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Transition State: A Change of Leadership in the Department of Chemistry

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Tradition at Penn State is deeply rooted, and changes in the leadership in the Department of Chemistry are no exception. Since 1983, the chemistry department has rotated department heads on a regular basis, generally every three-to-five years; earlier this year, the transition from Barbara Garrison to Tom Mallouk was made. Garrison is well known in the chemistry department, and across the country, as a well-respected leader in chemistry, as she has held this position not once but twice, with fifteen years between her two terms.

Passing the Torch

“Our chemistry department has a great tradition of excellence, and we are indebted to Barbara Garrison for her remarkable leadership of the department that included eleven years as department head and construction of the Chemistry Building,” said Doug Cavener, professor and Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science.

Garrison, Shapiro Professor of Chemistry, earned her bachelor’s degree in Physics, graduating summa cum laude from Arizona State University in 1971, and her Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. She then went on to complete her postdoctoral studies in physical chemistry at Purdue University where she met her husband, Nick Winograd, Evan Pugh University Professor of Chemistry, Penn State.

The physical sciences are notorious for being male-dominated fields, especially twenty-five years ago, but that didn’t stop Garrison from moving into high administrative roles. “I wasn’t really thinking about it. I was aware that there weren’t many women, but my department head at the time was very supportive,” said Garrison. Just ten years after joining the faculty at Penn State, Garrison became one of the first women in the United States to be chair of a major chemistry department at the age of 40 and served her first term for five years, from 1989–1994. Rather than focusing on the downsides of being in the minority as a woman in science, Garrison noted that she had a lot of doors opened for her because she was a female department head—she took part in external reviews for chemistry departments at multiple universities and served on various advisory committees, such as for the National Science Foundation and the Governing Board for the Council of Chemical Research.

In 2009, Garrison said yes to the job again because she enjoyed it so much the first time and knew it was a way she could contribute back to the department. The second time around was a bit easier, she said, which she largely credits to those around her. “I had already learned how to do a lot of things, like making decisions in certain situations and supervising staff, but more importantly, I had lots of great collegial faculty and staff members to help out and do things, which made delegating much easier,” said Garrison.

In addition to serving as the department head, Garrison was instrumental in the design of the Chemistry Building, as she chaired the planning committee. The planning process started in 1995, and the building was ready for occupation in 2004. (Ironically, at the same time, Garrison and her husband had just finished building their own house.) As chair of the committee, Garrison was involved in writing the program statement for the building, which included listing all of the requirements for the building, such as the number of rooms, amount of space in each room, and utilizations and contents of each room. She worked closely with Ken Feldman, professor of chemistry, who meticulously enumerated the needs of the labs and put the whole building design in the program ChemDraw. Garrison commented that she found the process fun and enjoyable because they were constructing a building for the future that was for the entire department.

While fulfilling numerous administrative responsibilities, Garrison continued to run an active research lab, having thirty publications in her first five years at Penn State. In fact, she had started her research program before even coming to Penn State by initiating collaborations. “I collaborated a lot, especially with Nick. I did it before it was fashionable!” said Garrison. The Garrison Lab collaborates with numerous other groups as they work on modeling reactions on surfaces. One example is they create computer simulation models to better understand secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS), an analytical process used to characterize the composition of solid surfaces. These molecular dynamic simulations mimic the ejection of molecules in layered compounds to help determine depth profiles and create elemental images that interface with experimental results.

During Garrison’s first term as department head, she hired Tom Mallouk from the University of Texas to join the Penn State faculty, and twenty-two years later, he has now moved into the position himself. As associate head for the department, the transition was obvious. “Barbara is leaving the department in very good shape, and its improved dramatically over the last twenty years,” said Mallouk. “There are still some challenges, though.”

One of the first goals that Mallouk has is to improve the undergraduate experience. “There is a recognition that active learning is very important in the classroom, so we are trying to do more of that, as well as research experience, early on in the undergraduate experience,” said Mallouk. He further explained that rather than just having students learn the content of science to become competent for a test, it’s important that they also learn the process of science. Other goals Mallouk has during his term as department head are to hire great people, build programmatic strength in the department, and improve diversity.

“I am very pleased that Tom Mallouk agreed to take over the reins as department head, and I can report that he is already immersed in faculty development, working on educational improvements, and tending to a myriad of administrative responsibilities while maintaining a cutting-edge research program,” said Cavener.

In addition to his administrative responsibilities, Mallouk also balances his research lab and teaching. He believes that staying active in the lab and teaching ensure he stays connected to the primary mission of what they as a department are trying to do. His research group focuses on synthesizing nanoscale inorganic materials and understanding what they can do with them, particular in the areas of energy, electronics, and catalysis.

Mallouk is an Evan Pugh University Professor of Chemistry, Physics, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.