Danielle Tullman-Ercek – From Student to Teacher
Danielle Tullman-Ercek’s (ChE ’00) alumna story has taken her to a place where only a handful of the more than 500 female ChBE graduates have ventured – academia. In July 2009, she joined the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley as an assistant professor. Tullman-Ercek is now doing what she enjoys most – interacting with students and conducting research in the biochemical engineering and bioenergy fields.
She entered IIT as a determined student. As the participant in the Camras Scholars Program, the highest academic honor IIT bestows upon incoming students, Tullman-Ercek recognized chemical engineering was the best fit for her interests. She notes, “Chemical engineering offered the ideal background for my goals of solving environmental and biological problems relevant to society.”
As she progressed with her studies, Tullman-Ercek’s desire to further her education and research became more evident. She remembers ChBE Professors Javad Abbasian, Fouad Teymour, and David Venerus providing ample support in her decision to attend graduate school. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 2000 and immediately began her Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin under the supervision of Professor George Georgiou. Her dissertation focused on protein transport in E. coli bacteria. Tullman-Ercek quickly discovered how well IIT and ChBE prepared her for graduate school. The department strives to instill in students a thorough background in the fundamentals of engineering, as well as problem solving and critical thinking. “I strongly believe my undergraduate education was much better than what I would have received at even the best engineering schools in the country,” she comments. “I did well, and learned a lot, but I did so because I was challenged and I worked to meet those challenges.”
After earning her Ph.D. in 2006, Tullman-Ercek began her post-doctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco in the laboratory of Professor Chris Voigt studying spider silk production and secretion in Salmonella. Before joining the faculty at Berkeley, she also served as a post-doctoral researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working on cellulosic biofuels.
Tullman-Ercek was drawn to a career in academia first and foremost by her love of interacting with students. She enjoys serving as a mentor to students as they find their path and seeing the light of understanding in their eyes after struggling with a difficulty concept. The ability to determine the course of her research, and not be influenced by corporate initiatives, also helped drive this goal. “I knew that I needed the freedom to pursue a project without the possibility that it could end at any moment, regardless of the scientific impact or advances,” she remarks.
Her lab group currently focuses on developing new strategies for the engineering of naturally occurring biological parts, systems and organisms to yield improved and novel functions for industrial and pharmaceutical applications. As a professor and mentor, Tullman-Ercek loves exposing her students to new concepts and learning from their questions and ideas. She adds, “They have so much positive energy and it keeps me going through the rough parts – like when everyone in my lab has a day of failed experiments!”
Women have made tremendous progress in the engineering industry over the past few decades. According to a literature review conducted in 2007 by the Society of Women in Engineering, females account for just over 30 percent of engineering faculty. Tullman-Ercek credits her initial success in a profession that was once predominately controlled by men to the influence of positive role models and her own determination to follow her dreams. “I do not think I would have attempted such a career if I did not have people encouraging me, and specifically females who had laid the path and made it seem so doable,” she continues. “The numerous female faculty members that I have encountered over the years demonstrated to me that women can be successful in this career and have families.”
Tullman-Ercek welcomes the opportunity to mentor students and help them to pursue their own goals. She advises any female students interested in a career in academia to surround themselves with supportive people – both at home and at school. She adds, “My role models showed me that my future was filled with possibilities.”
Photo courtesy of Michael Barnes, College of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley