By Cameron Walker
As she begins her new dual role as associate professor in the department of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science and as industrial partnerships manager for the Wilson College of Textiles, Dr. Sonja Salmon feels as though she is coming home.
“Day one back on campus, surrounded by all this lovely red brick and mingling with folks from everywhere, all happy to be here, felt really good…as a student, I had an incredible experience here that launched my career in a wonderful way,” she said. “I’m eager to make it possible for others to get that experience too.”
She learned and taught here, earning both her Ph.D. in Fiber and Polymer Science in 1995 and her B.S. in Textile Chemistry in 1989; from 1998 to 2000, she served as an adjunct assistant professor with the College, mentoring students involved in funded projects. In addition to her faculty position, she will participate in managing the College’s industrial partnerships and partnering with faculty, labs, centers and institutes across the College and NC State to facilitate complex projects with multiple stakeholders.
“In (my previous) role, I was often reaching out to academia to work on projects,” she said. “There is such an outstanding opportunity for innovation when you bring industry needs together with academic skills and competencies. It’s something that doesn’t happen automatically. You have to work at it, and I look forward to this in my role. The Wilson College of Textiles has a long, proud history of industrial engagement. It’s important to build on and keep these relationships strong.”
Salmon previously worked on research and development initiatives for Novozymes, an international biotechnology company based near Copenhagen, Denmark, with regional headquarters in Franklinton, NC.
“I had an amazing 22 years with Novozymes,” she said. “I had the privilege of working with great colleagues, engaged with people all around the world and traveled and interacted with smart people on challenging projects. One of my motivations for coming back here is to share my enthusiasm for collaboration in new ways that will have positive impact on the future.”
She was inspired to study science by her high school chemistry teacher, who wore a stuffed animal “mole” hat to lecture on Avogadro’s number, 6.02×1023, a unit of measurement used often in chemistry. “It’s like a dozen,” her teacher said, “only bigger.”
“It was an awakening, you could say, that technical things can be fun — they don’t have to be dry and boring,” she said. “It’s so fascinating, how things work, how they fit together, and how you can use comparisons to daily life to make complex subjects understandable.”
Salmon is excited to share her passion for science with her students. She has already begun mentoring students on their independent study projects, will be working on developing a new course inspired by her passion for sustainable materials and technologies, and will participate in teaching established courses as well.
“When the students came and knocked on my door and said, ‘Hey, I want to do this project,’ it clicked,” she said. “I’m back. Here is science, youthful science, staring me in the face…There are so many exciting new technologies, in fiber science, in biotech and in other areas, and I want to encourage young people in the sciences to lean into that…to feel the joy of being inspired and leading their idea forward.”
She is herself inspired by the energy on campus, and by the university’s students, staff, faculty and industrial partners.
“Centennial Campus has grown up in an amazing way. It’s incredible to see how that vision from long ago has turned into reality — it’s even better, I think, than what anyone had imagined,” she said. “Coming on NC State’s campus is like walking into an innovation candy store. There is so much knowledge, so many bright people here who can do so many different things.”
Salmon is eager to continue her own research on sustainable materials and processes, including further exploring the interaction of fibers and enzymes, how these interactions can be a source of new innovations, and advocating for sustainability through science.
“Of course I want to play with cool science, and it will be important science with smart people who can make a big difference in the world,” she said. “What I bring to the picture is a passion for bridging the fields of fiber and polymer science and biochemistry towards improved sustainability. Research and teaching that leads to change toward more sustainable options is something I definitely plan to do.”
As industrial partnerships manager for the College, her goal is to strengthen ties with the community and business on a local and global level, including developing strategies to ensure existing and future partnerships result in projects with maximum impact. It is an ambitious goal, but Salmon is up to the challenge.
“It’s a big mental task to think about, ‘What can one person contribute towards this amazing university?’ But it is exactly the value and the vision of the Think and Do message at NC State that is so deeply inspiring. I believe it. I believe in it.”