The Sure-Handed Scientist

Julian Grundler 18’s success on the field and in the lab led to one of the nation’s top postgraduate scholarships for student-athletes and a PhD program at one of the country’s most prestigious universities.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

This past spring, Julian Grundler ’18 was one of just 58 student-athletes in the country to win a NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship, a prestigious award reserved for student-athletes who excel both on and off the field. This fall, the towering former goalkeeper and chemistry major began a PhD program at Yale, where he’ll spend the next five years researching ways to improve the effectiveness of drug delivery using nanoparticles.

It’s impossible to say for sure, but there’s a good chance that neither of those best-in-the-country accomplishments would have come to fruition were it not for the partnership of Rollins faculty led by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Ellane Park.

As a first-year student at Rollins, the native of Singen, Germany, immediately found his footing on the field, starting 14 games on a men’s soccer team that was ranked in the top 10 for much of his first season. In the classroom, meanwhile, Grundler was struggling to find his fit.

Grundler was torn between majoring in economics and chemistry, fretting like many first-years about where he wanted to focus his studies for the next four years. Then he took Chemistry 1 with Park, who instantly grasped Grundler’s potential.

Park recruited Grundler to partner with her on nanoparticle research through the College’s Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program. After seeing the potential impact of their research on cancer therapeutics, Grundler soon realized his passion and his future lay in the lab.

Now that you’ve been at Yale for a few months, can you tell us a little bit about how you think your experience at Rollins prepared you to succeed at one of the country’s most prestigious universities? “I realize more and more the benefits of a liberal arts education. In addition to the technical skills and a strong foundational understanding established for chemistry, I learned soft skills at Rollins. I was given multiple opportunities to refine my oral and written presentation skills both in class and at national conferences. As a PhD student, you have to be able to effectively communicate your research to lab mates, collaborators, and professors. Writing a senior thesis was an excellent way to prepare for conducting research in graduate school in a relatively low-pressure environment.”

Can you tell us about your work at Yale? “Besides taking classes, I currently work as a teaching assistant for a general chemistry lab where I have the opportunity to introduce first-year Yale students to the basic principles of chemistry and how to work in a lab. Starting next semester, I will join a research group and focus on conducting research toward my PhD.”

You originally intended to study at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, which is only about an hour away from your hometown. Why did you change your mind? “I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to study in another country. I was really interested in learning about different cultures and being immersed in a different culture.”

What was it like being an international student at Rollins? “Part of my decision to come to America was that I wasn’t the best in English during high school, so I thought the best way to improve my English was to go to America. I kind of struggled in my first year, though. I understood everything, but communicating was difficult. Fortunately, everyone was super supportive. I think that’s the biggest advantage of coming to a small school like Rollins.”

Ellane Park and Julian Grundler’s research partnership took them to MIT and landed Grundler in a prestigious PhD program at Yale. 
Photo by Scott Cook.
Ellane Park and Julian Grundler’s research partnership took them to MIT and landed Grundler in a prestigious PhD program at Yale. Photo by Scott Cook.

Can you talk about your experience at Rollins and how it has set you up for the next step? “What I really like about Rollins, especially in the chemistry program, is that you have this close connection with your professors. I spent so much time with my research advisor, Dr. Park, it’s crazy. It’s crazy that a professor has so much time to discuss chemistry with you. I remember one day we talked about a single problem for four hours.”

How did your partnership with Dr. Park develop? “During my first year, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to major in economics or in chemistry. But I took general chemistry with Dr. Park my first semester and she suggested that I consider majoring in chemistry. Then she also asked me if I wanted to do research with her.”

Tell us about your research. “The summer of my sophomore year, I did the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program with Dr. Park working with gold nanoparticles. This was my first research experience, where I discovered new lab techniques and learned how to read primary literature. After that first project, Dr. Park thought I was ready to start a new project in collaboration with MIT professor Jeremiah Johnson. That’s when I joined Dr. Park at MIT for my second research experience the summer after my junior year. My senior thesis research was based off this collaboration and focused on the development of polymeric nanoparticles. Polymeric nanoparticles can serve as drug-delivery vehicles with the potential to improve cancer treatment. My project has been focused on designing these nanoparticles to be more effective and selective in delivering cancer drugs to tumor sites. We can make these nanoparticles “smart” by pre-engineering them to release drugs on cue, responding to specific triggers such as light or pH changes. In particular, I studied this release behavior of drug-like molecules diffusing in and out of the polymeric nanoparticles to gain an understanding of how they can work as drug-delivery vehicles.”

MIT is one of the most prestigious research institutions in the world. Were you intimidated at all? “It took two or three days to adjust, but it wasn’t overwhelming. I think I actually said to Dr. Park that it felt like vacation. Because during fall season, we have two games per week, we have practice, I have to take classes, so it’s much more exhausting. At MIT, I could just focus on research. We worked in the lab 10 to 12 hours a day, but it was actually more relaxing than playing sports and going to classes.”

On the field, Grundler played 30 games for the Tars, logging more than 2,600 minutes in goal and racking up 121 saves. 
Photo by Scott Cook.
On the field, Grundler played 30 games for the Tars, logging more than 2,600 minutes in goal and racking up 121 saves. Photo by Scott Cook.

What’s the toughest part about being a student-athlete? “For a goalkeeper, the most difficult thing is that you have to be focused the entire game. That’s not easy, especially when you’re exhausted from classes.”

Do you think that focus on the field carries over to the lab? “Yeah. When I synthesize polymeric nanoparticles, I have to be extremely focused for an hour because I’m working with such tiny amounts so you can’t spill a single drop or you’ll mess up your sample.”

What about your research interests you so much? “I really like the engineering aspect of using nanoparticles to tackle these problems. When you design your nanoparticle, you can use different components, which have a different impact on your nanoparticles. You can use different cross linkers. You can use different polymers or molecules that make up the shell of your nanoparticle. The whole idea of using this platform—it’s kind of like playing with Legos.”

Do you feel like your time in the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program gave you an advantage over other students whose schools don’t provide undergrads the opportunity to do real research? “Research experience is a key factor in graduate school because you are expected to be independent when working in the lab. The Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program, in particular, provided the first opportunity for me to do research at Rollins during the summer after my sophomore year. It gave me the opportunity to learn lab techniques and data processing directly from the professor. Gaining experience through the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program helped me prepare for my second research experience at MIT. Dr. Park prepared me well for the research environment both at MIT for the summer and at Yale for graduate school.”