Alumni Spotlight: Julia Derk '12's research is taking her to the ends of the Earth

Julia Derk '12

From time to time, we will be spotlighting the success of our student-athlete alumni. Click here to read more about what our alumni are doing after graduating.

Julia Derk ’12 was a member of the Brandeis swimming and diving team who had University top-10 marks in eight different events in her first two years. She still ranks fourth all-time in the 200-yard backstroke. Although she was unable to compete as a junior and senior, she continued to serve as an intern in the Department of Athletics. Her studies have continued in the seven years since she graduated, and now they are taking her, literally, to the ends of the Earth.

Since graduating in 2012 with high honors in neuroscience and psychology, she worked in Brandeis’s Ashton-Greybiel Spatial Orientation Lab and as a substitute teacher in her native Colorado before enrolling in a Ph.D. program at the New York University School of Medicine. She’ll be defending her biomedical science thesis on September 9 and starting a postdoctoral fellowship position at the University of Colorado-Denver after that.

Julia’s thesis is on the topic of Alzheimer’s disease and neural inflammation, while her post-doctoral work will involve brain development and the meninges – the covering of the brain – and how viruses can perturb brain development in order for babies to have happy healthy patterned brains.

“I’m excited, after having worked on end-of-life stuff for a long time, to come back to my home in Colorado to be studying development. It really feels full circle at this point,” Julia said.

Before she returns home to the Rockies, however, Julia will be taking one more important step. This summer, she went through an extensive application process to be a part of Homeward Bound (, a year-long leadership program with 90 women in STEM fields from across the world that culminates with a trip to Antarctica.

After learning of the program from a postdoctoral administrator at NYU Med, Julia became enamored with the program’s dedication to “amplifying the positive changes women are making in their local communities to a global platform,” saying that it seemed like a natural progression from what she’s been trying to accomplish in New York City, working as a mentor for underrepresented minorities in science in local high schools and an advocate in her community. After putting together an extensive application that included essays, videos, and recommendations, Julia promptly forgot about the entire thing.

“I thought, ‘I’ll never get selected in the first place. All these women are amazing!’” Julia said. “And if I did, because of the money factor, I thought it would still be a bit of a pipe dream. But then I got the email that I was accepted on July 3rd, and I said, ‘Well, let’s see what I can do.’”

What she did was set up a GoFundMe page and sent out an email to her inner circle and community members, explaining about the program, why she wanted to be a part of it, and why people should support her. Needing to raise nearly $3,000 in less than a week, Julia blew past the fundraising milestone, reaching $12,000 by the end of the July 4th weekend.

“It was pretty amazing, seeing the way my entire community rallied behind me. About a quarter of the total funding came from donations under $100,” Julia said.

Julia is still in the process of fundraising to be a part of Homeward Bound’s ground-breaking, global leadership initiative. She’s been looking for a way to put her love of science and community service together in her work to amplify her message to larger communities.

“Growing up, I always had this sense of wanting to pursue science and wanting to pursue justice, and that was one of the main reasons I came to Brandeis. It was an intersection of an amazing neuroscience program, a swim team I could join, and the whole idea of following in Louis Brandeis’s footsteps promoting social justice,” she said.

As for her time in Gosman, Julia wasn’t just a swimmer. She also spent between 20 and 30 hours a week as a valuable departmental employee, working under Associate Directors of Athletics Lynne Dempsey and Tom Rand. It was the balance of working for them, swimming for Brandeis Hall of Fame coach Jim Zotz, and double majoring in two rigorous fields that Julia learned the discipline that has carried her to this point. From the pool, she learned the value of camaraderie as her teammates pushed her to make it through early-morning practices.

When asked for advice for current and future Brandeisians – student-athletes or not – Julia had three immediate thoughts:

“First and foremost, know that there are so many people out there who want to support you and see you excel at everything that you are doing.

“Secondly, don’t be afraid to ask for help! I only got a job at Gosman because I asked for it. I only got to be promoted to be a manager there because I asked for it. I’m only making this thing of going to Antarctica happen because I put myself out there, and said, ‘Hey, community, please believe in me,’ and so many people do. As much as it can seem daunting and overwhelming to do so, or feel selfish to ask and advocate for yourself, it’s invaluable in progressing your life. People don’t know what you need until you tell them.

“Finally, just follow your dreams and be nice! I know it’s simplistic, but if you’re kind, hard-working and ambitious, a lot of doors will open for you.”

Visit Julia's GoFundMe page to help her raise money to take part in the Homeward Bound program.