Professor Susan Odom remembered as a bright mind, enthusiastic mentor and engaging friend

Dr. Susan Odom, an associate professor in UK’s chemistry department, shown in a staff photo. 

Natalie Parks

Colleagues and friends remember Dr. Susan Odom, a University of Kentucky professor who died on April 18, as a vibrant, engaging figure with a passion for science and mentorship.

Odom was a professor of chemistry at UK beloved by students and faculty alike. She won the “Teacher Who Made a Difference” award four times, most recently in 2017.

Her funeral service will be held on Sunday, April 25 at 2:00 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church in Owensboro, Kentucky. Masks are required.

Odom, 40, was a Kentucky native from McLean County. She graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2003 with a Bachelor’s in Science before attending graduate school at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

John Anthony, a professor of chemistry at UK, first met Odom during her undergraduate degree when she joined a chemistry research project his group was doing.

“She joined up and proved to be an exceptional chemist – easily out-performing most of the graduate students. By the time she was done with research in my group, she was a co-author on five peer-reviewed papers, and was the lead author on one of those,” Anthony said.

One of those papers researched organic light-emitting displays, which Odom put to use in reality by fashioning a makeshift light saber with lab glassware and the red emitters.

“Toward the end of her stay in my group, I sent her as an undergraduate to present her work at a major research conference at Cornell, something I had not done before and have not done since,” Anthony said. “Susan was that good.”

Anthony said that as an undergraduate Odom was motivated by a natural pursuit of excellence and a wish to not let anyone else down. While at UK Odom was also a two-time president of the student chapter of the American Chemical Society.

In her professional career, she served on the Kentucky ACE Women’s Network, an organization for women interested in leadership in higher education.

Chad Risko, chemistry professor at UK, first met Odom in 2003 at Georgia Institute of Technology through their advisers, who were friends. Odom and Risko began collaborating on projects and became good friends as well.

Odom’s research focused on battery performance and energy storage, particularly for large units like solar and wind farms, Risko said.

“For Susan, though, it was not enough to just be able to make something new and test it, she really wanted to understand why her materials behaved the way they did and use that knowledge to create something better,” Risko said.

Odom joined the UK faculty in 2011 after her postdoctoral work at the University of Illinois.

“We were surprised to see her apply for a faculty position at UK – with her skills and qualifications, she had her pick of jobs. However, her love for Kentucky and her memories of the undergraduates here brought her back,” Anthony said.

When Risko joined the faculty at UK in 2014, he and Odom resumed their partnership, using his expertise in computational chemistry to map the phenomena in her area.

Risko described Odom as a connector, always introducing friends and colleagues to key people in their fields, often to the benefit of her acquaintance’s careers.

“Susan was a fierce proponent for women in STEM and academia, and getting girls exposed to activities and careers in STEM,” Risko said, including organizing a STEM conference for middle school girls.

Risko’s daughter, Phoebe, was just one of the young women impacted by Odom.

“Susan talked to me about what it was like to be a scientist, and even invited me to work with her when I became old enough. Susan told me to never back down and follow my dreams, which includes studying genetics when I go to college,” Phoebe said.

Friends recalled her support of women in all aspects of her life, not just research and science.

Taylor Kessinger, a postdoctoral research in biology at the University of Pennsylvania, attended a Women’s March with Odom and other friends in 2017.

“We encountered hecklers and naysayers along the way, and Susan’s was one of the loudest voices pushing back against their misogyny and standing up for our group,” Kessinger said. “She brought that same ferocity to her professional advocacy for her female colleagues.”

Kessinger met Odom at UK, where he was a postdoc until 2019. Odom had joined the faculty in 2011.

“Susan quickly became one of my close friends via regular happy hours, trivia nights, and Game of Thrones watch parties,” Kessinger said.

Marca Doeff, a deputy division director at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, met Odom through the Electrochemical Society, where both were active.

“Over the years, I got to know her not only as a brilliant scientist but also as a friend and a fellow cat-lover,” Doeff said. “She was so lively and fun-loving, it’s hard for me to grasp that she is gone.”

Many friends remarked on Odom’s love of cats. When she was younger, she bred and showed Maine Coons – a species of cat that can grow to over three feet long.

“As a graduate student, she still participated in cat shows, with her cats winning several awards. In her independent career, she would sometimes bring one or two of her cats to conferences, such as the Materials Research Society conference held in San Francisco,” Anthony said. “Everybody wanted to meet them, perhaps preferring cats to chemists.

Kessinger said that during her time as a professor at UK Odom had two Maine Coons, Charlie Brown and Mr. Big, who was a relative of a Guinness World Record-holding cat.

“These imposing creatures were the first things you noticed when you entered her house. But as you got to know Susan better, you came to appreciate that her heart was even bigger,” Kessinger said. “She showed tremendous love for these animals and would brook no disrespect for them.”

Odom’s cats will be re-homed by the Owensboro and Scott County Humane Societies, which mourners can donate to honor of Dr. Odom and in lieu of flowers. Friends of Odom can share memories of her on a tribute page begun by UK.

Colleagues remember Susan as big picture thinker interested in bringing people together across disciplines.

“She quickly became a central figure in numerous collaborative research projects, always the central figure bringing diverse research groups together to think big about advancing research in battery performance,” Anthony said.

Odom was also the recipient of the 2020 Rising Star Award from the American Chemical Society of Women Chemists, an honor that spoke to not only her ability in and contributions to science but also her love of research.

“Susan was also not afraid to question authority and would specifically point out inequities that she observed. Susan asked pointed questions, and when they were not answered to her liking, she would dig deeper until the response was reasonable and action was taken,” Risko said. But most of all, she was a tremendous friend to Risko, his wife and his children.

“She may have been the most inclusive person I have ever known. Even when she was frustrated, she never lost her grace and always had a twinkle of curiosity in her eyes,” said Christine Gildersleeve Smothers in a tribute shared by the university.

Above all, friends and colleagues say Odom was an incredible mentor who encouraged young scientists to join the field. Fittingly, Odom’s last publication was in the Journal of Chemical Education.

“She had this unusual ability to make you laugh and to put you at ease. Over the years we ex-changed research ideas, visited each other, and shared plenty of good meals,” said Jodie Lutkenhaus, a professor at Texas A&M University who was working on a paper with Odom and another scientist in the week before Odom’s death.

To honor Dr. Odom, Lutkenhaus and the other scientists will finish the paper and dedicate it to Odom’s memory. Anthony will take over one of Odom’s initiatives in UK’s graduate courses.

There is no other scientist out there that was as fun and as welcoming as she was,” Lutkenhaus said. “I am at a loss for words to describe what I have lost and what our community has lost.”

“Susan left a deep impression (perhaps a giant Maine Coon paw print) on everyone who knew her,” Kessinger said. “She will be terribly missed but fondly remembered.”