Chemist, artist, activist: Meet Canada's first trans woman Rhodes Scholar

Canada's first trans woman named a Rhodes scholar — Julia Levy — says she knows that 19th-century diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes would probably disapprove. But she's off to pursue a master's degree in computational chemistry at the University of Oxford next fall and sees it as a huge "opportunity."

Julia Levy, 24, shines in chemistry, art and understanding what it’s like to be 'othered’

Julia Levy of the University of Victoria. British Columbia's newest Rhodes Scholar will pursue a master's degree in computational chemistry next fall. (Ilmė Vyšniauskaitė)

British Columbia's newest Rhodes Scholar says she was convinced she didn't have a chance.

But Julia Levy says she is thrilled to be Canada's first trans queer woman to receive the award and head to the University of Oxford.

Levy, 24, says she knows that 19th-century diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes would probably disapprove. But Levy will head off to pursue a master's degree in computational chemistry next fall and sees it as a huge "opportunity."

"There's something very powerful about coming into a scholarship that was not intended for you originally," says the Vancouver-raised University of Victoria chemistry major with a visual arts minor who now heads to one of the oldest universities in the world.

Levy is one of eleven Canadians awarded the Rhodes Scholarship for 2023, joining the first Indigenous woman to receive the scholarship in Canada: Iakoiehwáhtha Patton, a member of the Kanien'kehá:ka First Nations community and fourth-year student at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Arts & Science.

The scientist, artist, activist and computer programmer says her experience transitioning and dealing with an ADHD diagnosis in university give her a perspective others may not have.

University of Victoria chemistry Prof. Jeremy Wulff said in a statement that Levy — who invented an app to allow learners to visualize complex molecules on their mobile phones called moleculAR — is destined for greatness.

Taking science smarts to street level

Levy was raised in Vancouver by a psychology professor to be inquisitive, but says her parents never pushed her. She also loved Star Trek and Breaking Bad, the latter about a high school science teacher turned methamphetamine kingpin.

She volunteered to test drugs to prevent deaths and says her work with Substance UVIC showed her how the pandemic changed the drug supply, putting more lives at risk as the use of benzodiazepines, which are used as fillers, began to rise.

"It affects the people I love and it affects the city that I love," said Levy.

Levy, 24, was one of 11 Canadians chosen to receive the Rhodes Scholarship for 2023. She grew up in Vancouver and studied chemistry and visual arts at the University of Victoria. (Ilmė Vyšniauskaitė)

"Drug checking is one of the things that has felt really practical and meaningful. It's like one of the greatest social goods that I can do with chemistry."

Dennis Hore, a UVIC professor of chemistry and computer science who is co-lead of the Vancouver Island Drug Checking Project, celebrated the news of Levy's scholarship.

"She's a very deserving candidate. She just had so many areas she was interested in," said Hore.

The first openly trans woman Rhodes Scholar — Hera Jay Brown — was the University of Tennessee's ninth Rhodes Scholar in 2020, and studies refugee displacement and forced migration in Jordan. She's already connected with Levy, and lauds her work.

"It's amazing ... she's integrating her academic work into the action work she does in communities," said Brown.

Push for change

Perry Zurn, an associate professor of philosophy at American University who researches transgender issues, says Levy stands out.

"She's a scientist and an activist. She's a chemist and an artist," said Zurn. "This kind of multiplicity is precisely, I think, the thing that trans folks can bring and that ought to be celebrated."

But Zurn says that as a trans woman, Levy also carries an extra burden in academia.

"We have a responsibility as trans people …. to not only be included in it, but to commit to changing it."

There has been a push to get Oxford University to face its past, from the Rhodes Must Fall movement that pulled down the Cecil Rhodes statue to Uncomfortable Oxford, academics who provide walking tours to raise awareness about aspects of the institution's history such as racial inequality, gender and class discrimination, and other ugly remnants of the push to expand the British Empire.

By choosing Levy, Zurn says it appears that the scholarship that Rhodes created with his will is evolving.

In her second year, Levy invented an app to allow learners to visualize complex molecules on their mobile phones called moleculAR. (Julia Levy )

The scholarship is an international postgraduate award for students to study at the University of Oxford.

It was established in 1902. A total of 100 students are awarded the prestigious scholarship each year. Rhodes, its British Imperialist founder, wanted to unify English-speaking nationals and foster civic-minded leaders. The Rhodes Scholarship has faced controversy for excluding Black people, women and others. And for its name — commemorating a South African leader who once introduced legislation to push Black residents from their land.

Fury flared last spring when protesters pulled a 900-kilogram bronze statue of Rhodes from a plinth at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Grappling with the past

Elizabeth Kiss, warden of Rhodes House in Oxford and CEO of the Rhodes Trust, told CBC in an interview that the organization is opening its doors to diverse candidates.

"We're really saying, to all brilliant and committed and passionate young people, that you should apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. We're really proud of our trailblazers like Julia."

Kiss says the first female Rhodes Scholar — Catherine Burke Sweet — was named in 1977, "but that took an act of Parliament to achieve."

Kiss says the Rhodes Trust is grappling with the fact that much of the wealth mined out of South Africa enriched North Americans. It's aiming for 32 African scholars, to match those drawn from the United States.

Kicking at barriers

Levy says she wants to use her spot at Oxford to push change.

"Obviously the money came from an incredibly awful source. But if I can do some good with that money, then that seems like a positive," said Levy.

While she's proud of her achievements, Levy says she knows she started with certain privileges.

"I'm at the peak of every other privilege — white, supportive parents, who grew up in a good home with financial stability," said Levy. And she says she is wary of being used to "wash the slate clean" or expunge any past wrongs.

"I don't think that any of that should be ignored," said Levy.

But she's also confident that her personal background will bring a new perspective.

"I do understand what it is to be at the bottom of the pile in some ways. Being trans and being queer, you get that experience and you know what it is like to be 'othered,'" said Levy.

Oxford welcome

Kiss says Rhodes House — the Oxford mansion, with an oak staircase and eagle finials, where scholars from all over the world will gather — encourages inclusivity, but "there will undeniably be points of friction and disagreement. After all, you know, we're in a big, messy world right now."

She says the negative aspects of the founder's vision for the scholarship have been rejected, except for core values that still make sense.

For example, she says, Rhodes wanted to develop people with "an energy to lead and a kindness for others."

That — Kiss said — Levy has in spades.

"I haven't met her yet. I can't wait to welcome her to Rhodes House. That combination of chemistry and art and the way in which she has already demonstrated a passion for making her community better…. [Levy] is precisely what we're looking for in Rhodes Scholars now."


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award. Got a tip?