For Julia Nepper, getting in her Ph.D. in Biophysics at just 23 years old was no big deal; it was just another stepping stone in a journey to teach and learn.
After all, she had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington at 16, and went on to do post-grad work at UNC-Chapel Hill for a year before starting her graduate program at UW-Madison at just 18.
“It used be that it was the most interesting thing about me,” said Nepper. “But now it’s just something that is.”
Nepper’s academic pursuits started when she began homeschooling by her parents at six years old. She completed grades two through eight in just four years. She returned to school for high school, but her father thought she could go further.
“Most of it was my parents deciding what I was capable of and this is what I was ready for, so this is what I should be doing,” said Nepper.
Nepper found herself simultaneously completing her first semester in high school as well as a college course.
“Basically me being in that college class was my dad testing if I could be in college. And I did fine in the class,” she said.
What followed was her father officially declaring that she had completed high school and was ready to move on to college, which she did at the age of 12.
After graduating from UNC Wilmington, Nepper decided to move further north to get away from the southern heat, which landed her in Madison.
“Madison is probably one of my favorite cities,” she said. “It’s bigger than where I’m from, but not too big.”
Nepper’s extensive academic achievements at such a young age have gotten her quite a bit of media coverage, and once she completed her Ph.D. in biophysics in December that attention went national.
Still, though her age garnered her praise, at times it also presented her with barriers.
“I felt like my age was a barrier and I think that may have been why I didn’t get into graduate schools the first time around, because they saw my age and thought I wasn’t ready. I don’t know if that was necessarily not true,” Nepper said.
In addition to her age, Nepper also recognized a difference in treatment for women in academia.
“I’ve found that men tend to be more vocal and more willing to talk over and dismiss women’s voices,” she said. “As I’ve realized that, I’ve tried to be more forward with my opinion.”
As a woman of color, though, Nepper felt she was “lucky” to not experience any notable racially-motivated discrimination or mistreatment.
Ultimately after completing in 17 years what most people do in almost 25, Nepper is just “happy to be done” and ready for the next step.
She’s currently completing her postdoc at UW-Madison and looking to start a career in science outreach and communications.
“I really love teaching people,” she said.
For a person of any age looking to began the long pursuit of higher education, Nepper advises, “it’s important to find something you’re passionate about and go after it. When smart people get bored, they get into trouble. You need to find something to do.”