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Institute of Materials Research

The Storyteller: Erica Thea Lilleodden

“Research to me means creativity”

Prof. Dr. Erica Thea Lilleodden

Photo: HZG/Christian Schmid
Graphic: Istock/aleksandarvelasevic und Istock/lavendertime

Prof. Dr. Erica Thea Lilleodden, head of “Experimental Materials Mechanics” at the Institute of Materials Research

Her office is full of books and scientific journals; her desk is strewn with notes; the windowsill is adorned with photos of her children and students; the whiteboard is full of equations; on the wall hang paintings from her kids; and on the shelf stand chemical structure models. Dr Erica Lilleodden looks around. “This is what you call multi-tasking,” she explains, laughing. The 46-year-old is the department head of “Experimental Materials Mechanics”.

“That’s also how my brain works: I think about a lot of things at the same time, often these things initially have nothing to do with each other, but they tend to link together at some point —for example, through discussions with other people.” She’s happy to hand over administrative matters when possible. This way she can concentrate more on science – for her, it’s a question of creativity.

“It’s about finding the story in the research for me. In the beginning, there’s always a question from which something develops. We try out different approaches. It’s often a struggle and there are setbacks—but we ultimately find a solution in the best case scenario. Usually new questions arise in the end, prompting us to continue our research; then a new chapter begins.”

The researcher grew up in the United States—in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She earned her doctorate in Materials Science at Stanford University. “The special thing about completing a doctorate in the United States is that PhD candidates still attend university lectures, which allow them to better bridge theory and practice. It’s precisely at this stage that young scientists should be able to experiment and be creative.” She attempts to transfer that approach to her doctoral students here: “We engage in lots of discussions—I don’t just define what should wind up in their dissertation. The PhD students should find their own path—of course by engaging with me and with other colleagues. This is how we all learn.”

Her path to Germany initially led to Karlsruhe in 2004. She worked at the research centre there as a Humboldt Research Fellow. Just when the scientist was toying with the idea of heading back to the US, she met the man who is now her husband. “He was what prompted me to stay.” She also knew Prof Norbert Huber in Karlsruhe, the current institute director of Materials Mechanics, who had just been planning a move to Geesthacht and establish a new research focus on micromechanics . Lilleodden was excited by the prospect of her own lab and a permanent position. She began working at the HZG in 2006 and moved to Hamburg with her husband, who is originally from northern Germany. “My husband was happy that he could live closer to the HSV stadium again,” Lilleodden says, smiling. Today she lives with her two children in what is known as a Hamburg “Kaffeemuehle” (coffee mill) house.

Erica Lilleodden’s scientific story revolves around micromechanics, around nanostructures. How do mechanically stressed components —such as on aircraft—behave at the micro level? In order to find out, she excises samples measuring down to one hundred nanometres. This is approximately one-thousandth the size of a human hair. She studies these tiny samples in the lab with various instruments. “What interests me is: how is the material structured? How does it look at the atomic level? Those who study larger parts must make assumptions as to why a certain behaviour occurs. I look directly at the micro level and can therefore understand how the atomic level influences the big picture.”

She will be awarded the prestigious prize from the German Materials Society—the DGM Prize—in November 2019 for her outstanding fundamental research.

“I’m incredibly happy! But the prize isn’t just for me. It’s an award for our work in its entirety, here in the group and from the influences of many colleagues worldwide.“

She speaks German with an American accent. When she gets excited, she quickly slips into her native language and her eyes light up.

In addition to her own research and duties as head of department, she mentors junior scientists, organising conferences, teaches at the university and participates on various committees. “That’s our responsibility as members of the scientific community, even if it's often time consuming. However, through such involvement you also obtain a great deal of insight and new perspectives along the way—everyone benefits.”

The Lilleodden family enjoys travelling—rarely to the same place twice. While a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia is planned for later this year, 2020 will be really exciting: from January to June, the family is moving to Saint Paul, back to Lilleodden’s roots. There she’ll work as a guest Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota while the children can spend a longer period of time with the American part of the family. Her 10-year-old daughter and her 8-year-old son are growing up bilingual. “We’re really looking forward to it and are curious what life will be like for us there.” They will return in July and her story will continue in Hamburg.

Author: Gesa Seidel (HZG)
Published in the in2science #8 (June 2019)