Syracuse University Magazine

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Karin Ruhlandt

A Catalyst in Chemistry

As a research chemist, Karin Ruhlandt spends a lot of her time coming up with ideas, putting them to the test, and seeing what happens—in her lab, in the department she chairs, and in the larger SU community. In the lab, Ruhlandt—who last year was named Distinguished Professor, one of the University’s highest faculty honors—leads a diverse group of graduate students, searching for the perfect mix of calcium, magnesium, and other elements that could revolutionize joint replacement and bone reconstruction therapies. The goal is to create a material stronger and less brittle than ceramic, lighter than steel, and cheaper than titanium. As if meeting these standards wasn’t difficult enough, the material must also resemble natural material and be biocompatible, so the body won’t reject it. “Most importantly, we want it to be bioactive, which means bone cells can grow into it, or grow onto it, and actively connect to it,” Ruhlandt says. For two years, her group has been “playing around” with metals and ligands in various combinations, working to be able to predict the structure and properties of the resultant material, which she calls “the holy grail of solid-state chemistry.”

Ruhlandt’s group also does leading research in another area of chemistry with a holy grail of its own: ferroelectrics, the realm of semiconductors and superconductors. Superconductivity is associated with zero resistance—a state that, when realized, allows electricity storage without energy loss. Superconductivity typically requires extremely low temperatures, which are hard to achieve and maintain. So the search is on for materials that become superconductive at relatively higher temperatures, such as room temperature. “Technically, it’s a dream,” Ruhlandt says. But then, so were MRI machines not long ago. Her group also has created novel precursors for metal-organic chemical vapor deposition, the process by which a silicon chip is coated with a metal oxide. The new precursors will make preparation of high-temperature superconductors simpler, and could allow for less expensive fabrication of dynamic random access memory circuits, the main memory at the heart of personal computers and game consoles. “We’ve made precursors that are significantly better than anything industry is using right now, and we just wrote a patent on that,” Ruhlandt says.

Ruhlandt has been a catalyst in two other areas close to her heart: creating research opportunities for undergraduates, and improving opportunities for women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. She resurrected the chemistry department’s Research Experience for Undergraduates in 2000, and has secured National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for the program every year since. “Our goal is to provide experience to students for whom it would make a significant difference,” she says. In 2004, the program added an international component, drawing students from Graz University of Technology in Austria. Today, the program includes a mix of students from SU, other colleges, and abroad. “We have 450 people applying for 12 spots, every year,” Ruhlandt says, “and 150 more applying for six slots in the international program.” 

Ruhlandt is also working to provide both support and opportunities for women in the STEM disciplines. This fall, SU received a $3.4 million Advance Institutional Transformation Award from the NSF to fund a five-year, campus-wide initiative to encourage recruitment, development, retention, and mentoring of female STEM faculty. Ruhlandt, who was involved in the grant proposal process, will help coordinate the initiative. “The lack of women faculty in STEM is a huge issue,” she says, speaking as one of only two women on the 21-member chemistry faculty, and the only full professor.

Ruhlandt does see progress. Two women doctoral graduates from her lab moved on to post-doctoral work at Notre Dame; another is headed to the University of Tennessee. Is it a coincidence many of her grad students are women? “Somebody commented, and I think it’s true, that research advisors and students sort of find each other because they have matching personalities,” Ruhlandt says. “And so, I happen to have a lot of really strong women who work with me, and that’s great.”   —Jim Reilly

Photo by Steve Sartori