JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today has her Ph.D. in Astrophysics. Consequently, which makes sense, she’s an Astrophysicist at the Space Science Telescope Institute at Johns Hopkins. She ran in the Olympic marathon trials here in the US in 2016. And will get to hear about a story about her running or maybe not running, trying to qualify for the French National Team for the half marathon this year in 2020. Welcome to the show, Julia Roman Duval.
JULIA: Hi. Thanks for having me.
JESSE: Yeah. I got going and I should have said, “Bienvenue de la podcast.” But I didn’t want to get too deep with a French book because my listeners don’t speak French and because my French is very, very rusty at this point.
JULIA: Your accent, it sounded pretty good on that Bienvenue word.
JESSE: Merci. So, before we got going, I was asking you because you made the decision this year, not to pursue the Olympic marathon trials again, and to try to make the French National Team in the half marathon. So the listeners get caught up on what happened because I was reading the articles trying to figure out what happened with Julia. Give me a recap of what actually ended up happening.
JULIA: So, I trained throughout the winter preparing for this Paris half marathon which was the qualifier for the French National Team for the half marathon World Championships which were supposed to happen on March 30th in Poland. So, I flew there, my parents drove to Paris, and then the evening before the race, we learned through the media that it was canceled because of the Coronavirus pandemic, which was at the time just getting started in France.
I think they had a cluster of 30 cases. Not in Paris, but not too far from Paris, and so they decided to just stop or running events. Especially because there were a lot of people who traveled from overseas to race.
It was a little bit late because we all had gone to the expo already. But that’s what happened. And so I missed the Olympic Trials because they were the same weekend. So, I was in France, I could not be at both. And so yeah, it was a pretty major disappointment. I still don’t regret the decision I made because it was the right decision given that I’m almost 38 years old, probably have another four, maybe five good running years, hopefully.
Which means I had to try a new experience and do everything I can to try to progress in my “running career” quote-unquote. So, yeah, that decision makes sense. I had absolutely no regrets. But it was a tough pill to swallow, I suppose.
JESSE: Yeah. Well, I mean, so what kind of hours are you up to training wise per week? I think I last saw an article, you were like 85 plus miles per week. But, I mean, it’s a considerable amount of time you’re putting in.
JULIA: Yeah. A couple of hours a day, I would say if you include strength work, cross-training. And that doesn’t include driving to the track or shower or anything. So, yeah, I ramped up my mileage. I’ve been running since I was 31, so six, seven years. And every year, I would try to get better and increase the mileage a bit. I suppose, all the way through 2018, I was hovering around 70 a week at my peak mileage for a marathon, which is not a lot compared to I guess the other ladies who train at my level.
But I have three kids and a busy job. So, you gotta do what you gotta do. I was more focused on quality. But then, for Chicago last October, I decided to try something new. And so I increased considerably.
I think I went all the way to 92 miles in six days doubling, of course. And that worked really well because I was in the best shape I’ve ever been. And so I tried that again, for Paris, although it was a little different because it was a half marathon. So, I guess the balance of speeds were different. But it’s been working out fine. And I work around, it’s more than 40 hours a week really.
And my kids are all in elementary school so they’re not toddlers, but they’re not that big either. So, they really need me for everything. And so there’s a big workload there. So, I think 90-95. I was just kind of pushing it. It was doable but I wouldn’t train more than 12 weeks like this I’m sure. Yeah.
JESSE: Yeah. [??? 06:59] the workload gets to be crushing. [??? 07:01] I don’t have any kids so it’s hard for me to really understand. Like, I can understand if you say, okay, it’s this many hours and that many hours. But living it is a different experience, right?
JESSE: Because you get home from work, you get the workouts, the kids are not gonna just be like, okay, mom’s tired like we’ll not be rambunctious. Like we’ll just hang out.
JULIA: They’re pretty good. They know, right. But there’s a workload independent of dealing with the emotional parts of it, right? Like you have to cook three lunches in the morning with three snacks and then pack them up and then do all the laundry which is twice a day for us because they’re sporty kids; all that stuff like cleaning the house, doing groceries, helping with homework, all that. So, it’s just even if you count just the hours, it’s a lot. It’s also a lot of interruptions, right?
Like, if I’m trying to finish some work at night when they’re still awake, but mom, I’m hungry or I don’t know, I don’t know what to do, I’m bored. I don’t know which book to read, so that kind of thing. Which is fine, I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But it adds up.
JESSE: So, it makes me wonder like, do you have a really prescribed schedule every day where you’re like, this is the time that this happens and this is… Or is it just a matter of you have a schedule, and then you have all the interruptions?
JULIA: Well, the schedule is basically I get the run out of the way first thing in the morning because there will be no other chance during the day. And usually, that’s before everybody wakes up. And then like from day-to-day, my work schedule varies a bit, but the core hours are roughly 9:30 to 5:00. And I have a bunch of meetings, telecoms right now really. And then after that, the kids have activities down on set scheduled too. So, at least that’s set. And then we’re very– we’re flexible after that, depending on whether what they want to do or anything like that.
