Campus & Community

Inspired by physics and art

4 min read

Science and service satisfy Zimbabwean student’s need to learn as she helps others

This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.

On the walls of Mather House hangs a painting by one of its residents. Julia Grotto ’17 has layered acrylic paint onto paper, transforming the exterior of the House’s Brutalist architecture in an intricate play of light and shadow.

The painting’s mix of light and dark also reflects peaks of achievement and valleys of struggle in its creator’s life. A talented painter who majored in physics, Grotto brought with her to Harvard a deep curiosity about the nature of reality, along with a dedication to service. “My experience here has had wonderful highs and also some very low lows,” she said. “I needed to go through stages like that to gain the perspective I have now.”

Grotto wears a medallion of glass from Venice — on a necklace given to her by her sister — that reflects her Italian heritage. Born and raised in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, Grotto is one of three children, her father an electronic engineer who managed the family business, a shoe factory, and her mother an art teacher who filled the house with paintings.

“Ever since I was very, very small, I was curious about things,” she said. “I’d build things out of Legos and ask my parents why things were a certain way. When I was in high school, physics was the subject that seemed to let me delve into that, to figure out why.”

She arrived in the United States for the first time just before her initial week of class. Adjustment created a few issues, not only the cold but also the extreme humidity in summer, so different from the dry heat in Zimbabwe. Back home, it could be difficult getting power and water. “My dad dug a well, and we collected water from the roof gutters in rainy season. It was just a normal part of life,” she said. And remembering shortages of food gave Grotto a perspective on what the developed world can take for granted. “In the dining room, I always eat everything that I have on my plate,” she said. “Not everybody does that.”

Her courseload was a blend of physical sciences, engineering, design, and the arts. Physics was enthralling — and challenging. “I learned a lot, but you also realize there are so many more ‘why’ questions,” she said. “It has opened up my understanding of the world, maybe opened up more questions than answers.”

In Professor Jennifer Lewis’ lab, Grotto worked as a research assistant with Teng-Sing Sean Wei, a graduate student, on his project for developing technologies for 3-D printing lithium-ion batteries. A course she took at Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on fabrication methods, laser cutting, and 3-D printing. “We milled our own circuit boards,” she said. “That opened so many doors; communities can begin to design and manufacture specifically to their needs.”

Which touches on another aspect of Grotto’s Harvard education that connected with a concept emphasized in her high school: “servant leadership.” “I work better when I know I’m able to do something that is beneficial to someone,” she said.

She was one of the organizers for “Mob-Malaria” as part of the Defeating Malaria Initiative in 2014; with a team of friends in Zimbabwe, she put together a malaria-education event in a Harare stadium. As a program leader for Dreamporte, Grotto helped develop materials and teaching tools (and taught classes) that would bring virtual reality adventures to students who might not have the means to travel to other countries.

Grotto also has been a campus kindness ambassador of Harvard College Faith in Action, a reflection of how her faith helped her at Harvard when she felt overwhelmed, like she was running on an endless treadmill. “My faith has grown over the past couple years, but the challenges with faith and the questions with faith are going to be a lifelong struggle,” she said.

This spring, she is a teaching fellow for an electricity and magnetism class; meanwhile, she looks into graduate programs that focus on engineering design. She hopes to combine science, art, and service in a career and perhaps return to her beloved Zimbabwe someday.

“I was extremely fortunate to be able to come here,” she said of Harvard. “Everyone should be able to have that accessibility to effective education.”