Skip to content Skip to navigation

Gerry Fuller: I didn’t have a roadmap for becoming a professor

For a first-generation college student, encouraging education is a family affair.

Gerry Fuller: I didn’t have a roadmap for becoming a professor

November 3, 2020
Gerald Fuller

Gerald Fuller | Photo by Rod Searcey

When Gerald Fuller, the Fletcher Jones II Professor of Chemical Engineering, graduated from the University of Calgary, he was the first person in his family to have attended college.

Raised as he was in the heart of Canada’s oil country, Fuller majored in chemical engineering. But unlike almost all his engineering classmates, who went into industry, Fuller’s heart was in teaching and research. After earning a PhD from Caltech, he joined Stanford in 1980 and has been a prolific researcher and educator here ever since. He has specialized in the study of complex liquids, and his recent work has shed light on the adhesion of bacteria onto bladder cells, on making contact lenses more comfortable, and improving the effectiveness of drugs that use monoclonal antibodies. Below, he reflects on his odyssey, crediting the mentors who guided his path and welcomed him into their “academic families.”

Trailblazer

I didn’t have a roadmap for becoming a scientist or a professor of chemical engineering. My parents grew up during the Depression and both had left school by grade nine in order to work and earn money. My father grew up in British Columbia and left school after grade seven. He eventually joined the Merchant Marine and then became a warrant officer in the Canadian Air Force. My mother, who grew up on a wheat farm in Northern Saskatchewan, went to secretarial school and got a job at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., at a time when my father was posted there. That’s where my parents met.

I was born in 1953 at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. My parents had the foresight to register me as a Canadian born abroad, so I have dual Canadian-American citizenship. My father retired in Calgary after serving 20 years in the Air Force, and then began as second career as a postal carrier, while my mother went back to school to get the Canadian equivalent of a GED. At the time, I was in grade eight and she was in grade 10. We would actually ride to school together — that’s just the way it was.

New vistas

Calgary is Canada’s oil capital, so chemical engineering was an attractive major to someone like myself, who had been a good student in high school. A hundred engineers entered the University of Calgary that year. Only two of them were women, and one of those dropped out.

I was extremely fortunate in having two professors in college who took a serious interest in me and became mentors. One was a chemistry professor, Bill Laidlaw, who allowed me as a junior to take a much higher-level course in statistical thermodynamics. There were only two students in the class — the other was a graduate student — so we would meet in Laidlaw’s office. It was a formative experience, and it made me see what research was really about.

I vividly remember being in Laidlaw’s office when one of his former postdocs came to visit. This postdoc had become a renowned scientist, but what fascinated me was listening to the two of them talk. They both shared an inquisitiveness and curiosity that drove them to want to understand more. I hadn’t witnessed that mindset before, but it’s what I now seek in my own students — the gift of curiosity. Bill Laidlaw also helped me appreciate myself. He gave me the self-confidence to know that I could make a difference. I could bring new knowledge to a problem.

My other mentor at Calgary was Bob Heidemann, who also taught thermodynamics. It sounds unbelievable, but I turned one of Heidemann’s homework assignments into a sole-author published journal article. In thermodynamics, we have what are called “equations of state,” which provide a way of predicting whether something is a liquid, gas or solid. I discovered a way of manipulating a very well-known equation to make it more powerful. I wrote it up, and a respected journal published it about a year after I finished my undergraduate degree. I was a 22-year-old kid. I had to tell editors that I was still “Mr. Fuller,” not “Dr. Fuller.”

Grad school aspirations

I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but my parents, bless their hearts, didn’t understand. Their first question was, “Who’s going to pay for this?” I get that same question from some of the students I mentor today, especially those who don’t come from resourceful backgrounds. “Who’s going to pay? I can’t possibly afford this.”

What my parents didn’t realize then, and some of my students don’t realize now, is that there are a lot of ways to have your tuition paid for and even to earn a salary while in grad school. But someone has to explain how it all works. If no one does, it’s hard to imagine how any of this is possible.

I was lucky, because my mentors guided me. Laidlaw had gone to Caltech for his master’s degree, so I applied to Caltech along with MIT, Rice and Berkeley. Heidemann helped me with my applications, and I ultimately got accepted at all four universities but I decided to go to Caltech.

As I approached the end of graduate school, I initially applied for positions at Canadian universities. Unfortunately, I quickly found out that there weren’t any job openings in Canada. You had to wait until someone retired before you could get hired. So, I began applying to American universities, and also to companies. But Stanford hired me, so I politely canceled all my industrial applications.

All in the family

Let me tell you something that’s special about mentorship, which has to do with academic families. At Caltech, Professor Gary Leal was my advisor and mentor, and that mentoring didn’t stop when I got my PhD. Even today, I still go to him for guidance.

But an academic family is about more than just one mentor and one student. It can actually extend over three and even four generations.

Gary’s mentor had been Andreas Acrivos at Stanford, who had been instrumental in building Stanford’s chemical engineering department and was one of the leading fluid dynamics experts of the 20th century. You could say that Professor Acrivos is my academic grandfather, and I still look to Gary and Andy for advice.

I have tried to provide that same kind of guidance to my own students, and now I myself am an academic father and grandfather. It’s a privilege, really, and it’s been a joy.

My very first graduate student was Andrea Chow, who has since gone on to a very distinguished career in biotechnology. Andrea is an academic great-granddaughter of Andy Acrivos, but our family doesn’t stop there. Both of Andrea Chow’s children have been research interns in my laboratory. Her son, Michael Fanton, just took his PhD in mechanical engineering here at Stanford. I was the chairman of his PhD committee. I have now seen about 60 of my students get their PhDs, and I’ve probably invited 20 of their offspring to work in my laboratory. It’s a wonderful circle of life.

Giving back to first-gen students

As I said earlier, my own parents couldn’t give me a roadmap. They couldn’t imagine how I could even pay for it. A lot of young kids face the same thing today. Some students don’t realize how important and competitive it is to take an SAT prep class or AP classes, and they may not have the time — maybe they have to work after school every day. When you’re a first-gen student you may not have the advantage of having parents sit around the dinner table talking about how to obtain scholarships. Maybe you apply for five scholarships, but you only need one. Or they don’t realize that if you have a PhD in the sciences and engineering and mathematics from a good university, your tuition is usually paid for and you can earn a salary. These kinds of practical issues often aren’t discussed because parents don’t have experience with them. It’s not a deep insight, but I have had to explain it from time to time to first-gen students here at Stanford and sometimes that encouragement makes all the difference.