Susan Olesik

Image of Susan Olesik, Chair and Dow Professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, 2016 Glass Breaker

Chair and Dow Professor
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Describe your career path that has led to your current post.

Like a high fraction of the current women faculty in STEM, I was a first-generation college student. I went to a local community college for my first two years of college. I had no idea what I wanted to major in so I declared the major (med-tech) of my friend who was going to the same university. During my first year of college, I changed my major to chemistry because the chemistry instructor showed us so many interesting and exciting applications. Those faculty members were great mentors.

I then went to DePauw University for the last two years of college. They sent me to Oak Ridge National Labs to do undergraduate research during the fall of my senior year. It was with the guidance of the Oak Ridge scientist that I decided to go to graduate school. My husband and I both took postdocs at Indiana University.

After taking another postdoc position at UNC-Chapel Hill, I accepted a professor position at Ohio State. During my time as an assistant professor, I spent a very high fraction of my time working in the lab with my research group. When I would walk in on 18th Avenue in the morning, I remember often feeling, “Wow look at this, I can’t believe I have this opportunity as an assistant professor.”

How would you describe your leadership style?

I would say that my style is proactive and collaborative with my colleagues. My colleagues and I have strong ambitions for our department and as chair it is my job to hold those ambitions close and keep pushing forward.

What were the best career investments you've made along the way?

What I have found to be quite valuable is to continue to stretch myself into new areas. Also, reading widely and continuing to learn has paid off.

Any mentors or champions who supported your professional development?

As a faculty member, besides my husband, one of my longest term mentors is Isiah Warner, now vice president for strategic initiatives at Louisiana State University. I met him when he was a rotator and program officer at the National Science Foundation.

Jay Bardole at Vincennes University (two-year college in Indiana) was the faculty member who convinced me to be a chemistry major.

When I was an assistant professor, there were a number of fellow assistant professors in the department. We would meet often for lunch and vent about whatever challenges seemed to be in our way. At the end of the lunches, we would each commit to get back to the lab and succeed. This was quite the support group.

How would you describe your career goals today? How have they changed over time?

My primary goal across time has always been to find new exciting science challenges to address. I don’t think that goal has changed as my personal goal.

What kinds of challenges have you faced along the way, and how did you overcome them?

There were so few women faculty in the STEM area that I felt quite alone. Another woman faculty in another department walked up to me on the street when I was pregnant (I barely knew her), and she asked me if I had been looking for day care. She then told me, “You know you can’t take care of your child in your office.” We were looking for day cares and did find a great one. Ohio State’s day care was backed up for years at that time. It was not a choice.

My daughter came the year that I was coming up for promotion. I was quite scared when I had to tell my colleagues that I was expecting. This hadn’t happened to other faculty members before. I also remember that a colleague made the statement that he couldn’t believe that an assistant professor would get pregnant before the tenure decision.

It was a wonderful accident, but I then had to tell this same person that I was expecting. There were all sorts of firsts. The family leave act had not happened, and the university didn’t have policies on what should be done if a faculty member became pregnant. After a number of discussions with the chair, the decision was made that I would take a special research quarter. A year later, the family leave act was in place.

Across the next many years, I would need to quietly leave seminar to get to day care before it closed, and I will admit I did speed more than once to get there on time. My husband and I shared the care of our daughter quite evenly. Our daughter became a familiar site at the national meetings that we both attended. Many of our national colleagues watched her grow up. This was before national conferences offered child care. My husband and I shared her care.

The first national meeting that my child attended was a month after she was born. Her pediatrician said, “Go ahead.” I had already agreed to lead a workshop at this conference.

When you think about serving in a leadership role as a female, do any unique experiences come to mind?

The first time that I presented at a national meeting, a few young graduate students came up afterward and thanked me for being such a great role model. I was shocked. All I did was present my work.

What advice would you give to other women looking to reach similar goals?

Network, network, network. When opportunities are offered to be on university committees or national committees, strongly consider them unless too many offers come at once. I have learned much from interacting with faculty who are in fields much different than mine, as well as my national and international peers. Don’t get too overwhelmed by this service. Think about whether you will benefit from the service as a learning activity.

The summer after being promoted to associate professor, I was asked to be on many national and university committees. I accepted a number of them but eventually had to start saying no. One of the requesting individuals at the time threatened to tell my dean that I would not do the service. I told the person to go ahead. I had to do this. It was just too much!

What's next for you? Something you're looking forward to.

I do plan to keep pushing myself forward. My research group has some studies that we are currently working on. On the leadership front, I have not decided what will be next.

Learn more about Susan and her career path in her Buckeye Voices article.