JESSE: Yeah. So, I think you kind of mentioned this, and it’s something I don’t think we take into account enough is like, the emotional load of everything, right? Because there’s the stress of training. I have to think about if you’re doing… You said it was only 12 weeks. But 90 hours, you’re probably working out somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 hours a week, depending on what kind of, you know, how that milage is structured.
JULIA: Yeah, more than 15.
JESSE: Yeah. Like if it’s more speed work, then you’re going to have a longer time. You gotta get to the track, you got rest intervals you got… So, 15 hours, on the one hand, if you compare that to a workweek, you’re like, okay, only 40 hours of work week but 15 hours of working out takes an emotional toll on you.
JESSE: And so I always wonder how different people cope with the emotional load of everything. I know– I have friends who when we were training or they’re– Some of them still are in that kind of load or higher, it was like maybe they’d have a go-to food. Like they loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or they loved ice cream or whatever. And that was their relaxation moment, I guess or like a bit of reward. Do you have any methods or like go-to items to kind of make yourself feel better after a long day?
JULIA: Yeah, a few. Just little things. I love chocolate and I will forget how much chocolate I’m eating if I’m trading very hard. The good stuff too, you know, the Lindt and Toblerone. I usually work after the kids are asleep to catch up a bit. And so usually like around 9:00-10:00 PM and after that, if I want, I need to wind down, obviously. So, I’m always glad to have some series to watch on Netflix or Hulu, whatever, 20 minutes. No more so I don’t lose too much sleep. But I absolutely need that because I can’t have a good night of sleep if I transition straight from work to sleep. So, that’s very helpful.
JESSE: I was reading that on average, you were only getting like six to seven hours of sleep at night.
JULIA: Yeah, that’s not enough.
JESSE: No, that’s not enough.
JULIA: No, but I’ve been able to function that way. And I mean, the main reason, right, is because usually, I’ll catch up with work until like 9:30 10:00 PM. And then I still have a bit of strength to do shower, talk to the hubby and I’m in bed at 11:00, wake up at 5:00, 5:30. However, on Saturdays, Saturday is the day I do my long run so I wake up early, I get in two to three hours of running, makes me extremely sleepy. And so the kids know and Saturday at 1:00 PM they know mom will disappear and she’ll take a two-hour nap and we cannot, not be loud. So, they’re really actually really good about this.
They respect that and they’re always chilling in their rooms reading books or watching movies or something. I do not hear them for two hours, Saturday afternoons and so that’s a bit rejuvenating, refreshing. I know if I don’t get my Saturday nap I will not have a good week after that. But yeah, I mean, it’s challenging. Some days I just run outta bed, start running and I’m like, “Oh, gosh, I can’t do this. It’s just too hard.” But I have my eyes on the prize all the time, right? This is my goal.
This is what I want to do and I know what it takes to get there. And so that’s super motivating. But it is also important to have those downtimes throughout the year. Right? You can’t be sharp and fit 12 months a year. And so I let myself rest, both mentally and physically after a big season or a marathon or something like that.
JESSE: Yeah. That’s something I think a lot of people like to forget. Or maybe some amateurs like to forget is that there is– Like, you can’t maintain that absolute peak fitness all the time. As much as you want to, it’s just the stress load would be too high to try to maintain. You’d break yourself down. Like, I know, in the last few years, my coach has finally convinced me after whatever the peak is for the season, this season is out the window.
So, who knows when that’ll actually be, will take three weeks completely off, no workouts at all. And I noticed that that’s helped me really be mentally ready to go again when we start training again. Instead of taking that three weeks and saying, I’ll run [??? 14:09]. I do triathlon so maybe I’ll get in the pool a little bit, it’s just trying to maintain some fitness. The benefits mentally not even counting like physically the benefits outweigh any kind of benefit you’d get trying to maintain some fitness in that time for me. Are you talking about time off completely or do you still do something?
JULIA: No. Hybrid, right. So, one week I will not run at all after a marathon. But I will be in the pool a day after and not because I’m trying to maintain fitness but because it makes me feel good and happy. So, there’s really no pressure for fitness or anything, it’s just pure pleasure. I’ll hop on the bike a little bit, maybe. And then the week after that maybe I’ll start running very easy, but again, just so I can run with my friends, be outdoors, and just enjoy it. And I’ll go like this for yeah, I guess three weeks after the marathon. And it doesn’t induce stress at all.
It’s just about feeling good and having a good day, socializing while exercising. And I know especially the pool after a tough race, I mean, sometimes the day after the marathon, I get in the pool, I feel like I’m 100 years old. I’m not kidding. And then I get out, it’s like, okay, I’m 50 now it’s much better. Right? So, it’s great for recovery. [crosstalk] So, I do swim at least once a week actually.
JESSE: Yeah. So, I guess we have to back up. So, I was reading that you swam a little bit competitively growing up, right?
JULIA: A bit. Yeah.
JESSE: And then your introduction to Endurance Sports was with triathlon?
JESSE: Now, I have a bone to pick with you. I think I read you mentioned you’re getting really bored doing… Like you’re doing really well in triathlon, but you’re bored. So, how did you end up being bored when there’s like– you have three sports to keep up with? There should be enough variety so why was that boring?
