Student Spotlight: Steffanie Sillitoe-Kukas

Originally from Australia, Steffanie Sillitoe-Kukas feels right at home on the Florida State University campus.

Steffanie Sillitoe-Kukas is a senior geology student in the Florida State University Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. She is also an intern in the geochemistry program at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

Where are you from, what year in school are you, and what is your anticipated graduation date?

I am originally from Australia and moved to America when I was 9 years old. I came to America to pursue a professional career in tennis, but I hurt my shoulder at age 21 and decided it was time to pursue my academic career. I had always wanted to go to university, so the transition was exciting. Before attending FSU I spent a few years at community colleges – one year at Pasco–Hernando State College and another at Tallahassee Community College. TCC hosts an annual FSU Day at TCC, which helped me get in touch with the FSU advisers who later helped me with the transfer process. I am currently a senior at FSU set to graduate in December.

What brought you to FSU?

When I applied to FSU, I knew I wanted a career doing research in a science field. FSU’s reputation in research made the decision very easy; the beautiful campus didn’t hurt either!

What inspired you to choose your major and specific areas of research? What aspect of geology do you find most fascinating?

It was my research at the MagLab that inspired me to choose geology as my major. I had always been interested in geology but I didn’t know how truly fascinating it was until I learned about geochemistry and how it can be applied to so many areas of Earth science, such as learning about ancient terrestrial and planetary environments, causes of extinction and deep-mantle processes. It’s amazing that understanding meteorites can help us learn more about our own planet and its origin as well as the ancient environments of other planets, like Mars!

How did you learn about the opportunity to work in the MagLab? What has that experience been like?

I was taking this amazing class, “Energy, Resources and the Environment,” taught by Dr. Munir Humayun. I absolutely loved his class and I enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm he brought to every lecture. I went to his office hours one day and we discussed what kind of work I was interested in, and I was lucky enough to get an internship working with him. The internship had a huge learning curve for me; I was worried I didn’t know enough to belong there. I quickly learned that it was okay to not know everything because, as an undergrad, I wasn’t supposed to. Dr. Humayun was supportive and taught me everything I needed to know, and he is still teaching me. Interning at the MagLab has been the most rewarding experience. I still have a lot to learn, but I am constantly inspired by how far I have come and by the support I receive.

Since 1991, the Dwornik Award, managed by the Planetary Geology Division of the Geological Society of America, has encouraged U.S. students to become involved with NASA and planetary science. How did you learn about the Dwornik Award? What impact will this have on your research?

I first heard about the Dwornik Award through the application processes for the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Dr. Humayun encouraged me to apply for the award and I’m so glad I did. I love my research and I loved presenting it at LPSC, and I am really happy the judges enjoyed my work, too. I was away at Field Camp – a class geology students are required to take at FSU – when I received the news. I couldn’t believe I had been chosen as the Honorable Mention recipient. I received a huge amount of support from everyone in the EOAS department and am so grateful. Winning the Dwornik Award has definitely given me the confidence to continue working on my research and to seek out new experiences.

Are there any faculty/staff who have helped or inspired you?

One professor that has both helped and inspired me is Dr. Humayun. Not only is he an incredible professor, but he has been a wonderful mentor and continues to believe in me. He has helped me find once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and I am forever grateful for the time and effort he has invested in my scholarship.

Dr. Frank B. Brown was my Chemistry II professor at Tallahassee Community College and was a former chemistry professor at FSU. He helped me fall in love with chemistry and gave me the confidence to never be afraid of a redox reaction! Although he is no longer with us, I know he would be proud of my research and accomplishments.

What on-campus sources/departments or offices have helped prepare you for academic success?

One thing I was always told in community college was that professors at the big universities aren’t as willing to spend time with you to help you. I have found this couldn’t be further from the truth. Every single professor and teaching assistant I have encountered has been willing to work with me and ensure I understand the material.

The FSU Career Center has also been invaluable. The staff there helped me create a beautiful resume and CV. I expect to use more of the center’s resources in the future.

What do you like to do when you’re not working on schoolwork or research?

When I am not studying or doing research, I am usually with my dog: He’s my little dude! We love going to the beach or camping. If I’m not with him, I’m usually at the Rez, the FSU dressage stables or eating with friends.

After graduating, what are your plans? Although you might miss FSU, what are you looking forward to in your post-graduate life?

After I graduate, I hope to spend a few weeks traveling to the West Coast and maybe visiting a few national parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, etc., before coming back to FSU to earn my doctorate.

If I am accepted to graduate school, I hope to continue working in-depth with my current research projects to see what mysteries I can uncover.

What advice do you have for fellow students?

Don’t forgo an opportunity because you’re worried you might not be good enough. You will be surprised at how many people are willing to help you if you show your dedication. And always speak to your professors!