In 2006, Steven Saunders took a risk on research. Today, he’s reaping the reward.

It’s been a year of change for Steven Saunders.

In February, Saunders , an assistant professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, received a prestigious Career award from the National Science Foundation for his groundbreaking research.

In April, he received Voiland College’s Reid Miller Excellence in Teaching Award.

We recently caught up with Saunders to learn more about how catalysis research is changing the world around us, and how finding success sometimes means taking risks.

Steven – What is your area of research?

Steven SaundersSteven Saunders

My research deals with the preparation and processing of nanomaterials, which are small clusters of matter consisting of only a few hundred or thousand atoms, specifically for use in catalytic applications.

Nanomaterials are particularly interesting as they behave drastically different than their larger counterparts. For example, gold is prized as jewelry because it is shiny to the eye and because it isn’t reactive. But at the nanoscale, gold isn’t yellow- but it has a beautiful red color and is very reactive.

What will be the research focus of your CAREER Award?

Catalysts are important reactions in the fuels that run your car, the pharmaceuticals that keep us healthy, and they help control pollution, so the world needs better catalysts.

The focus of my Career award is to use switchable molecules to prepare catalysts. We can control the properties of these switchable molecules with a light switch and “turn-on” the molecule to help us template a nanoparticle and then “turn-off” off the molecule to drop the nanoparticle onto a surface.

The work we do has the potential to completely change the way we prepare catalysts to make all catalysts more effective and efficient.

How did you get into the field nanomaterials and catalysts?

I had several job offers my senior year in college, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after I graduated. I sat down with my academic advisor who said, “you need to go to grad school” and a week later I was flying to Alabama to visit Auburn University. I took a risk and got started with nanomaterials and I’m so happy I did. I didn’t know how interesting they are. I can’t imagine my research focus being anywhere else.

Why did you decide to come to WSU?

WSU was really attractive for my wife and me. The Palouse is probably the most beautiful place in the country, and we fell in love with it when we first visited.

WSU’s land-grant mission to train the state’s students really falls in line with my philosophy of lifting up all students to be successful.

Finally, I feel like we are building something really special in the Voiland School, specifically with the catalysis research faculty. We have brought together the best catalysis researchers and have one of the strongest programs in the country. I’m really excited to be part of that group.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Teaching is fun! I love the classes I teach as they bring together all of core courses of chemical engineering. There is nothing more rewarding then when ideas ‘click’ for students.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing research?

Steven SaundersSaunders in his laboratory.

When I’m looking for a student to get involved with our research, I’m looking for someone who is inquisitive and hard working. I always ask the question “have you ever taken something apart to figure out how it works?”

The biggest recommendation I have for students who are interested in doing research or already are is to make sure you are doing well in their classes first as academics need to come before research. Also, be open to new ideas and be willing to make mistakes. Research is often controlled failure. Don’t get discouraged!

What do you enjoy outside of teaching?

My wife and I have two dogs that are the best. There is nothing better than coming home after a hard day to two furry friends who can just put a giant smile on your face.


At Washington State University, graduate students work closely with world-renown faculty on research projects that are solving big world problems. It’s your chance to help build a better world. Learn more about WSU graduate programs at https://gradschool.wsu.edu/.