JULIA: I think the main point is I was training by myself. I did not have a team, I didn’t have anybody and I guess when I said that and I got bored is after I actually met this amazing running team, which it was a complete life changer. But suddenly, I was discovering what it’s like to train with friends and teammates. And I guess compared to my solo training, which ultimately just felt very boring after the fact. And so that’s where I was coming from.
Yes, I think triathlon itself is far from boring. But the training setup I had was not very good. And part of it is too that when you– I mean, I’m very busy, right. And training for three sports meant that I couldn’t follow anyone’s schedule or anything, which meant solo training was the way to go. And I found that focusing on one sport, but getting better quality out of it by joining a team and doing a more structured training, thanks to partly having motivation from a team showing up every day was much more productive, more fun.
JESSE: Yeah. See, I’m totally with you. I get it now. Because I came from– I did sports growing up in school, ran in school and then ran on scholarship in college. And definitely, when I transitioned from having that team to no longer having the team, it’s a very tough transition. So, going the other direction. I can see how you’d be like there’s no way I’m going back to just by myself.
JULIA: Exactly. Yeah.
JESSE: So, that makes a lot more sense. I was just like– Because most people if they’re gonna say one direction is boring over the other, it’s one sport because people are like, I like variety and there’s also many things to do. So, I just wanted to know how you ended up with that decision.
JULIA: I think it’s also that after a while like you do the same sport for 10 years, it feels good to try something new. And I think related to that, maybe it’s just being home all the time during the pandemic. But I felt myself adrenalin deprived. I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie, right. And so I picked up mountain biking and skateboarding and like, okay, this is fun. Maybe I could stop running and do this. I’m not gonna do that because I love running too much.
And it’s freedom, right? You just need your shoes and you can go. But I have had a lot of pleasure actually going out mountain biking in neighboring state parks and things like that. And a change is good. It’s refreshing. And it’s good cross-training too.
JESSE: So, what’s the long term plan? Are you like once you retire from running, you’re just gonna start taking up all these other sports and then seeing if you can dominate them, or?
JULIA: Yeah. I don’t think I’ll ever quit running. I can’t. And even when I was doing triathlon, I was not running much, but I was running a bit. It has always been my favorite, swimming as well. But I’ve been thinking, maybe trail running would be something different that I could probably take on especially because the– I guess the peak age for trail running is a lot later than for road running, right. So, there’s a lot of people, women in particular who do really really well in their 40s on the trails. So, yeah, I’ve thought about that quite a bit actually.
I think I do have some good years left on the road and so I want to make the most of it. But beyond that, yeah, trail running would probably be one of them. And then mountain biking, I have been thinking about it too. I’m nowhere good with mountain biking, I just like it. Just because it’s fun, there’s a good deal of adrenaline rush going down the hills through rocks and things like that. So, yeah. And I always want to be on the edge trying new things just not settling in my little routine. I don’t want to do that.
JESSE: So, since you’re thinking about trail, I always wonder where this gets started. And it doesn’t seem like you’re there yet. So, is there any temptation for starting to do ultras as you start thinking about trail?
JULIA: Yeah, that would be… So, I grew up on Reunion Island. And there, I guess one of the most challenging ultras, which is the [??? 21:18] is the…you cross the island, basically, which is about two mile high. So, the elevation is super crazy. But I’ve watched these people do this since I was a kid, and I always wondered, I wonder if I could do this. And I think ultimately, if I were to pick up trail running, that would be the end goal is try to be competitive for an ultra like this.
JESSE: That seems to be where people go and I just… There seems to be a division– at a certain age, it seems like I see a lot of runners either stop running or really cut down on mileage. Or they go, all right. Now, we’re going the whole way, we’re going like 50 miles, 100 milers, all that kind of stuff. It seems like there’s– I mean, there’s plenty of I guess [??? 22:09] where you grew up. How much time did you spend in France? I’m trying to remember.
JULIA: I left when I was 24 in 2006.
JESSE: Okay. I think, I’m trying to remember– I know UTMB, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc is a big one that I can think of in that area.
JULIA: Yeah, that’s another one on the list. Yeah.
JESSE: Yeah. Because I’ve spoken with people who have done it and a lady who was like getting ready to do it last year. I’m sure it’s been canceled this year. So, it just makes me wonder about, I think you probably have a lot of interesting scenery you can get through an ultra is like in Europe where you would be completely comfortable traveling, maybe bringing the kids and you’re like, all right. We’re gonna go hang out for 40 hours and mom’s gonna run for a while.
JULIA: Yeah, they would love that, I’m sure. Yeah, I mean, France is just so beautiful and diverse in terms of scenarios, right? So, I actually have done quite a bit of adventure racing in my college years. One of them was in the Pyrenees and one of them was in the Alps. And I think we were able to see things that only ultra runners could see. Right? Because to get there, you have to run or bike, mountain bike. And so that was just amazing. And I hope I can get back to that kind of thing in a few years.
If anything, it’s such an immense feeling of freedom when you’re at the top of the world and you get there with your own legs, no assistance. I don’t know, you feel powerful and free, I suppose. So, yeah. And I take my family to France once a year generally not this year, unfortunately. But we go hike in the Alps. We’re all very outdoorsy, very adventurous. So, I’m sure I would have a very strong support currently if I were to run the UTMB.
