Julia Tilles

Physics Ph.D. '20
Julia Tilles holding probe.

Alumni Spotlight Q & A:

Where are you from, Julia? 

San Diego, California.

What was your major at UNH and who was your advisor?

I graduated in 2020 with a Ph.D. in Physics. My advisor was Prof. Ningyu Liu. The title of my thesis was "Broadband Radio Mapping and Imaging of Lightning Processes."

I got bitten by the lightning bug when I was getting my master’s at New Mexico Tech. I also worked at NASA for a stint, then I worked at Florida Institute of Technology, where I met Ningyu Liu, who was my advisor there. He then took a position up at UNH, so I followed him there.

Why did you choose UNH? 

Professor Liu took a position at UNH, so I followed him here so he could serve as my wonderful advisor.

What was your favorite course? Which professor had the greatest impact on you?

Ningyu Liu taught an electromagnetics course at Florida Tech and he was just awesome — such a good teacher.

What was student life like? What did you think of the campus and extracurricular activities?

I lived on a farm in Durham, and it’s a really nice town. I rode my bike most places. I was a little bit older than the other grad students, but we played ultimate frisbee and soccer together, and I played violin in the UNH orchestra. The gym on campus was awesome, and I used to go there for yoga with some friends. There was a lot of camaraderie with the other students. Because I studied lightning, I got to know the NRESS students and we participated in a lot of social activities together — some nice interactions with people across various research topics. The physics department used to have breakfasts where students and faculty could mingle, I really liked those. And I had a thoroughbred horse I brought with me who lived at the UNH boarding facility, so that was really nice, too.

What was the biggest transitional issue you faced when you started at UNH? 

The weather! It was November when I moved from Florida to New Hampshire — I went from 80 degrees to 40 degrees, and my body couldn’t handle it at first. I remember being so hungry from the cold for a while.

How is UNH addressing the social cause you are most passionate about?

I was part of an LGBTQ+ group, they had a lot of social events that I attended.

What is your current position and what does your day-to-day work look like? Why is your work important?

I am now a Senior Research Staff Member at the Sandia National Lab in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I work on 5-10 projects at a time. Some days I’m in the high voltage lab, where we look at the effects of lightning’s electrical current on different materials. I get to investigate the types of materials that can shield against lightning’s electromagnetic pulses; a lot of our experimental testing is related to mitigation technologies.

I work on wind turbine projects — essentially, making them less vulnerable to lightning, and validating different materials for the turbine blades. I also work on how lighting interacts with trees for wildfire ignition, and how to mitigate for lightning’s electromagnetic pulses that can impact the power grid. These are all important topics that deal with issues that affect our daily lives.

I love the process of coming up with a research idea, finding someone to give you money for that, working through it, and then seeing the fruits of your labor — that’s pretty amazing.

I’m collaborating with the University of New Mexico using radio wave imaging to identify the locations of high voltage breakdowns in cables and capacitors. It’s a really fun project that takes what I’ve learned during my Ph.D. research at UNH and brings it to the lab and applies it to electronics.

On other days when I’m not in the lab, I’m reading scientific literature or writing up the results of my lab testing.

The National Labs are interesting places to work; sometimes the federal government wants us to work on something specific, but we also work with industry and small business initiatives. I’ve been writing my own proposals and bringing in my own funding to do research here, so that’s a path that’s valid at a national lab. My work has real-life applications and impacts that are important, which I really like.

What are your future career plans?

I hope to be able to keep doing research and work on really cool projects. I love the process of coming up with a research idea, finding someone to give you money for that, working through it, and then seeing the fruits of your labor — that’s pretty amazing.

How did UNH contribute to your career and where you are now? Looking back on your time spent as a UNH grad student, what are some of your best memories? 

UNH provided my education. Karsten Pohl, a professor and department chair for physics before his passing in 2021, was a real advocate for me in so many ways — for coming to UNH, for helping me get research funding, for enabling me to go to conferences and network, to publish my work and get my name out there.  The Physics Department held professional development courses that were really helpful, too.

Some of my best memories during my time at UNH were from the outdoors — it’s a great state for that. I spent time hiking in beautiful places, snowboarding, and I took up fishing. I lived at a farm with my horse, and I spent time there picking blueberries and sitting by the firepit with friends. Spending time in College Woods on campus helped keep me sane, too.

Any advice for undergrads/grad students who are conducting research?

Do what interests you. Don’t be lazy, and don’t procrastinate. Do it only if you love it.

What can be improved so that other students conducting research have an improved experience? 

The mental health aspect of graduate school is super real — it’s just a hard road. You live and breathe and sleep your Ph.D. I had a lot of extracurricular activities which helped me to take a break from thinking about my research. A lot of my educational time was spent alone trying to understand concepts and work through things, but I was happiest when I was peer learning in study groups — being able to have a dialogue with other students is valuable intellectually and also from a mental health standpoint.

What makes you proud to be affiliated with UNH? 

I love the Physics Department, it’s a really great department — it has a lot of good programs, and there’s world-class research on topics across the board, and within the Space Science Center, too — it’s top notch, no doubt.

What impact do you hope your work has on future generations?

I hope we can help solve some big problems, like climate change; I hope we can help people live more synergistically with nature, to be excited and inspired — I’d love to play a role in all that.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?

I’m really living my best life right now: I get to conduct research, I have two feral mustangs, I do lots of hiking and I get out with friends who also own horses, plus I’m part of a dance ballet group.

Are you on social media and do you have a website?  

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