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USF polymer pioneer dies at 71. Here’s how she made life better.

Julie Harmon was a pioneer for women in chemistry and taught for 25 years.
Julie Harmon taught chemistry for 25 years at the University of South Florida. “She really had a passion for the next discovery,” said LaNetra Tatea, a former student who now works at NASA.
Julie Harmon taught chemistry for 25 years at the University of South Florida. “She really had a passion for the next discovery,” said LaNetra Tatea, a former student who now works at NASA. [ Courtesy Chip Harmon ]
Published Mar. 29

You probably haven’t heard of any of Julie Harmon’s discoveries. You might not be able to understand all the technical terms in the 10 patents she holds. But you have likely benefitted from her long career.

Dr. Harmon’s work in polymer chemistry with Eastman Kodak is the reason you can afford color ink for your printer.

Her advances with polymer nanotubes literally support buildings, airplanes and spacecraft.

Her discovery with polymers and magnets means cities can use pipes that filter out lead and metals from drinking water.

She invented a way to better detect improvised explosive devices using novel chemical compounds.

If you’ve ever left clear goggles out in the sun and they didn’t turn yellow, that was Dr. Harmon’s work, too. She created radiation-resistant coatings and polymers, which help a lot more than swimmers.

She spent 25 years pushing her students to go on to big careers. And for women in chemistry, “she was a pioneer,” said colleague and friend Norma Alcantar.

Dr. Harmon died from toxic metabolic encephalopathy on Jan. 26. She was 71.

Dr. Harmon was often up and in the labs early. And she didn’t just teach polymer chemistry. She worked with colleagues in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physics and geology, and she taught biochemistry.
Dr. Harmon was often up and in the labs early. And she didn’t just teach polymer chemistry. She worked with colleagues in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physics and geology, and she taught biochemistry. [ Image courtesy Chip Harmon ]

The bond

When Robert “Chip” Harmon got out of the Army, he took a general chemistry class at Duquesne University.

He really liked his teacher, who was the same age. So Harmon changed his lab course the second semester and planned to ask her out.

On the first day of class, he met her in the elevator.

“I hope you’re not going to room 310,” he said.

“Why?” she asked.

“I transferred to get out of your class.”

She’d transferred to be in class with him.

“I wanted to invite you out,” Harmon said.

“And she said, ‘so?’ And I said, ‘what are you doing Friday night?’ And we’ve been together ever since.”

The couple married. They moved together from Pennsylvania to New York, where Dr. Harmon worked at Kodak. A job for her brought them to Florida, and eventually to the University of South Florida.

There, her husband of 48 years said, “she flourished.”

The Harmons loved to ski, boat and scuba dive. They traveled the world together.
The Harmons loved to ski, boat and scuba dive. They traveled the world together. [ Courtesy Chip Harmon ]

The catalyst

At the graduation of one of her students, Dr. Harmon stood up, holding LaNetra Tate’s dissertation, and said, “LaNetra will be going to Mars.”

Tate went on to work at Kennedy Space Center. She’s now at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Growing up in Florida, Tate was fascinated with space early on, but Dr. Harmon helped her figure out how to build a career.

“She didn’t coddle us. She had high expectations for us,” Tate said. Dr. Harmon pushed them to publish their work and claim their achievements.

“I think her legacy is the number of students whose careers she launched,” said Dr. James Leahy, chair of USF’s chemistry department.

Particularly women.

“She empowered us to really own the work that we did, and she really taught us life lessons,” Tate said.

The Harmons doted on their cats, spent weekends on their boat and vacations snorkeling around the world. Her husband retired several years ago, but Dr. Harmon kept working. She loved teaching and research too much.

In February, after her death, Dr. Harmon was named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors. As a pharmacist, Harmon understands some chemistry but not the subtle wonders his wife worked in.

“I don’t understand a lot of what she did,” he said. “But she was brilliant.”

Dr. Harmon is pictured here, front right, with former student LaNetra Tate, Patricia Muisener and former student John D’Angelo.
Dr. Harmon is pictured here, front right, with former student LaNetra Tate, Patricia Muisener and former student John D’Angelo. [ Courtesy Dr. LaNetra Tate ]

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