JESSE: Yeah. Thinking about, you know, I talk to people in general, just like people that don’t run and I talk about freedom a lot. That’s the thing that motivated me when I started, I started running when I was 12. And there’s this… I feel like the word freedom doesn’t really capture the whole thing. Do you know what I mean?
JULIA: Yes. I don’t have a better word. But you have to experience it to know what you’re talking about. Yeah.
JESSE: It’s like freedom is like the closest thing you have, but there’s something about and I’m sure you’ve been in this especially as you like to do the trail runs and adventure races where it’s like, you go for long enough that you kind of, your mind stops. And you’re just moving. You’re not all these thoughts floating around in your head anymore. You’re just in motion
JULIA: [??? 25:18] away. Yeah.
JESSE: Yeah, almost. Almost. It’s so hard to communicate that to people and I’m not…
JULIA: Effortless would be another word that comes to mind, yeah.
JESSE: Yeah. I wish there was some easier way to like, share that experience with people that maybe don’t have the ability or drive to do it for themselves just to give them at least a glimpse. Because like I said, freedom seems like such a limiting word to try to share such an all encompassing experience.
JULIA: Yeah, I agree. I agree. I’ll think I’ve other words, but yeah, it’s an experience, it’s unique. Yeah.
JESSE: This is a little bit of a detour. But thinking about obviously, since you speak at least two languages, do you ever find that between the two like, there’s something you know– you can express something in French and then you’re like, English just doesn’t have quite the right words to express it. I feel, I guess, my French is not great. But I got high enough in or fluent in, I’m not really fluent, but like conversational enough to feel like, there’s some, you just see the differences in how things are expressed.
And then I at least realized with English, I’m like, the language itself has to be limiting us as humans in our ability to express things. So, I didn’t know if you experienced that more often since you work– you have a Ph.D., you work in astrophysics in English. So, like clearly you speak at probably a C two level. So, I just wonder how often you experienced that.
JULIA: All the time. Actually, I’m a very analytical person and it’s always been hard for me to put words on my emotions and my feelings. And it’s very frustrating because I know what I’m feeling but I just can’t get it out. And so it’s gone both ways. Right? So, sometimes I have the perfect French word for it and I can’t find the English equivalent and vice versa. Sometimes it just comes in English and I’m like I don’t know how to say this in French. For emotions, it’s mostly I can– I know in French and I don’t know in English and that’s probably because I grew up French-speaking French, right.
Whereas my work career was developed in English and so all the technical words and things like that I’m good with English. The emotions are more like the French. But sometimes I wish I could speak both because they would compliment each other really well. Maybe I could get it together then. But yeah, it’s not easy. I do think English is a little better because it has more words, and you can form words, right, which you cannot do in French. And I think you can also visualize the English much better. To me, that’s a language that uses imagery quite a bit in its wording.
JESSE: Yeah, it’s interesting you’ll– Like I said, I’m not at a high level in French to have noticed or not noticed this, so it’s interesting you said this. In English, you’ll see an essay, an advertisement for a company, and they’ll smash two words together and make a new word. And you’ll already know exactly what they mean.
JULIA: Exactly. Yeah, you can’t do that in French. Yeah. So, there are… And that kind of composition of two words, I guess, which is one word in English sometimes there’s just no way to express it in French, there’s no word and so you kind of have to take a detour. So, I find myself translating from French to English or English to French all the time.
JESSE: So, again, we’re going down a rabbit hole, but this is just– I’m way out of practice with French so I’m just picking your brain. So, do you speak with your kids in French? Are they fluent as well?
JULIA: They are not. And the main reason is, I am married to a Puerto Rican who is a native Spanish speaker. However, I do not speak Spanish because I took German and Russian in school and he doesn’t speak French. So, English is the way to go. And so for the kids it was every time I tried to speak French to them, they’re like “No, English please.
You talk English to daddy? Why are you speaking French to me?” So, I think if we had both been French speaking or Spanish speaking, it would have been a lot easier. But the good news is every time we go to friends so they interact with my family, they pick up a lot. So, they know a little bit. They can speak a few things, they understand more. But they’re not fluent.
JESSE: Okay. That’s the thing is it’s always a curiosity for me for like language blended families. Like my French teacher, we just did it over teleconference, she lives in Honduras. She’s from Quebec and so she speaks French and English. And her husband is from Honduras, but is deaf so he speaks– he doesn’t– he understands, he can read lips in Spanish, but he has sign language. So, then her daughter will speak Spanish and maybe a little English but no French. So, it’s always curious to me how parents choose what language is spoken in the home.
JULIA: Yep, yeah. And I don’t know that we consciously chose. It is also true that my kids are really close together. I have three and the oldest and the youngest are only three years apart. So, the first few years of their lives, we basically had three babies and having two busy jobs, it was a little challenging. And so when we told them put your shoes on, [??? 31:25] right away, not having to repeat it like five times before they get it. And so I think it was difficult at the time to teach them two or even three languages that we have in our family. And so yeah, we did what felt right at the time, I suppose. I wish there was they could speak French or Spanish, but– [crosstalk]
JESSE: I mean, if you spend more time…
JULIA: And they will, probably. Yeah, they will.
