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Rollerblading Through Life

Rollerblading to most places in and around San Marino has quite a few benefits for Caltech professor and concert pianist Julia Greer.

“I get everywhere on rollerblades,” she said.

During the morning on weekdays, the San Marino mom and her nanny, Sequoya Gallo, take a vehicle to drop off her Julia’s daughters at Carver Elementary. Then Gallo takes the car back, Greer puts on her rollerblades and heads off to her 8:30 a.m. exercise class on Huntington Drive.
“A lot of my friends who are San Marino moms also do the drop-off and they can’t make it to that class because they have to find their car, which is parked somewhere, get in their car and then drive, and park,” she said. “So they can’t make it to that early class and I can just go.”

Greer said rollerblading is sustainable and she doesn’t have to park anywhere. She said it provides her with exercise in addition to thinking time on her own.

“There’s so many advantages to rollerblading, plus I have this reputation now,” Greer said with a laugh.

She has to buy new rollerblades every six months to one year. Greer has to buy them online, explaining that there are few specialized local shops at which to find them.

Greer has rollerbladed to numerous other cities in the San Gabriel Valley, such as Pasadena, San Gabriel, Alhambra, Altadena, Arcadia and Monrovia.

“If I’m alone, there’s a 99 percent chance I’ll choose to blade,” she said.

Rollerblading everywhere also has gained Greer quite a bit of notoriety.

“To me, rollerblading is a way of life and it’s something that I do every day so I didn’t consider that to be unusual,” she said. “But of course it is unusual because most people don’t rollerblade. So people pay attention. Almost anywhere I go, people say, ‘Oh, you’re that rollerblading person.’”

Greer even once competed in a rollerblading marathon in Napa Valley in 2014, finishing second.

She was born in Moscow and her family moved to the United States, specifically Rochester, NY, when she was 16. Greer began rollerblading when she was attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT.

“I was a sophomore in college,” she said. “My friend and I went to the mall to buy something, definitely not rollerblades. We walked there. I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I guess we happened to see a sports store and said, ‘Ah, let’s check it out.’ I tried on a pair of rollerblades and I said, ‘I love these. I absolutely have to get them. Then I rollerbladed back to campus.”

She said she’s been rollerblading ever since.

Greer graduated MIT in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. She earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in materials science, both from Stanford University in 2000 and 2005, respectively. Between getting her master’s degree and Ph.D., she worked at Intel, where she also rollerbladed to and from work.

Greer moved to Southern California from San Francisco in 2007, eventually settling in San Marino.

She started working as a professor of Materials Science and Mechanics at Caltech in 2007.
“I have 25 Ph.D. students in my research group,” she said. “We work on nanomaterials, generally, so nanotechnology, nanoscience.”

Greer said the group makes advanced materials with unique properties.

“We make materials that are very, very lightweight and very strong,” she said. “So they are damage-resistant. For example, for personal protection people always wear these very heavy vests, so they’re bulletproof or something like that so they won’t get damaged. Our materials would be very, very lightweight, just like a t-shirt you would put on, and it would be just as bulletproof.”

Greer was featured on CNN twice to speak about her nanomaterials work, including being named one of CNN’s 2020 Visionaries in 2016. She’s spoken at TEDxManhattanBeach, TEDxCERN in Geneva, Google Solve and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Greer has received numerous awards and accolades throughout her career, including Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2014 and receiving the Kavli Early Career Award in 2014, Society of Engineering Science Young Investigator in 2013, NASA Early Career Faculty Award and Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award in 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy Early Career Award and the Sia Nemat-Nasser ASME Early Career Award in 2011, World Technology Networks’s World Technology Award in Materials in 2010 and the Technology Review’s “Top Young Innovator Under 35” in 2008.

Greer has been on the San Marino Unified School District’s Academics Advisory Committee since March 2014.

“She has been extremely helpful in providing input for our curriculum,” San Marino School Board Member Chris Norgaard said. “She also, of course, literally rollerblades into the AAC meetings at the College and Career Center at the High School, which is uphill from the parking lot.”

But Greer isn’t just an accomplished rollerblading scientist, she’s also a skilled concert pianist.

She has played with several different orchestras, including being the principal pianist in the Redwood Symphony in the San Francisco Bay Area. Locally, she’s played with MUSE/IQUE and has done some private engagements.

“Now, I do a lot of solo and chamber recitals,” Greer said.
She was supposed to compete in the Van Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition this year, but she ended up having a baby instead.
“It was supposed to be on June 19 and my baby was born on June 20,” Greer said. “But I’m going to do it in two years.”

She began taking piano lessons when she was 5 years old.  Greer studied music at Moscow’s Gnessin School of Music, the Eastman School of Music, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Stanford University.  She won the Redwood Symphony Piano Concerto competition in 2004 and 2006 in addition to the U.S. Open Concerto Competition in 2003. Greer also volunteers at Carver Elementary as the music accompanist.

Greer’s two daughters, Ayla, 8, and Annika, 6, have followed in her footsteps – or rollerblades – as they also rollerblade, but not for transportation purposes. She referred to her family as a “modern-day Brady Bunch” because her husband, Chris Umans, has two children, Kira Chen, 9, and Daniel Umans, 6. They also have a 3-month-old baby, Elliot. The family also has a cat, Schumann, named after German composer Robert Schumann.

“It’s a blended family, so we have five kids all together,” Greer said. “We have his, mine and ours.”

Greer asks that local drivers watch out for rollerbladers, bicyclists and pedestrians.

“It’s a totally sustainable and a good way to live so I wish all the cars would really pay attention,” she said.


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