W4FSU member Laurel Fulkerson is one of the most prominent female research figures on the Florida State University campus. Currently serving as interim vice president for research, Fulkerson’s success stems from overcoming gender gaps in a field where women are traditionally underrepresented.
Fulkerson first joined FSU in 2000 as a faculty member within the Department of Classics. As an assistant professor with a passion for research and teaching, she never anticipated a future in research administration. But if there’s one thing all researchers do, they go beyond what is known to discover something new.
“I think research is really about curiosity,” Fulkerson expressed. “It’s about many other things, but it is fundamentally a mindset where you go, ‘Hm, I wonder about that.’ Whether it’s the inside of a toaster or something that you just read, research to me is just wanting to know more about stuff.”
In addition to serving as faculty, Fulkerson held several departmental leadership roles, including associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 2015 to 2018.
“Administration to me is a service role. There’s a lot of opportunities to learn more things,” she shared. “What I thought I would like, that I did like, was again that curiosity. The ability to come out of my department and see the way others operate. Just discovering the world is different from what you thought it was—that’s what interested me.”
After serving three years as associate dean, Fulkerson’s curiosity pushed her again to apply for the role of assistant vice president for research.
When initially thinking about the role, Fulkerson shared she first had some hesitancy to apply. “I thought, ‘That’s not really for me,” she said. “The folks who are in that office are scientists who do expensive things with labs and equipment,’ but I applied.”
Fulkerson soon after met with then-Vice President for Research Gary Ostrander.
“He had the same kind of curiosity [as myself] and pointed out that women in research, that is, women in formal offices of research, are relatively rare,” Fulkerson continued. “I now know him well enough to understand he was issuing a challenge and saying this was my chance to do something women don’t usually do. We took a bit of a chance on each other.”
Ostrander selected Fulkerson as the assistant vice president to help boost research and creative activity in the arts and humanities. Additionally, Fulkerson also oversaw proposal development and research facilities at the university.
Being one of only a few women in her field serving in leadership roles did not deter Fulkerson. “I like to be the underdog,” she said. “One of the things I found helpful was to be underestimated, and I think expectations were very low for me coming into the job because there’s prejudice everywhere against women in leadership.”
Additionally, Fulkerson shared her advice for other women facing similar scenarios.
“I think talking about it is a good first step,” she said. “[I make it clear] when I walk into your lab, and I don’t see any women, I notice. Or when I go into another lab, and there are women, it’s a different kind of space.”
Though intimidating, Fulkerson says resiliency has been vital in helping to break down barriers in her own life and adjusting to her leadership roles.
“Not that I thrive on adversity, but it’s often the case where I have tried to develop ways to become more resilient. Realizing your first journal article, however great you think it is, probably won’t get published and that nobody ever does. So there again, I think telling stories is helpful.”
When Vice President Ostrander retired in 2020, Fulkerson was named interim vice president for research. She now directs the Office of Research and oversees FSU’s $250 million research enterprise, including research centers, programs and institutes. While her curiosity, passion and resiliency have continued to push her higher at FSU, Fulkerson is also thankful for the support she feels from the university community.
“FSU is full of people who truly care about the institution and one another. I feel like I’ve met so many women here, and men too, who are inspirational to me when I think about what I would like to be when I grow up—both as a professional and as a human being.”
The Women for FSU would like to feature more of FSU’s women in research in future newsletters and on social media. Know of a faculty/staff member, student or alumna? Submit your feature by emailing Melissa Powell at firstname.lastname@example.org.