JESSE: Yeah, like if you spend more time and they’re young. I mean, especially like if they have– So, if they have the desire, you’re fluent in French, it’s so much easier when you have somebody to speak with than if you’re just sitting in a textbook, you know?
JULIA: Yeah. Yeah, and I feel like my youngest one is, she’s pretty curious. She’s actually the– she’s the one who will be the most open to speaking or listening to me in French.
JESSE: You just like, start slipping a few words in there here and there, just casually, just transition and then tell your husband to do the same just like slip some Spanish words in and just [??? 32:32] get really confused.
JULIA: He actually has been picking up quite a bit. So, he’s gotten a lot better at it. And me with the Spanish as well.
JESSE: Yeah. I mean, they’re similarly rooted. So, like…
JULIA: Yeah, the problem is the Puerto Rican people speak very fast.
JULIA: So, I took years of Latin and obviously I know French and so if you write the Spanish or if you talk slowly, I can understand most words or at least digest. But when they speak fast, it’s like all one word. I can’t tell when one word stops and the next starts. So, that’s a lot harder to understand.
JESSE: Right. So, then, where you grew up, was it French in English speaking? Or did you have to learn English in school? How did that happen? I’m kind of figuring out a journey to here.
JULIA: So, French is in school, right? So, I grew up just speaking French only and taking, I don’t know, it’s a couple of hours a week of English, I suppose starting at the age of 10 or 11. And then throughout high school. And I like languages. I like English so I think I was pretty good and definitely serious about it. I also did German from the age of 11 through 18. Although I have not spoken German since I left high school. So, that’s mostly gone. Although, every time I go to Germany, it seems to pick up.
JESSE: Yeah, it’s kind of like buried. I was just wondering about, so how do you get from, I guess where you grew up to, then you move back to France and then to the US at what was it, 24, 26?
JULIA: 24, yeah.
JESSE: 24. So, I mean, it was graduate school, right?
JULIA: Correct. Yep.
JESSE: So, where does that decision come in where you’re like, all right. I’m gonna go overseas for graduate school. Thinking about people here, some people do it, but it’s not that common. I don’t know how common it is from people from Europe to come over to the US for graduate school. So, how does that decision come up in your life? You have to be, I’m thinking about this timeline. You’re probably married by this time, right?
JESSE: Yeah. So, you’re– [crosstalk]
JULIA: No, no, not yet. No. About to, a couple of years later.
JESSE: Okay. So, we’re all just like confusing timeframe, there’s a lot of things going on. How do you decide to pick up and like move across the pond as it were?
JULIA: So, I guess the continuity of have a lifetime. But I’m from a family of parents who love to move, right. So, even when we were in France, we’d move every two or three years by choice. So, I actually lived in Normandy, in Brittany, in Grenoble, in Nice, in Toulouse, in Leone, and then seven years in Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and I think there, we changed house like five times.
And so I am not attached to anything, right. We would sell our stuff, pack our luggage and go. And so I was doing double masters in France in astrophysics and aerospace engineering with the aerospace engineering being a backup because I knew how hard it was to get a job in science.
And I was very lucky to be the one Frenchy selected to participate in a program called the NASA Academy, which was run in conjunction between NASA and the French Space Agency. And so I applied I got in and so I spent eight months in the US when I was 22-23. I don’t remember. So, as an intern, actually working on instruments to image planets, Earth-like planets.
And so it was a completely life-changing experience, right. I got to experience research and engineering in the US and how powerful and well funded it is. I also met the person who is now my husband. And so after that, I went back to France with my head full of dreams, trying to finish my degrees.
And so the natural continuation of that was well, I have to go back. And so I got accepted actually the same grad school, Boston University, as my husband. And then we built a life here. But yeah. And I think it was a very smart move because research here is so much better funded than in France in particular. There’s a lot more opportunities for jobs or Ph.D. positions and all that stuff. And so I’m happy I made the move and it wasn’t difficult because I had been moving all my life, right. It’s like well, it’s just another place.
JESSE: Yeah. So, you’re moving all the time, are you attached to anything? I would assume maybe your husband and kids, but?
JULIA: Not really. I mean we’ve been in Maryland for 10-11 years now. It’s probably the longest I’ve lived anywhere, actually. I just realized. And we’re settling nicely because we love our house, we love our neighborhood. The kids love their schools and their friends and their music teacher and Taekwondo teachers.
So, I think we’re getting there where we’re starting to feel comfortable and don’t really have a desire to move again. But I would be completely okay selling everything and going somewhere else if the opportunity was [??? 38:50], right. We always want to move to something better, not regress. So, we’re always open to new opportunities I suppose.
JESSE: It’s just always interesting to me how those kinds of things growing up influences how you end up, the things you end up doing later in life. Because it’s like, you move so often growing up, it probably made it easier to just say, okay, let’s move to the US to study and all these kind of things versus somebody who says, I don’t– I can’t remember my French geography off the top of my head. But say if you grew up in a small town in France, and never moved, I feel like it’ll be less likely for them to be like, okay, let’s move to the US.
JULIA: It would be terrifying to be honest. I think traveling and moving when you’re a child gives you a perspective on the world that makes it not scary at all. But if you do start moving around and traveling when you’re not this, yeah, I could see how that would be very scary.
