Today at Berkeley Lab

How Carolin Sutter-Fella Turned Major Change Into a Successful Science Career

— By Theresa Duque

This is the first in a series of stories on LDRD Early Career award recipients.

Carolin Sutter-Fella of the Chemical Sciences Division once counted on a future in business and economics. But while completing a certification program to work as a bank clerk, she came to realize that a career in finance wasn’t for her. She always liked math, so she switched to physics instead, “As a kind of applied math,” Sutter-Fella recalled.

Changing her major changed her life. A bachelor’s in physics led to a master’s in physics, and after that, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, an academic path she never dared to dream of while growing up in a small town in Germany. “I come from a nonacademic family. As a kid, I never thought of doing research as a career because I didn’t know what that meant,” she said.

Today, Sutter-Fella is a researcher who specializes in the synthesis and characterization of a new kind of semiconductor belonging to a class of materials called “hybrid organic-inorganic metal halide perovskites.” She is also one of 10 Early Career Laboratory-Directed Research and Development (LDRD) awardees announced in November as part of the Lab’s new Early Career Enrichment Program.

In the following Q&A, Sutter-Fella discusses what she hopes to achieve under the Early Career LDRD award, why she’s interested in semiconductor research, and why she thinks Berkeley Lab is a great place to work and collaborate.

What do you hope to achieve under this Early Career LDRD award?

I want to have a better understanding of the perovskite semiconductors’ properties as they evolve during synthesis. The goal would be to relate the chemical potential during synthesis to the formation of defects in a material. My research team and I will collaborate with Molecular Foundry Division Director and UC Berkeley Physics Professor Jeff Neaton in a joint effort between experiment and theory with the long-term goal of establishing a predictive science of synthesis.

Why are you interested in semiconductor research?

Defects govern the properties of semiconductors, and semiconductors are the building blocks of many optoelectronic devices, such as LEDs, lasers, and photovoltaics. In many aspects of our day-to-day life, we rely on semiconductors. As an example, photovoltaics have great potential as an affordable source of renewable, clean energy. And the better control we have over defects, the more efficient semiconductors are in absorbing sunlight and converting that sunlight into electricity.

Why did you want to work at Berkeley Lab?

Berkeley Lab provides you with a lot of opportunities to collaborate with others, whether it’s in your own field or across disciplines. In my opinion, interdisciplinary collaborations are important. Each discipline approaches problems from a different angle, and as a result, they can foster new, creative solutions. Furthermore, with the Lab’s supportive environment and world-class user facilities such as the Molecular Foundry and the Advanced Light Source, the Lab is an excellent place to start working on your own research.

What does winning this grant mean to you?

It’s very exciting! Winning this grant means there is some interest in the research I am pursuing. This LDRD gives me the great opportunity to start my own research group, oversee my team’s budget, get more experience in leadership at a higher level, and foster new collaborations at the Lab as well as with research partners outside the Lab.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

You never know what kind of opportunities will come up. I would love to stay in research and pursue an academic career, and this LDRD is an amazing starting point for that. In 10 years, I will hopefully lead a very interdisciplinary and international research team working on exciting, new, and fundamental questions.

What advice do you have for other people who are interested in a career in science?

Always be open-minded for new, maybe unexpected opportunities; give your best; demonstrate mobility; and find a good mentor – or several. In my case, moving to the U.S. opened up a whole new perspective for my career. I try to pick approaches from the various different working environments I experienced in Germany, Switzerland, and the U.S. to establish my own style.