Alumni Spotlight: Susan Fullerton


Our latest Alumni Spotlight features Susan Fullerton, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. Fullerton earned her bachelor of science and Ph.D. degrees in chemical engineering at Penn State (2002 and 2009, respectively) and currently leads a research group that seeks to establish a fundamental understanding of ion-electron transport at the molecular level to design next-generation electronic devices at the limit of scaling for memory, logic, and energy storage. Among her most recent recognitions include the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2019 Marion Milligan Mason Award for Women in the Chemical Sciences, and the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Early Career (CAREER) award. 

What is your area of expertise?

My research group, the Nanoionics and Electronics Lab, studies the interplay between ions and two-dimensional (2D) materials to engineer low-power, next-generation electronics. For decades all of us have benefited from the continuous miniaturization of electronics, allowing us to pack more and more computing power into our handheld devices. The problem is that we can no longer use the same materials and same approaches to make the components even smaller – we need new materials and new device concepts. 

One such material that has excited the electronic device community is 2D materials - sheet-like materials that are only a single molecule thick. My Ph.D. training at Penn State focused on ion transport, and it turns out that ions do a really good job of controlling charge transport through the 2D sheets, which is critical for an electronic device. Chemical engineers love ions. They are in our batteries, they modulate signals in our cells, they are used in sensors. But they are not particularly popular in solid-state high-performance electronics. We are demonstrating some ways they could be very powerful for next-generation electronics.

Graphic image of ion transport

What do you like the most about your work as a professor? 

I love working at the boundary of what is known and what is unknown. Every research project moves that boundary to some extent, and watching the members of my group move that boundary is quite thrilling. Also, the flexibility to choose the research topics that interest me and my group is also something I really appreciate. For example, even though I had never worked with them before, it was possible to move into the 2D materials space because of the flexibility offered by academia.

In teaching, I really enjoy watching students grasp the tough concepts and make connections between different parts of the course and with other courses. I work hard to meet the students where they are; that is, I take them from something they already know to something they don’t know. This approach makes me constantly think back to what I understood and what I didn’t understand when I was taking these same classes at Penn State. I try really hard to put myself in the students’ shoes again.

Speaking of teaching, I learned that in December you won your department’s teaching award. Tell us more about this award.

This is the 2018 James Pommersheim Award for excellence in teaching in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. Prof. Jim Pommersheim – a Pitt alum with a long and respected teaching career in chemical engineering at Bucknell University – was there to present the award. It caught me by surprise because my department works to keep this award a secret from the recipient each year. I had just returned from Washington, D.C., two hours prior to the start of the awards banquet and was mostly concerned about making sure my two daughters had the opportunity to wear their new holiday dresses! The award was far from my mind. The award honors excellence in teaching in our department, which, for the past several years has earned the highest teaching record of any department in our school of engineering. So we have many qualified faculty who are equally deserving of this award, and it was quite an honor. I am dedicated to making sure my students learn and I put in a huge amount of effort, so receiving an award that acknowledged this level of dedication and commitment was really meaningful to me. 

And on the research front, I understand you recently were named the recipient of the 2019 AAAS Marion Milligan Mason Award for Women in the Chemical Sciences. Talk a bit about what the award means to you. 

I am honored to be one of the five recipients of this award, which was made possible by Dr. Milligan Mason, a chemist who was deeply committed to higher education for women. In early December, I enjoyed a two-day networking/mentoring event and awards ceremony at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was wonderful getting to know the other four awardees and to network with policy makers, representatives from funding agencies and others. I’m confident that this award is going to open new doors for my research lab and I’m eager to be a champion and ambassador for women in the chemical sciences. I am eager to pay it forward to the next generation of women scientists and engineers.    

Fullerton presents at AAAS awards

Fullerton presenting at the 2018 AAAS awards ceremony.  

How did your Penn State chemical engineering education prepare you for your career in academia? 

More than anything, the Ph.D. taught me how to think. It provided me with a toolkit for tackling problems – even those outside my specific discipline. In fact, what I’ve learned since I graduated is that some of the most exciting discoveries are happening at the intersection of multiple disciplines. But to make progress in those areas, you must forge collaborations with experts outside of your field who are dedicated to breaking down the communication barriers at those boundaries. For me, this is where the most exciting work is happening, and my training at Penn State gave me some of the tools I need to be agile and responsive to these opportunities.

What do you miss the most about your Penn State days?

The foremost thing I miss are the friendships I made along the way.  

And Wegmans. I really miss Wegmans.  

Fulllerton and her husband with two dogs at the lion shrine

Susan at the Lion Shrine with her husband Patrick and their two dogs. 

What is one thing that you think people would be most surprised to learn about you? (could be an unusual skill, a life experience, etc.) 

In middle school and high school, I was a church pianist and organist. I played weekly at church services and for weddings and funerals. This is how I earned my spending money, covered car insurance, and saved up for those very first Penn State tuition bills!   


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Jamie Oberdick

Head and shoulder shot of Susan Fullerton

Susan Fullerton

"I am eager to pay it forward to the next generation of women scientists and engineers."



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