‘I really feel I have found my home’

Picture of smiling parents and children

Faculty member moves from California to S.D. to join NSU chemistry department


ABERDEEN, S.D. – Whether it’s in her personal life or professional life, Dr. Susan Citrak has never shied away from a challenge.

“One of the things for me that has led to the most success personally and professionally is going after what is hard and uncomfortable – this is where you learn and grow the most,” she said. “If you are comfortable, you aren’t challenging yourself and you aren’t growing.”

One could say Citrak’s most recent challenge was moving 1,700 miles across the country, from San Francisco, Calif., to Aberdeen, S.D. and here, she’s found her perfect professional fit as Northern’s new assistant professor of chemistry.

“I really love it here,” Citrak said. “The students are wonderful, the faculty are amazing and so dang smart, and the administration is welcoming and very helpful. I really feel I have found my home!”

Her family, too, is happy with their new South Dakota home. Citrak and her husband, Joshua, have two children: Francis, 6, and Dashiell, 3.

“In Aberdeen, crickets chirp all day long, we can see the stars at night, we have a house with a backyard, my kids can ride their bikes around the block, and we get to plant lots of food,” she said. “The list could go on much longer, but I’ll keep it to the most favorites.”

Citrak said there are things she misses about San Francisco – the ocean, being close to family, training jiu-jitsu with her favorite training partners, being able to get a burrito delivered at all hours of the night. But, she said, seeing her two boys interacting with their environment here makes missing those things much more tolerable.

To her kids, South Dakota is heaven.

“They play outside, the school my 3 year old goes to has miniature horses, and we got a dog - all things virtually impossible in San Francisco,” she said. “My husband misses fly fishing for trout, but has been very excited to go out fishing for Northern Pike and walleye (although no luck on the walleye yet).”

Teaching and Research Drew her to NSU

Citrak was drawn to Northern in pursuit of her two greatest professional loves: teaching and research. In graduate school, she worked with a number of undergraduate researchers who went on to become working chemists and graduate students.

“It was incredibly rewarding,” she said. “I knew after graduating with my Ph.D. that I wanted to continue working with undergraduate researchers because I love being on the ground level of research training.”

She aims to foster curiosity and excitement about research with her students, and a willingness to identify new research opportunities when experiments fail. As she says, “There is so much to be learned when something unexpected happens!”

While a large number of graduate students look at a “failed” experiment with frustration and resentment, Citrak wants to train students to approach research with an open mind and the skill to dive deeper when an experiment comes out not as expected.

“Northern not only provides me the opportunity to do this, but we also have amazingly robust instrumentation so we can really do world class research,” Citrak said. “Northern really is the perfect fit for me and my professional passions. It is a bonus that Northern is in Aberdeen, probably the most kid-friendly place I have every lived! People are nice, the parks are clean and well maintained, and when I call the city for something, someone just picks up the phone! Like a real person! That does not happen in San Francisco…”

Passion, Hard Work Drew Her to Chemistry

While Citrak always wanted to go into chemistry, her passion wasn’t fostered by her family during childhood.

“I literally didn’t know I was smart enough to do it,” she said. “After working my way up in a large company as an analyst, reporting to the VP of the company without so much as an associate degree, I thought to myself that maybe I was smart enough”

So she went back to school at 35, got her Bachelor of Science in chemistry, and then kept on going to earn her Ph.D. She advises others not to doubt themselves.

“If you want to study something ‘hard,’ don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t smart enough,” Citrak said. Also, “It takes dedication and hard work WAY more than ‘being smart’ – in fact I know plenty of people that were ‘so smart’ they didn’t know how to fail, and ended up not being able to finish because they couldn’t deal with actually having to work at learning something.”

She also offers encouragement to women in STEM: “There may not be as many of you now in your chosen STEM field, but every day there are more and more of us! Speak up, challenge yourself, work your butt off and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.”

Focused on Environmental Responsibility

Citrak is particularly interested in environmental remediation, essentially: “cleaning up the mess we have made with the environment.”

“I focus a lot on water clean-up, more specifically on negatively charged compounds (called anions) that really like to be in water,” she said. “One that has made the news recently is perchlorate, which I worked with in graduate school. It is the thing that makes the ‘boom’ in fireworks and rocket fuel. It can end up in ground water and be consumed by adults and children. In children it can cause developmental issues, and in adults it can compete with iodine uptake in the thyroid gland leading to hypothyroidism.”

Her focus has been on creating materials that capture perchlorate and replace it with a more benign anion such as acetate (acetic acid, which is acetate with an extra hydrogen on it, is the acid in vinegar).

“We have a lot of work to do on our environment if it is to remain habitable for humans,” Citrak said. “My extreme passion comes from being a mom to a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old, but I am also pretty passionate about humans in general!”

‘Make Your Own Pathway Here’

To other young professionals who might be considering moving to a rural area like Aberdeen to work or study, Citrak offers encouragement.

“You can make your own pathway here, and truly have the space to do so. More populated areas means a lot more heavy competition – you want to do research in a lab? Be prepared to have a stellar GPA, internship experience, letters of recommendation, and other previous research experience,” she said. “Here, you can be a hardworking student but maybe without a perfect GPA and still do important research and publish papers. You can get an excellent start here building your resume so you can compete with the best of the best once you decide it’s time (or stay and continue to be a stellar researcher, publishing papers, speaking at conferences, sitting on boards, and making a difference while having a wonderful quality of life).”

Citrak said she’s just thrilled to be at Northern working in the chemistry department, and she’d love for all aspiring scientists to join her.

“Chemistry is awesome! You can do it,” she said. “And FYI, biology is NOT easier! Talk to me if you are interested in learning about all the things you can do as a chemist!”

To learn more about studying chemistry or other sciences at Northern, or to find more information about the new Jewett Regional Science Education Center, visit the NSU College of Arts and Sciences. Learn more about working at Northern at NSU Human Resources.

About Northern State University

Northern State University is a student-centered institution that provides an outstanding educational experience, preparing students through the liberal arts and professional education for their future endeavors. A regional university, Northern offers rigorous academics; diverse civic, social and cultural opportunities; and a commitment to building an inclusive environment for all points of view. Northern also offers a broad-based athletics program, sponsoring 15 NCAA Division II intercollegiate varsity sports that compete in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (NSIC). The university strives to enrich the community through partnerships such as its Educational Impact Campaign, which opened a new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired; new athletic and recreation fields; and, soon, an on-campus regional sports complex. With the $55 million campaign, NSU has been the recipient of more than $120 million in privately funded building projects and scholarships within a decade. To learn more, visit NSU Admissions.