JESSE: Yeah, yeah. So, tell me a little bit about what kind of work you’re doing at SSTI. And the kind of research you do.
JULIA: Right. So, I’m a Tenure Track Astronomer, and my time is basically split between two main functions. One is purely functional, right? I support the missions that [??? 40:26] runs, which are the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, and the Roman Space Telescope. My particular position is with the Hubble. And so I work on one of the spectral graphs onboard the telescope, make sure it always works the best it can.
Basically [??? 40:45] on top of its calibration and users are happy with it, gets good data, well-calibrated, good quality. So, that’s about half of my time. Right now, I’m also leading a very large program. Actually, the largest program ever executed with the Hubble is called Ulysses and is basically to get spectroscopy of most of the very massive stars that we know in the nearby universe.
So, that’s my function at work. That’s about half of it. And then the other half is my independent research, which in my case is on the interstellar medium. And so that’s all the fluffy dust and gas that’s between stars and galaxy, when you see like a nebula somewhere that it’s got all kinds of colors, that’s what I study. And I study it from mostly chemical abundances point of view.
So, what’s the structure, what’s the composition of this gas and dust, how much carbon, oxygen, silicon, iron is there? And why is it so, right? How did those galaxies get chemically enriched over time since the Big Bang? So, in a nutshell, that’s it. On day-to-day, it’s a lot of reading, a lot of writing, a lot of communication, and a lot of coding data analysis.
JESSE: How much data do you get to pull from the telescopes? I spoke to, I don’t know why I just forgot her name, but she’s studying Titan. And she was mentioning, I had asked her about how do all the telescopes get scheduled, how does everybody get access, [??? 42:23] get to share like, time on the telescopes and that kind of stuff. So, how often do you personally end up pulling data for the research you’re doing?
JULIA: So, it’s [??? 42:36] How much I can answer, right? So, the way these work is you have to submit proposals, right? The programs are competitively selected. And so every year there’s a proposal call and then all the scientists around the world, not just in the US can submit proposals and then these get reviewed and then a few get selected to actually fly on the telescope.
And so when that happens, the observations usually execute within a year. And then they come down on the archive, you can just download them and they’re not quite science ready, but close. So, personally, I’ve led so far, three programs on this telescope, the Hubble, including two large ones.
So, the large ones, so Hubble orbits the Earth about every 90 minutes while pointing away from the earth at the sky. The programs I got were roughly 100 orbits, so it’s about 150 hours. It’s considered pretty large, right? So, we’re actually writing a paper right now to summarize the results which ended up being very interesting.
I was actually working on this right before the podcast, and on my run this morning because we made a very interesting discovery and like, I can’t– I don’t understand. I don’t understand it. I was totally obsessing. So, miles like five through nine are a blur because I was thinking about it trying to figure out why are we seeing what we’re seeing? And running is great for that, right? Like, I let my mind wander, sometimes [??? 44:20] but definitely always make progress.
JESSE: Is that consecutive hours like you get to say, I don’t know, 150 hours, I’m trying to think how many days that would be. But do you get to say, okay, from the beginning of March until the 20th, I get all of the hours of collection or how does that get– Does that get screwed up at all?
JULIA: Yep. So, for most programs, I guess when it executes, it doesn’t really matter. So, there’s a whole infrastructure at the Institute, which handles the scheduling of observations. And usually, they try to optimize things by position on the sky. So, different objects are not always visible, right. So, sometimes you have to wait until they’re visible. And then I guess when it goes depends on how all the other programs are assembled in the schedule.
On occasions, though, you will have time constraint observations because say maybe Hubble and Chandra, which is the X-ray telescope, want to look at the same object at the same time. And so in this case, you can put constraints, you put it in the file that gets sent to the telescope, I want this to go during that time. And so, mine were not time-constrained. So, over a year they were scattered around several months. But we always know when they always send you an email, say, “Hey, your data will be taken during that time.” So, you always know in advance when it’s gonna go.
JESSE: Okay. So, do you get it– is it sent to you, I guess piecemeal like, hey, we’ve got five hours done. Here’s that and then here’s the next chunk? Or do you have to wait till they get the whole dataset?
JULIA: Yeah, so it’s right by piece. But we tend to look at things by target. Right. So, for a given target, if it requires two or three orbits, it will all be taken at the same time. But if you really want to stare at the same object for 15 orbits, because it’s very faint, so you need a lot of exposure time, then it will probably be split between different, we call them visits, but really, it’s groups of data. And you can set those to go back to back if that’s necessary, but sometimes it’s not. So, one could go in November and the next one in January or something.
JESSE: Okay. The question I always have to ask, and this is for every researcher, regardless of what they’re studying, is, why does it matter that we know what’s going on with all this stuff in space that’s floating around, it’s not formed into anything?
JULIA: So, several reasons, right. I think long term, it defines us as humanity. We are curious, we want to know where we came from and if we’re alone? If they are– is there other kinds of life over there? Like, how did the universe form? Why do we have planet earth and the solar system here? Are there galaxies like ours? Are other planets like ours? I mean, I think it’s an existential question in the sense like, I don’t think we can help trying to address it. And so I think long term, that’s why hard sciences like mine will keep getting funded because it’s something that we have to do.
