Julie Sexton, Ph.D. headshot

Julie Sexton, Ph.D.

Research Associate

University of Colorado Boulder

I grew up in southern Arizona and started collecting rocks at 5 years old.

My family spent a lot of time outdoors, so I developed a substantial rock collection. In middle school, I learned about science careers through mentoring programs aimed at low-income girls. In high school, I was extremely fortunate to have outstanding science teachers who served as role models and mentors, always encouraging my interest in science. When I took a geology class in high school, I realized my love of rocks could translate into a tangible career path.

As I approached graduation, I set my sights on state universities until my school’s career counselor encouraged me to consider a small liberal arts college—an idea that seemed completely out of reach at first because I was from a low-income family. Fortunately, Vassar College in New York provided financial support for low-income students, which, combined with large student loans, enabled me to attend. Vassar was a very new experience for me as a first-generation college student, and I struggled with the academics at times, but the support I received through numerous avenues helped me succeed.

I received my B.A. and M.S. in geology. However, nobody in my family worked as a geologist, so careers in that area were unknown to me. Since I didn’t know what type of geology career would be the right fit, I explored a variety of career paths: professional geologist, community college instructor, and science education and outreach coordinator. Along the way, I developed a passion for teaching and learning. My early experiences as a low-income, first-generation college student and as a woman in a male-dominated science sparked my interest in addressing systemic barriers to diversity and inclusivity in science. Ultimately, I pursued a Ph.D. in education with an emphasis on geoscience education, diversity, and equity. My Ph.D. program opened up a new area to me: discipline-based education research—investigating teaching and learning in my discipline by integrating methods and knowledge from physical/natural sciences and social sciences (including education, psychology, and sociology).

After my Ph.D., I worked as a discipline-based education researcher and assistant director of assessment at the University of Northern Colorado. In 2019, I came to CU’s Environmental Studies Department, where I conduct discipline-based education research focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in teaching, learning, recruitment, and retention of underrepresented/underserved groups in geoscience, biology, and environmental studies.

Reflecting on my journey so far, I have learned that academic and career paths can be nonlinear, with many unexpected twists and turns. I still love rocks and have a small rock collection, but my interests have shifted to the biological world. I spend a lot of time thinking about teaching and learning. I also am learning about native plants and how we can create important ecosystems with native plants in our yards. I spend my time off enjoying the plants and animals in my yard.