There’s getting a great education, and then there’s what you do with it. Canada’s first trans woman Rhodes scholar has big plans for both.
University of Victoria graduate Julia Levy is one of 11 young Canadians—the only one in BC—chosen for the prestigious scholarship, which provides two fully funded years of post-graduate studies at England’s Oxford University. Levy, a chemistry major, will begin a master’s degree there in fall 2023.
“Being chosen for this scholarship has been so unexpected. Everyone who I was up against in BC was incredibly brilliant—it could easily have been any of us,” says Levy, 24, who got to know the other provincial candidates at a dinner with Rhodes adjudicators in the run-up to selection earlier this month.
“I feel proud as the first trans queer woman in Canada to have been selected. However, I’m at the peak of every other privilege—white, supportive parents, grew up in a good home with financial stability. Right now, you often need all those things going for you to succeed as a trans person in these types of competitions. I hope I’m the outlier of what will one day be a normal thing for trans people regardless of their backgrounds.”
— Julia Levy
The Rhodes scholarship key criteria include academic excellence, demonstrated courage and devotion to duty, and moral force of character.
“Julia has had an amazing journey at UVic and is one of the most talented chemists our department has developed. Her passion for science and her drive to make the world a better place is an inspiration to everyone who is lucky enough to know her. She has a brilliant future and I’m so excited to see all the great things she accomplishes,” says Jeremy Wulff, a UVic chemistry professor who supervised Levy.
Including Levy, 12 UVic students have been named Rhodes scholars.
At the intersection of art and chemistry
Levy’s many achievements at UVic and in her community clearly caught the eye of the Rhodes selection committee. Having graduated with a major in chemistry and a minor in visual arts, Levy actively works to bring those two disciplines together in ways that benefit people.
“Julia is a dedicated artist who is continually pushing the bounds of the discipline,” says Visual Arts professor Paul Walde. “Always questioning and probing the limits of what’s possible, her creativity and drive for excellence makes her an excellent candidate for this prestigious award.”
In her second year at UVic, she invented a virtual reality program to help struggling chemistry students visualize molecules better, and went on to develop an augmented-reality phone app for visualizing complex shapes that is now featured in UVic chemistry workbooks.
Work by Julia Levy
The art of observation
Intrigued by how she could use art in ways that illuminated the experiences of being trans, Levy created a participatory art installation to evoke in viewers the same uneasy sense of being watched that trans people experience as part of their daily lives.
She invited viewers to enter what appeared to be a private space with a camera and video screen, where they saw a view of themselves from the back. Some seized the rare angle to check out how they looked from behind, or to fix their hair—only to discover upon exiting the room that their actions had been witnessed by everyone in the larger room.
Levy also served on UVic’s equity and diversity committee and was active in the ongoing campaign to retrofit university washrooms into non-gendered spaces.
“I’m a mile wide and an inch deep in terms of all the projects I was involved in at UVic,” jokes Levy. “I’m a big believer in never being just one thing. I’m a trans woman, but I’m also a scientist. I’m an artist, but I’m also an activist.”
Levy’s research focus reflects a key UVic impact area of technology and the human experience, and the university’s commitment to advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
“My biggest interest in everything I do is to lift people up. As a trans queer woman, I know what it is to be at the bottom, to be ‘othered.’ I feel that this Rhodes scholarship is such an opportunity to amplify my voice on the issues that really matter to me.”
Levy’s extensive community work includes volunteering with the local Gender Generations Project for trans youth and their families. The project’s twice-yearly gatherings bring youth together with trans adult mentors—so important to young people as reminders that “things do get better,” says Levy.
Levy also worked with UVic’s Vancouver Island Drug-Checking Project, applying her chemistry skills for public good.
The project offers a drop-in service in a downtown Victoria storefront where people can bring street drugs in for chemical analysis. That’s a life-saving initiative in light of poisoned illicit drugs having killed 10,000 British Columbians in the last seven years. “It’s an excellent example of the social use of chemistry,” says Levy.
Levy says she was “very lucky to have grown up surrounded by lesbians” who gave her the confidence to set her own standards for the kind of woman she is. She cites a number of professors as integral to her academic growth—UVic chemists Peter Wan, Wulff and Scott McIndoe, Lindsay Herriot from the School of Child and Youth Care, and cross-disciplinary researcher David Glowacki from the University of Bristol, whom she worked with on virtual reality.
Some of the most influential people in her academic growth were teaching assistants, co-workers and project supervisors, she adds.
She expects to study computational chemistry at Oxford, perhaps with a focus on digital education or health. She’s also drawn to the idea of getting a medical degree that could one day put her on the front lines of helping trans youth access better health care. The Rhodes scholarship covers two years of study with the possibility of two more.
Levy was already part of the UVic community when she transitioned three years ago, which spared her the experience of “the trans foot being the first one you have to put forward” when in an unfamiliar space. That will not be the case at Oxford.
“I’m interested to see how that will go,” says Levy. “But I know from my own life that whenever I see that trans women have achieved something new, it gives me the assurance that things are moving forward. If getting the Rhodes scholarship amplifies my voice, this is going to be such an opportunity to speak truth to power.”
This story originally appeared on the UVic News site on Nov 28, 2022