But in the short term, all the science we develop, maybe not so much in astronomy. Although for instrumentation, I think that would be true, have day-to-day applications, right? Like, for example, the research they’re doing on the International Space Station, sometimes you find a way to apply what you’ve learned, in a way that’s concrete either in, I don’t know, electronics or biochemistry or whatever.
And that’s important and you give people jobs to do research in a bunch of fields. And that can develop into completely unexpected applications and development of new techniques, whether theoretical or actually applied. Yeah. I mean, my husband works on climate change and stuff. I feel like this is more applicable day-to-day. But it is very important to understand where we come from and why we’re here.
JESSE: Yeah. I think it’s always an interesting conversation to have. I am personally more like, applied minded. My undergrad degree is in theoretical math, which is to clarify that it wasn’t like applied as in engineering, but I personally like working on projects where it’s like, I can see the end result of that project immediately with creating something or whatever. But I also see the value in exploring for the sake of exploring partially because that’s, I mean, I feel like that’s part of who we are as humans, right, as you mentioned.
But also because there are things that we would find that you wouldn’t find otherwise if you weren’t just going out and seeing what’s there. Whether that means looking out into space or looking in the oceans or studying subatomic structure of things, whatever it is, like we find things and that ends up linking to something else that we didn’t necessarily think. So, I always feel like it’s nice to hear from people like you who are doing this kind of research to see what you think about it and why it’s important beyond just being interested. Because as soon as you said you’d found something, your face just lit up. You’re so excited about it.
JULIA: Yes. And you know what you’re saying is true at all levels, right? So, from one scientific field to the next, it is true. But even within a given scientific field, let’s say for astronomy, for me, the research I do and the results I found for the interstellar medium sometimes informed people looking at galaxies right after, that formed right after the Big Bang. And so it’s completely interconnected, right?
Like, we are looking here at systems and the knowledge now is so deep and broad at the same time that no single person can be an expert at everything. And so some people would choose to study a particular question or topic, but it always has implications for the rest of the system. And so, it’s important to always communicate with adjacent communities of scientists that study slightly differently. But yet, there’s interconnections that are important to consider. And so yeah, it’s true at all levels.
JESSE: You bring up a good point in that we kind of have to be so specialized now that you simply like one person’s brain can’t hold everything, right. So, when you’re talking about the system of learning, we’ll stay specifically within astronomy. So, we have this system of learning and each person is devoted like I mentioned, I think Sarah Hurst, I think that’s her name.
I spoke to studying for like the weather conditions on Titan, and you’re looking at the interstellar medium. Do you see a way to make it more efficient to share and connect knowledge between researchers to try to force those kinds of connections where this person could use the information that you found? Is there any better way than what kind of chance I guess that you would come across that?
JULIA: So, there’s several complementary ways I think. Sometimes it’s chance, but most of the time it isn’t right? So, that’s why we have peer-reviewed journals. I think that publishing your research and your results in a way that is very well documented and reproducible and peer-reviewed is a critical aspect of that because then it’s out there for anybody to find, right? All you need is, even Google, if you search for the right keywords, you will find a paper. And so I think a lot of sharing of information is done that way.
Conferences are another way. I do because I enjoy it. But I feel like it’s necessary for me to attend a few conferences a year. And I always choose somewhere, I know I’m going to be able to talk to other communities that might be impacted by the research I’m doing and vice versa.
So, there’s a lot of that happening. And then I’m very lucky that my Institute is actually a big place. So, pretty much all the fields of astrophysics are represented. And so we have a lot of hallway conversations that sometimes spark new ideas, new projects, new proposals, because we ended up saying, hey, look, I found this. It’s like oh, what? Yeah, I’ve been trying to figure that out for a few months. And so we just keep going and there’s a new project, a new collaboration, and new results coming out.
And so I think that’s extremely important. And I think that the current situation actually makes this very challenging just because we’re all working from home and we don’t have those spontaneous interactions anymore. And same for conferences, right, we don’t have coffee breaks to talk about whatever comes to mind. But to me, it’s a very important aspect of scientific research.
JESSE: That’s one thing, I’m glad you mentioned that because I wrote down earlier and I got distracted. I was wondering, are you still able to access all the new data since you’re working from home? Like, have they– everything’s all set up properly, you can still get all the new stuff?
JULIA: Yeah, yeah, everything– we have all the infrastructure to do everything remotely. Actually, there’s a few people in the building right now who are essential just because they have to send commands to the telescope and things like that. But the vast majority of us are working flawlessly from home. The only real challenge is the chalk air because you can’t work efficiently well.
Fortunately, my kids are in a very small and safe summer camp now. But they were home for three and a half months and I barely got any work done. So, that’s the main challenge right now. But other than that, yeah, things are going well.
As I said, being isolated from collaborators and my postdocs, I mean, I talked to them on Slack or other teleconferencing systems or whatever, but it’s not the same. And so I think if it doesn’t last for years, we’ll be able to keep the momentum going. But even after a year, things are gonna start getting a bit tough. keeping the momentum and the excitement and the motivation will get harder and harder.
