Julia Portmann ’19
Julia Portmann ’19

A Woman of Many Talents

Julia  Portmann

Class of 2019 • Palatine, Illinois
There is something quietly superhuman about Julia Portmann ’19. While setting records—and never missing a practice—as a member of the varsity swim team, she is double majoring in biology and environmental science, minoring in German, and seems to be everywhere at once, wholeheartedly embracing every opportunity WC has to offer.


As vice-president of the Garden Club, she has helped raise bees and harvest honey, labored over huckleberries and other native plants, and composted table scraps from the dining hall. As a permaculture intern, she helped foster the garden’s transition to a sustainable ecosystem that recently earned it certification as a model conservation landscape. 

She helped research African American publishing history using Global Information Systems (GIS) technology as an intern in the GIS lab. She is a member of the Honor Board, the Student Environmental Alliance, and the National Leadership and National Environmental honor societies. She has been named Centennial Conference Swimmer of the week twice and Shorewoman of the Week seven times in three seasons. She is president of the German Club, a member of the National German Honor Society, and last summer organized her own trip to study German for the Natural Sciences at the University of Freiburg in Germany with a grant from the Cater Society, of which she is student vice-president.

Plus, she has taken full advantage of WC’s summer science research internships.

“I have been really impressed with Julia's drive to learn everything she can,” says Robin Van Meter, assistant professor of environmental science/studies and biology and Portmann’s advisor. “Her time management skills amaze me. She juggles the swim team with other extracurricular activities while still maintaining a 4.0 GPA and working with me in the lab. On top of that, she is friendly and easy-going, very collaborative, and has a natural gift for research. It’s a joy to work with her.”

Between her freshman and sophomore years, Julia was a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) intern at UC Santa Cruz studying the impact of rising water temperatures on fish. She loved the science, and had dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, living near the water, which was part of what drew her from her hometown of Palatine, Illinois, to Washington College.

“I always felt like a water baby,” she says. “And Washington College immediately felt like home.” But hovering over fish and their offspring for 11 weeks made her question whether she really wanted to spend all of her daylight hours in a lab.

“I love hard science,” she says. “But I want to know what I can do with it, how I can use it to make a difference.”

It was an internship the following summer doing bat research at Eastern Kentucky University and the Daniel Boone National Forest—through the National Science Foundation and its Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program—that inspired her to think beyond the lab. And even beyond the water.

"I fell in love with the forest,” she says. “And one of the best parts for me was shadowing a Forest Service employee who is involved in just about every project there. She helps with bat and bird and plant surveys and puts them all together in reports that are really about ‘How can we use this information to better manage the forest, help the wildlife, improve the experience for visitors?’ I’m not sure exactly what I’ll end up doing—there’s so much still to explore—but I thought that was pretty cool, using science to make things better.”

At her graduation ceremonies in May 2019. Julia was recognized with the Casey Medal, awarded by the faculty to a woman considered outstanding in the qualities of scholarship, character, leadership and campus citizenship. Beginning in Fall 2020, she is studying for a master of science degree in biology at James Madison University.