PhD ChE '89
Merrell R. Fenske Professor of Chemical Engineering
Penn State University
When Kristen Fichthorn (PhD ’89) was an undergraduate studying chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, two of her professors who graduated from Michigan, Warren Seider (MSE ’63, PhD ’66) and Stuart Churchill (BSE ’42, MSE ’48, PhD ’52), encouraged her to consider Michigan for her doctoral studies. She knew Michigan was a world-class school and, after living in Philadelphia for four years, going to the Midwest would be a change. Life would probably move at a slower pace and people might be a little friendlier in a smaller town. So she chose to come to Ann Arbor for grad school. She admits that when she arrived in town, she wondered whether she would be able to find much to do in the evenings; certainly the choice of good restaurants would pale in comparison to Philadelphia.
Although Fichthorn says she was a serious student and spent many evenings in the Dow Building, she was quickly able to find a number of extracurricular activities available to her in Ann Arbor and soon found the town a pleasant place in which to live. She enjoyed biking and playing volleyball and softball with other ChE grad students. She recalls watching many foreign films in campus lecture halls sponsored by the various film societies. She says a regular outing for grad students was to go over to Windsor to get dim sum at Chinese restaurants.
Most of her work while she was at Michigan was in the computational area (simulation of surface reaction processes) and Bob Ziff served as her advisor. Her work with Erdogan Gulari focused on the practical and experimental aspects of the problems. According to Ziff, even though her education was entirely in chemical engineering, she was unafraid to venture into new areas like the physics of surface processes (surface science) and became an expert in that field; this culminated in her dual appointments in chemical engineering and physics at Penn State. At Michigan she worked on several different processes, including a time-series analysis of the chaotic behavior of a reaction model, which led to a publication in Physical Review Letters, the top journal in the physical sciences world. “Kristen was a determined and hard-working graduate student,” Ziff says. “Her success as a chaired professor at Penn State makes her advisors and her department proud.”
Fichthorn remembers the camaraderie between grad students in the department; they encouraged each other to work harder and pursue interesting research ideas. In fact, there were quite a number of other students when she was here who went on to work in academia, including Fichthorn’s husband, Themis Matsoukas at Penn State, Jay Keasling at the University of California, Berkeley, Prodromos Daoutidis at the University of Minnesota, Dennis Vigil at Iowa State, and Alexander Couzis at City College of New York.
After graduation, she did postdoctoral research at the University of California, Santa Barbara, before becoming an assistant professor at Penn State. Matsoukas and Fichthorn started dating while at Michigan so they decided to both find post-doctoral positions in California. Themis did a postdoc at UCLA so they lived in Oxnard CA, about halfway between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Fichthorn joined the faculty of Penn State after she completed her post doc. However, before Themis could begin his career, he had to serve in the Greek military to keep his citizenship there. His first position after returning from Greece was at Penn State and was supported by soft money. He taught and did some research using other researchers’ labs during that time. Then, after a few tense years, they were able to settle down when Themis was offered a tenured position in State College.
Through the years, she says it has been great to be married to a fellow professor because they understand each other’s stresses well. Fichthorn and Matsoukas have a daughter, Melina, who will be a senior in high school this year. Rather than following her parents into engineering, she has decided to pursue a degree in music.
Today, Kristen is the Merrell R. Fenske Professor of Chemical Engineering and a professor of physics at Penn State. Her research focuses on multiscale materials simulation and she employs theoretical methods such as density functional theory, molecular-dynamics simulation, and Monte Carlo methods to understand the growth and assembly of colloidal nanomaterials, wetting phenomena at solid-liquid surfaces, and developing theoretical techniques for multi-scale modelling.
“I just love the idea of having perfectly seamless models that go all the way from quantum mechanics to the continuum,” she says. “With advances in computing and theoretical techniques, the possibility of designing materials and predicting their optimal function comes ever closer. In some areas, like molecular-beam epitaxy in the ultra-high vacuum environment, we’re almost there; while in liquid-solid interfaces and the colloidal environment, we’re still far from the target in many respects. That challenge keeps me going!”