JESSE: Yeah, I’m not sure what the solution is. I mean, aside from figuring out how to deal with it so we can all go back to regular life, but I’m not sure what the solution is ‘cause like you said, sometimes it’s those unscheduled conversations. You’re passing somebody in the hall and it’s just, it’s almost a spontaneous occurrence. Versus like us talk on the podcast, this is a time scheduled thing.
We set up a time to get together to talk and it’s not the same. I mean, we’re having just a normal conversation, but it’s not the same as just like, “Hey, John what are you working on? How are you doing?” That kind of stuff.
JULIA: Yep. You cross-section with other people, it’s just much larger when you’re in person, right. Whereas otherwise, you have to choose who you want to talk to when we chat. It’s not random. It’s not chanced.
JESSE: Yeah. All right. Julie, we’re starting to run down on time. So, there’s a question I’m asking everybody this year because it really kind of runs the gamut. And it’s another experiential question I’m curious of everybody’s answer to. So, I like to ask you what do you think the purpose of sport is?
JULIA: The main one, do I get only one or can I say some?
JESSE: Whatever you want to say. You can give multiple answers, it can be personal, it can be abroad, however you want to answer it.
JULIA: Okay. So, from my own point of view as the athlete, right, I would say, it’s a way of life, right, it’s a lifestyle. And so I know I can only be happy and feel good about myself if I exercise every day. And because of that, I guess positive energy, like the people who live with me are also in the same boat, right?
They all exercise as well, but like, everybody is relaxed and happy and having a good time because of– well, thanks to sports really. That’s not everyone’s lifestyle and that’s fine. But I think for us, that’s what it is, it’s a lifestyle that just makes us happy. I could see how, you know, from an outside point of view like someone watching athletes, there’s a big entertainment part, right.
I guess sports team also and I guess that’s… When we have major competitions like the Olympics or anything, yeah, it’s great for the athletes because that’s pretty much the competition of their lives and the adrenaline’s running high and it’s a huge challenge. But also for the people watching, it’s super entertaining and inspiring in a way. So, you can kind of share your love for the sport, and hopefully, it will be contagious. I do think the whole world will be a much happier place if everybody had in their routine to do a bit of exercise every day.
It’s a good stress relief method and keeps you strong, mentally sane. And I know I make bad decisions if I haven’t had my workout. The thoughts in my head all jumbled up, I can’t think clearly. And I may get more irritable or just not communicate as effectively. And I know sports can help a lot with that. And so perhaps if everybody were to work out in the morning, we would have a happy smoothly going country. I don’t know. I do think it would help.
JESSE: Yeah. Well, maybe when you can get some extra time we’ll work on trying to figure out how to get everybody to exercise in the morning. That’s gonna be a task.
JULIA: You know, I’ve tried and sometimes successfully. I think leading by example, it really works. I know after I ran the Baltimore marathon, I think it was, I don’t know, there was a lot of excitement in Baltimore. And I had a few people reach out to me and say, “Hey, I had not been on the treadmill for five years. And after seeing the race, I decided to give it a try and I had a super good time.” So, I think yeah, people were inspired and I guess happy as a result. They had something new in their life to try and to make them feel good about themselves. So, yeah.
JESSE: Yeah. No, I think it’s– [crosstalk]
JULIA: My goal is to try to get people to enjoy sports. So, I coach a few people for free just because I want to see them grow in the sport and enjoy themselves.
JESSE: Yeah, I think it’s definitely like a community effort. And you’ll see– I live in a community that’s fairly active. You see people out walking their dogs, out running all the time, out on bikes, and you don’t necessarily see that everywhere. So, I think you’re right. There’s probably some kind of effect there with that lead by example. Like, if somebody goes out, somebody else sees it, hey, maybe I should do that or do something. And that kind of spreads.
JESSE: Yeah. Julia, if people want to figure out kind of what you’re up to research-wise, what you’re doing running, is there any place they can see you, follow you, any of that kind of stuff?
JULIA: So, I have a public Facebook page. It’s mostly for running updates. Although, in the last few months, there haven’t been much. But, in general, I think that that will be a good way.
JULIA: Yeah, I think. I mean, there’s stuff coming up on the SSTI website for my Institute regularly. And if I have work results or anything, they would be advertised there.
JESSE: Yeah. Sounds good. I’m not huge on doing social media myself so I totally understand. But I always like to give people a chance– [crosstalk]
JULIA: Yeah, I’m not huge either that’s why. Yeah. The public Facebook page I had to create because I keep my private page very private for family and close friends and I had dozens of requests weekly and I couldn’t accept them because that’s not how I, I guess, keep my private life. But the public pages, not a lot of work. And I know it helps with this leading by example thing also.
JESSE: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for spending some time today with me, Julia. I hope you have a good weekend.
JULIA: Thanks. Yeah, you too.
JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today has her Ph.D. in Astrophysics. Consequently, which makes sense, she’s an Astrophysicist at the Space Science Telescope Institute at Johns Hopkins. She ran in the Olympic marathon trials here in the US in 2016. And will get to hear about a story about her running or maybe not running, trying to qualify for the French National Team for the half marathon this year in 2020. Welcome to the show, Julia Roman Duval.