The Unexpected Scientist
After trying everything from drama to marching band, Kelly Sullivan found her true career love in the chemistry lab
by Melanie Hess
Kelly Sullivan said she never expected to pursue a career in science.
Now the Texas Tech alumna is president-elect of Sigma Xi, a well-respected international science and engineering research honor society.
“I didn’t have a chemistry set as a kid, none of those things; I never did science fairs,” Sullivan said. “I kind of liked everything. My parents were wonderful, and they just said whatever you’re going to do, you have to do it 100 percent. So I did drama, I did theater, I was in the marching band, and I worked on the newspaper. I did all these things, and I was in the science club, the math club, the computer science club. I just loved everything.”
Sullivan said the decision to pursue science came for two reasons. First, it seemed pragmatic for career possibilities, and second, she desired to do something unexpected.
Following the unexpected path, Sullivan, who began her graduate studies at Notre Dame University after completing a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Christian Brothers College, moved to Texas Tech with her mentor Greg Gellene to continue experimental research on isotope effects and ion-molecule reactions in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
By the time she graduated with her doctorate, Sullivan said Gellene had given her so much experience presenting at professional meetings most of her colleagues assumed she was already in postdoctoral work.
After graduating from Texas Tech, Sullivan taught undergraduate chemistry for a few years at Creighton University. She enjoyed teaching but couldn’t see herself doing it long term.
“I went out to Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) to give a talk,” said Sullivan, “and a few days later they called and said ‘Hey, would you be interested in running our internship programs?’And I thought about it for about 40 nanoseconds, and I said ‘sure.’ And three weeks later I was moving. It was a pretty big decision to make on the spur of the moment, but I was ready.”
Sullivan, who served as PNNL’s director of institutional partnerships, said she does a lot of cultural translation.
Alumna Kelly Sullivan will assume her role as president of Sigma Xi beginning July 1. Sullivan will be the 75th president of the research honor society.
Read more about how the Texas Tech chapter of Sigma Xi is increasing its efforts to promote growth and recruit new members.
“I find that a lot of people who’ve spent their whole career at the national lab have no idea, even though they were students, how universities work and a lot of their assumptions were so inaccurate,” she said. “So I do a lot of education in that way.”
With Sigma Xi, Sullivan found herself doing similar work. With 50,000 members in 100 countries, Sigma Xi members are only invited to the society after demonstrating achievement in scientific research.
“Sigma Xi has a very academic focus,” she said. “Most of the members of the board are from academic institutions, so it’s nice to have a national lab presence there and a different viewpoint. The constituency I represented while I was a board member was the nonacademic chapters, those that are at national and state laboratories and industrial sites. And we have a different voice than the university chapters do.”
Sullivan describes her election as president of the organization as a snowball effect. She attended her first Sigma Xi meeting in 2001 as a delegate for the Omaha chapter. After accepting a nomination and serving on the northwest region’s nominating committee, she was asked to serve on various committees and ultimately elected to serve on the board. While serving on the board, it was suggested Sullivan run for president.
“I had to think about that because that’s kind of a big commitment one has to make in terms of time and really leading the organization,” Sullivan said. “But it was too much of an honor to turn down in some ways. Once I decided I had the time and the passion to do it, I said ‘OK, I’ll run for election,’ and for good or bad they elected me.”
Sullivan said what she loves most about Sigma Xi is that it breaks disciplinary barriers.
“If I go to an American Chemical Society meeting, I see chemists; if I go to an American Physical Society meeting, I see physicists; if I go to a Sigma Xi meeting, I see everybody,” she said. “It could be an economist, it could be a psychologist. It’s that clash of all these disparate interests, and we’re all just sitting there saying ‘Isn’t this cool?’ It’s pretty wonderful chaos.”
In addition to the new position as president of Sigma Xi beginning July 1, Sullivan transitioned into a new role with PNNL, managing its $80 million portfolio of institutional science and technology investments.
Melanie Hess is a Media Relations Intern for the Office of Communications and Marketing at Texas Tech University. Video produced by Scott Irlbeck, Senior Editor of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Image courtesy Pacific Northwest National Lab.