Lena F. Kourkoutis, M.S. ’06, Ph.D. ’09, an associate professor in Cornell’s School of Applied and Engineering Physics who was internationally recognized for her advances in cryo-electron microscopy, died on June 24 at the age of 44 after living with colon cancer for about two years.
During her time with Cornell Engineering, the college awarded Kourkoutis a Dorothy and Fred Chau Excellence in Teaching Award in 2017, a Cornell Engineering Research Excellence Award in 2021, and a Canaan Family Award for Excellence in Academic Advising in 2022.
“Lena is among the persons I think of first when I speak of our faculty's commitment to excellence in all aspects of their work,” said Lynden Archer, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering. “She brought out the best in those around her. Her brilliance, humanity and grace touched faculty, staff and students in every corner of Cornell, and she left us much too soon. Both professionally and personally, this is a profound loss for the Cornell Engineering community.”
Kourkoutis received her undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Rostock, Germany, in 2003 and moved to Ithaca to pursue a Ph.D. in applied physics, which she completed in 2009. Following a stint exploring cryo-electron microscopy as a Humboldt Research Fellow in the Molecular Structural Biology Group at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany, Kourkoutis joined the Cornell faculty in 2013 as an assistant professor in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics, where she became a Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow.
Kourkoutis had a broad range of research interests, but she specialized in cryo-electron microscopy for materials, bringing significant research and technological advances to that field.
“Lena was an outstanding researcher,” said Chris Xu, the IBM Professor of Engineering and director of the School of Applied and Engineering Physics. “She led the world in developments of quantitative cryogenic scanning transmission electron microscopy and catalyzed a push to expand the reach of electron microscopy to systems that previously could not be imaged at high spatial resolution. She was also an outstanding citizen of the department and the university. Lena’s all-around excellence truly placed her in a class by herself, and she was deeply loved and admired by her students and faculty colleagues.”
Kourkoutis developed a new class of high-resolution, variable-temperature microscopy methods that have the capacity to study the physical, electronic and atomic structure of materials at picometer precision. Her successes inspired the electron microscopy community and U.S. Department of Energy to begin large-scale investments in new designs of cryo-microscopes optimized for materials science.
“She combined materials techniques with the cryo techniques to be able to do cryo-electron microscopy of materials for energy applications, as well as materials that displayed unusual quantum properties at low temperatures,” said David A. Muller, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor of Engineering in Applied and Engineering Physics, who also served as Kourkoutis’s graduate adviser.
“For example, she was able to identify why lithium-ion batteries were failing, and she was able to show that they were doing so in a different way than anyone had previously imagined,” Muller said. Of her many award-winning papers, one from 2016 “has opened the floodgates to a host of new studies on liquid-solid interfaces in materials, including bone-tissue interfaces,” he said.
“The transfer and impact to industry – including Apple’s battery group – has been rapid,” he added. “Her approach has also been adopted in the biological electron microscopy community as it leads to thinner, less damaged samples.”
Kourkoutis was a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Microscopy Society of America, which awarded her its prestigious 2013 Albert Crewe Award and the 2018 Burton Medal. Among other recognitions, she received a 2014 Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, a 2016 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and a 2017 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award.
Lois Pollack, the John Edson Sweet Professor of Engineering in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics and associate dean for research and graduate studies at Cornell Engineering, said Kourkoutis was also an exceptional teacher who excelled at supporting students as well as providing service to the scientific community.
“When working with undergrads, Lena was able to engage students of all abilities, especially those who really needed encouragement to excel,” said Pollack, who – while serving as the school’s director – appointed Kourkoutis director of undergraduate studies. “She reached everybody, and she took time to meet students one-on-one if they needed extra help. She was there for them. She had a unique combination of high standards and compassion, and she never let any student be forgotten.”
To her undergraduate and graduate students, Kourkoutis was a mentor, coach, teacher and role model.
“Lena was the bright and shining sun of applied and engineering physics for me,” said Gloria Davidova ’24. “She knew exactly my level of understanding of various subjects and fit me into a research project that matched perfectly to how much time I would be able to dedicate to doing research. She was an important role model for me.”
“Lena didn’t simply tell her students how to be great scientists – she showed them every day,” said Berit Goodge, Ph.D. ’22. “From setting ambitious research goals, to careful scrutiny of experimental data, to thoughtful synthesis and presentation of the results, Lena demonstrated excellence and the hard work behind it. Her efforts inspired us to continually raise the bar for ourselves. Lena quickly became my primary scientific, professional, and personal role model. I will be forever grateful and proud to say that I was able to work with Lena Kourkoutis.”
Despite her illness, Kourkoutis saw all her 2022-23 graduating doctoral students to the completion of their degrees, and she attended the B exam of one student the day before she entered hospice.
Kourkoutis lived in Ithaca and is survived by her husband, Chris Kourkoutis; their two children, Quinn and Elise; her twin sister Sylvia Fitting; her younger brother, Martin Fitting; and her parents, Hans-Joachim and Tatjana Fitting.
Diane Tessaglia-Hymes is a communications specialist for Cornell Engineering.