-Goates’ laboratory are equally fortunate. She takes pains to bring undergraduates into her laboratory and help them get the publications they need to apply to top graduate schools. Tyler K. Meldrum (’06), a biochemistry major from Littleton, Colo., has worked in her laboratory for nearly two years and says he’s never felt like an undergraduate technician. “I feel more like a graduate student, a part of the actual science and not just a data collector. She really helped me feel welcome in the lab, but—and I love this about her—she leaves the learning to me.”

Heated Study

Boerio-Goates’ research interests fall under the umbrella of thermodynamics—the study of energy and heat in chemical systems. If you change the temperature of a particle made up of cobalt dioxide molecules, for example, the system will adapt to the new conditions. Boerio-Goates’ challenge is to measure those adaptations with a technique called heat-capacity calorimetry. Other researchers and engineers can then apply her data to practical questions, such as what materials they should use in designing a bomb detector for airport security.

“In some ways it’s like providing people with the materials they need to design better mousetraps,” she says. “I don’t care a whit about designing a better mousetrap, but I’m really glad there are people who do, and I’m more than happy to feed them what they need to do that.”

Since 2001 her laboratory, which includes four undergraduates and two graduate students, has received $900,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to look at the thermodynamics of nanoparticles. Nanotechnology is the science of reducing devices to smaller and smaller sizes. It might seem intuitive that with the help of microscopes, devices like a smaller magnetic recording head for a DVD player could be constructed by simply building them with smaller components. But it turns out that as materials are scaled down in size, they don’t always behave the same.

“The temperature at which something became magnetic when it was a big particle may change significantly when you get it on a small particle scale,” says Boerio-Goates, who has published 75 journal articles as well as a textbook that is used internationally. “So if you want to design a recording head and you’re going to use a cobalt-dioxide magnetic material, you need to know what happens to cobalt dioxide when you get tiny, tiny particles of it. We’re doing systematic studies of particle sizes for various materials to find out how small you can go and what you learn as you go smaller and smaller.”

The nanoparticle research has immediate applications, but much of Boerio-Goates’ research does not. Her most basic research contributes data about the properties of materials for use by scientists—both physicists and chemists—who are developing theoretical models. In her laboratory in the Benson Building, she cools materials down to extremely low temperatures—as low as -450 degrees Fahrenheit. Then she heats them back up slowly in a carefully controlled environment, every few degrees measuring the heat capacity, which is the measure of how much energy it takes to change the temperature of something by one degree.

“It’s not the sexy, glitzy stuff that people get Nobel Prizes for, so the funding has mostly dried up for it. It used to be that there were at least 10 or 12 places in the United States and a few in Canada and about 30 in Japan that could do these kind of measurements. But now I’m the only one in the United States who can do it.”

Though her research has been applied mostly to inanimate materials, a few scientists are using her measurements to study living things. A research group at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, has asked her to help them understand the metabolism of bizarre tube-like creatures that live near superheated vents on the ocean floor. Because these life forms die if they’re brought to the surface, their metabolism can’t be studied using standard laboratory procedures. Boerio-Goates is building a database to tell them whether biological molecules in human bodies would be stable under the conditions of very hot water, high sulfur content, and low oxygen content. If the human molecules are stable in such conditions, perhaps these creatures have the same metabolism as humans. If not, she says, “that suggests they are very, very different life forms.”

One of Boerio-Goates’ mentors, Patrick A. G. O’Hare, considers her a “scientific renaissance woman” because she is able to contribute beyond her main field of chemistry. Very few scientists have the intellectual capability to do what she does, says O’Hare, a retired scientist from the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. Her work is important because scientists can’t fully understand devices such as semiconductors and computers without understanding the underlying properties of the materials being used. Boerio-Goates provides that understanding. “She has brought a lot of recognition to [BYU] by her research efforts,” says O’Hare. “What she’s trying to do is something that few people are capable of doing.”

Catholic at a Mormon University

Posted on the door to Boerio-Goates’ office is the eighth verse from Micah, chapter 6: “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” The verse is there, she says, because “that’s how I view things and how I remind myself what I think is important.”

In 2001 Boerio-Goates contributed a chapter to the book Finding God at BYU. Her essay, “A Catholic Rediscovers God,” describes how being a minority in the constant company of Latter-day Saint colleagues, students, and neighbors compelled her to examine her own religion more closely and recommit herself to it.

Since moving to Provo in 1982, she has served in a number of positions at the parish of St. Francis of Assisi, including her present assignment as director of the children’s education program, roughly equivalent to being a Primary president in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At BYU and Utah Valley State College, she has served as faculty advisor to the Newman Club, an association of Catholic students. Within the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake, she is in the middle of a two-year term as the president of the Diocesan Pastoral Council, an advisory body to the bishop of the diocese.

The missionary zeal of some Latter-day Saints, both at BYU and in Utah Valley at large, has been somewhat troubling at times, though attempts to convert her occur less often now that she is well known on campus and well respected for her choice to be a practicing Catholic.

In the 1980s she served on the university’s Council on Rank and Status, where her faith came into play in a valuable way, says former fellow council member Clayne L. Pope (BA ’65). “She frequently reminded us that BYU is not the only university attempting to integrate religious faith and scholarly learning,” says Pope, professor of economics. “She always did it gently, but she kept us from becoming a little too pompous and full of ourselves.”

An important dimension of her faith is the Catholic Church’s intellectual traditions, which she learned from an early age. Her schoolteachers, all devout Catholics, were highly educated and taught her to value both her intellect and her faith.

In her Physical Science 100 class, Boerio-Goates has made it a personal policy to reveal her Catholic faith during the first lecture. Her announcement is often greeted with an audible gasp. “I reassure them that I have impeccable credentials—I’m married to an LDS high priest and my in-laws are LDS, and I’ve picked their brains on every imaginable issue. I promise them that they will get a genuine LDS viewpoint—except on the last day, when I reserve the right to bear my testimony.”

That testimony embraces a deep faith in the Catholic Church as a path to God, a commitment to full involvement in the church, and a belief that the wonders of the earth—including chemistry—affirm the existence of a God who embodies both wisdom and reason. As she told a Catholic magazine recently, “It all speaks to me of a divine Creator with an intellect. I do believe that the glory of God is intelligence!”

Sue Bergin teaches writing in the BYU Honors Program.
FEEDBACK: Send comments on this article to magazine@byu.edu.

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