Engineering professor earns prestigious annual award

Kaitlin Bane

“Do you want to be an engineer?”

Sue Holl asks this question to mechanical engineering student Jonathan Felton during a mandatory freshman advising meeting.

As Felton shakes his head yes, Holl types up a schedule of every class he needs to take each semester for the next four years in order to graduate on time.

“You are brilliant, brilliant, brilliant and you are going to pass that baby,” Holl says, referring to a class Felton is worried about.  

Mechanical engineering professor and material sciences department chair Susan Holl will present the John C. Livingston Annual Faculty Lecture on Nov. 7.

The award of presenting the lecture originated in 1959 when Livingston, a professor of government, gave the first Distinguished Faculty Convocation address, later named the Livingston Lecture.

The award is given annually to a faculty member who goes beyond their field of study and positively affects Sac State through their service, scholarship and teaching.

“The person who receives the award needs to be at [Sac State] for a significant amount of time and needs to be well respected by other faculty,” said Thomas Krabacher, 2011 recipient of the Livingston Lecture award. “Sue commands a lot of recognition and respect on this campus.”

Holl has taught at Sac State since 1980 and has been department chair for five years.

During her 33 years at Sac State, Holl started the Engineering Joint Council, a chapter of the National Engineering Honors Society known as Tau Beta Pi and was the first advisor for the Competitive Robotics Club.  

During her time as chair of the department, the Society for Manufacturing Engineers and American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics were also established at Sac State.

“[Holl] has been at the campus a long time (and) made a mark,” said Janet Hecsh, Faculty Senate chair.  “She may be someone who has taught in more departments than anyone else on campus.”

Having taught in six different departments, Holl’s favorite class to teach is Material Sciences, a requirement for sophomores in the mechanical engineering program.

“Material Sciences is not an easy course and students struggle,” Holl said. “Then, halfway through the semester, you see them just get it.”

She leans back in her chair and a smile appears across her face.

“That is my favorite part about being a professor,” Holl said.

Holl decided to pursue a doctorate in that field when she enrolled in a material science class at UC Davis.

“When they began to speak about electronic devices, the light glow went on over my head,” Holl said.  “It was like a cartoon.”

Holl graduated with a Ph.D in material sciences and engineering from UC Berkeley.  

“It is odd to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life at age 20 and still love it, but I do,” Holl said.  “I never get sick of teaching.”

From the moment Holl decided to teach for a living, she knew she wanted to teach at Sac State.

While Holl was getting her Ph.D from UC Berkeley, she met another student in her program who had received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Sac State.

“She was so smart and so prepared, and that is who Sac State is, just a nice, hardworking, pleasure to be around person,” Holl said.

Immediately after Holl graduated with her Ph.D, a teaching position in material sciences opened up at Sac State.  

Prior to the opening, it had been 12 years since the University had an opening for that position, Holl said.  After she was hired, it was five years before another position opened up.     

“I picked Sac State because it was already known that it was a great teaching school,” Holl said.  “I really want to focus on teaching. The students are my focus.”

Holl has two children. Her daughter Christy Bell, 26, has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from UC Davis. 

Bell is married to a former student of Holl’s, who is also a mechanical engineer. Holl’s daughter and son-in-law live in Sacramento.

Holl’s son Danny, 29, teaches English to high school students in China.

“He is an amazing teacher,” Holl said, with a large smile settled on her face.

Since he has lived in China, Holl has visited her son twice, once for his engagement to his wife and another time to explore the country.

Holl’s lecture for the Livingston Award will focus on how curricula designed for engineers could also create an infrastructure for the design of majors across the university.

“The faculty are in closest contact with the students,”Holl said.  “So they know how to create curricula that will help students in life when they leave here.”

Holl won the Livingston award through nominations from fellow faculty members.

“To be considered by my colleagues to be worthy of this award, that would be, perhaps, a dream of mine,” Hecsh said. “That says a lot about Sue.”