Julie Bertoia came to UNLV in the early 2000s as part of a chemistry internship to study the environment around the Yucca Mountain proposed nuclear waste repository. She connected with professor Vern Hodge in the chemistry department and that set her on a new course. The eight-month internship was such a positive experience that she decided to continue that research while earning her graduate degree in chemistry (’04 MS) at UNLV. She now is the laboratory safety manager in research administration, part of the Division of Research and Economic Development.
She said her work experience during COVID-19 is certainly unique, her speech patterns are a clue as to where she was born, and when she’s not at work you’ll find her hiking or running, and cheering on the Las Vegas Raiders.
Working on campus during COVID-19
While most of us spent some time working from home during COVID-19, I was one of the few who remained on campus to support essential research. COVID-19 certainly turned the world upside down and outside in! However at UNLV, essential research was permitted to continue and researchers in those labs needed laboratory safety support, so I was on campus every day. The first few months were strange because there were not many people on campus, the buildings were locked down, and the parking lots were empty. I’ve never seen campus that still and quiet on a non-holiday period. It was the opposite of what the grocery stores were experiencing! I would see up to 10 people on campus on any given day when I’m used to seeing hundreds.
Tell us about your job
As laboratory safety manager, I wear many hats and juggle flaming chainsaws! It sounds like a circus act, but I’m fortunate to have an incredible job that I love and the opportunity to work with some great people. Most people think my job is to be the “safety police” and are sometimes afraid to see me in the buildings. I’m actually an ally to and a resource for researchers to keep them, and others in their lab, safe. I will say something if a researcher is violating safety policies, but I like to educate researchers about the policies instead of keeping score about who is and who is not following the rules.
What inspired you to get into your field?
I was always interested in science and math growing up. In my junior year of high school, I took my first chemistry class and loved that it was the perfect combination of science and math. I was hooked and that led me down the chemistry path. But what about safety? Well, becoming a safety professional is typically not an obvious career choice since it’s something you learn when you already have a job. After being at UNLV for about nine years, I had the opportunity to work with the rapidly expanding radiochemistry program in a chemistry and quality assurance role but also closely worked with the safety support staff. The safety support staff members taught me the fundamentals about laboratory safety and how to communicate that information to lab personnel. I liked that there was a balance between teaching researchers about safety requirements, sample and data analysis, and quality improvement. So, when a position for another laboratory safety support member became available, I applied for the position and I have been in the safety field ever since.
Favorite trait about yourself
I like that I can be persistent and it takes a lot for me to give up on something. That quality has helped me solve many problems and get through some seemingly impossible situations.
Passion outside of work
I’ve run over 100 marathons and ultramarathons (any distance longer than a marathon) and a handful of half marathons, as well as 10K and 5K races on various courses and terrain. I love the challenge of trying to figure out the best strategy for each course and distance.
There have been some good races and some bad races. I’ve been at the front of the pack, in the middle, and at the back. There was one race where I came in first place — and last place. I ended up being the only finisher because all the other competitors dropped out. Sometimes the winner is not the fastest person on the course but the one who can keep moving forward.
The best part of working at UNLV
Has to be the people. It’s great to be able to work with expert faculty, young but driven students, and hard-working and supportive staff all in one place.
I’ve been fortunate to have excellent role models and mentors at UNLV. Certainly, Vern Hodge is at the top of the list for giving me the opportunity to come to UNLV in 2000. We worked together for several years and I learned a lot about analytical chemistry from him. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my safety mentor, Tom O’Dou, who introduced me to the safety field but also taught me specifically about radiation safety. In addition, I would like to thank Dave Hatchett, Ken Czerwinski, Jaci Batista, Cindy Lee-Tataseo, and Amy Smiecinski who have all been excellent leaders and role models and paved the way for me to succeed.
It was HOT this summer: What are your best tips for staying cool in the heat?
The solution to staying cool in the heat is as easy as “P.I.E.” — Put. Ice. Everywhere. Ice can be used to keep us cool on the inside and outside.
The coolest thing you've done in Vegas (no pun intended!)
This year I had the opportunity to attend the first Las Vegas Raiders home game at Allegiant Stadium! Although there were no fans in the stands, the stadium was filled with the Las Vegas community’s strong positive energy and support for the Las Vegas Raiders.
At first most people first might not notice it, but when you hear me say the words “out,” “about,” and “house,” you’ll know there’s something different about my speech. I was born in Canada and just became a U.S. citizen in 2019. It was a long process and took a lot of patience, but it was certainly worth the wait. I was sponsored by UNLV and am grateful for the office of international students and scholars for assisting me through that process.
Now that you’re a citizen, will you be voting in the presidential election?
I’ve been present in the U.S. for five of the last presidential elections, but I was not eligible to vote. I’m definitely excited to participate in this election and on Nov. 3 there will be one four-letter word on my mind: VOTE!