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Frontiers in
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Winter 2018

Crystallizing Chaos: An Interview with Susan Latturner

The ever-changing life of a CAST Thrust Leader and professor

David Dan

Susan Latturner leads research into the development of novel nuclear waste forms. Image courtesy of Susan Latturner

Imagine it is your fifth school in eight years. Imagine hopping between three countries—the U.S., Germany, and Austria—all before you even start high school. This is the reality for many military families, and this was no exception for Susan Latturner. Growing up in a military household can often be very chaotic because of the constant moving and seemingly random re-assignments to far-off places. “Army brats” growing up in this nomadic lifestyle learn resilience. By the age of 8, Latturner had grown up on military bases in the U.S. and Germany, had attended five different schools, and was now in Austria.

In Germany, the language difference was not too much of an issue, with English being spoken on base. However, this was no longer the case when Latturner’s father retired from the military and took a position at the United Nations in Vienna, Austria. This time, the language barrier was more prevalent, and Latturner had to adjust. While in Austria, she became fluent in German and was fully immersed in the culture. Latturner would later appreciate the German she learned for the simple fact that many of the scientific papers she reads are published in German, and it serves as a little reminder of how far she has come. These experiences taught her how to be resilient in the face of adversity, and this quality would serve her well in life as well as in her chemistry career.

Just in time for high school, Latturner and her family moved back to the U.S. and settled in Fairfax, Virginia, where she continued her education at her sixth school. Her time in high school was much more stable, but what had crystallized out of the chaos of her early formative years was her love of chemistry. As many of us do when faced with confusion and disorder, we look for something to stabilize ourselves, and for Latturner, chemistry did just that. Chemistry, like other sciences, has set rules, transcends cultural differences, and allows people to bond over a common understanding. This embracing of chemistry is what prompted Latturner to tackle the “death chem” track while she attended the University of Virginia. The “death chem” track was met with hushed voices when mentioned among fellow undergraduates, but Latturner met the challenge with a smile.

Latturner ultimately received her degree and moved on to the University of California, Santa Barbara for graduate school. She joined the Galen Stucky group and started working on zeolite chemistry, which focuses on creating porous metal oxide frameworks in which you can manipulate what sits inside these pores. These porous materials are used in a variety of ways, such as industrial processing of crude oil or removing water from solutions. She quickly established herself in the field and published papers on zeolites. However, as change was the norm in Latturner’s life, halfway through her graduate degree, her area of study would take a serious turn. Luckily for her, having to adjust to a different type of chemistry played into her resilience, and she took the change in stride. Switching from zeolite chemistry to metal flux synthesis of semiconductors had its challenges, but this transition would lay the foundation for her future research past her graduate career. Metal flux chemistry focuses on creating new materials using a low-melting metal as a reaction solvent. The low-melting metal is used in excess, and once it melts, it dissolves the other elements present, which then react. Slowly cooling the solution allows the products to form as crystals; careful selection of reactants allows for control of the electronic characteristics of the resulting compounds.

After postdoctoral studies at Michigan State University with the Mercouri Kanatzidis group, Latturner obtained a faculty position at Florida State University in 2003. She continued her passion for metal flux chemistry and continues to pass on her knowledge to her graduate students.

Her passion and meticulous work ethic stood out, and she became a leader at the Center for Actinide Science & Technology (CAST), an Energy Frontier Research Center. The mission of CAST is to advance the understanding of how electronic structure and bonding influence the chemical and physical properties of heavy element compounds; this work may lead to the development of game-changing nuclear technologies that improve energy security and environmental remediation, and train the next generation of nuclear scientists.

Naturally, as one of the leaders in CAST, Latturner focuses on creating new materials through actinide metal fluxes. The hope is that these new actinide materials will aid in the fundamental understanding of actinide chemistry and their possible applications. Other focuses of CAST are advanced separation techniques of nuclear waste, advanced characterization methods of actinides, and the computational studies that complement these experimental endeavors. All of these focuses are important for the world’s future energy security and advancing the actinide field as a whole.

Latturner has pushed through life with an unapologetic determination and independence. Her flexibility as a person and scientist has helped her succeed in a seemingly closed-off field. She will undoubtedly keep pushing what is possible and help mold the future chemists who will come after her.

About the author(s):

  • David Dan is a Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University working under Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt and is a member of the Center for Actinide Science & Technology (CAST), an Energy Frontier Research Center. He focuses on designing and studying ligands for actinide separations.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.