What drew you to the rubber industry, and what has made your career in the industry rewarding?
Rubbers are such versatile materials. Natural rubber is a critical raw material, essential to the modern world. Its biosynthesis and subtle variations in macromolecular structure among rubber producing plants, and how these differences translate to performance are complex, amazing and scientifically fascinating. The issues around rubber security mean that I never wonder if working on domestic rubber production is something worthwhile.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
I can't narrow this to only one. My first euphoric achievement was seeing a "1" across the page from my name when the degree grades were posted—a first class honors degree (only two in my year). I still feel chuffed about it when it crosses my mind. My most recent was my 2020 election as a Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineers. Having been blocked from some grant opportunities because I don't have an engineering degree or PE, and having a less than 50 percent (only 49 percent) appointment in an engineering department, I really felt vindicated as a process/materials engineering in the rubber space. There are lots in between, and I am still trying to achieve my greatest one—the permanent establishment of at least one domestic rubber crop/industry.
What do you count as your biggest failure and what has it taught you?
My inability to make my first guayule latex licensee succeed in the commercialization of this premium material even with acreage and a processing plant. Rubber extraction has to balance biology and engineering, but not everyone understands this. It taught me that putting my own crusade into other people's hands may not be the best idea, and that hubris and differing motivations may be highly detrimental to business success.
Who or what inspires you?
The beauty of the natural world and universe. The ability to make a positive difference with my life to people and the bioeconomy. People who have persevered, never giving up as they overcome serious personal and professional challenges on their way to their ultimate goal.
Who were your career mentors, and what role did they play?
My post-doc mentors, especially Jan Zeevaart and John Radin, were top-notch scientists and gave me the confidence that I was too. This helped me to never be limited by my formal training—science can be applied to everything and there are always people to help out with deficient or missing expertise and experience.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Be delighted when your research is scooped, especially by junior scientists—there is always another idea where that one came from. Also, step up and ask the questions you need answered because most colleagues will be happy to help you.
If you were CEO of a company, what would you do first?
Ensure that I have the right team and that they are happy and committed to company success—they WANT to come to work!
What would you tell someone considering a career in the rubber industry?
There are lots of opportunities and you should seriously consider it. However, be careful about your career path so you don't accept promotion into something you do not like. If you are a woman, don't be afraid to take credit for your work—it is a balance between being an excellent team leader or member and being a star.
In your opinion, what needs to be done to encourage females to pursue STEM-related careers?
Start at middle school before the brainwashing/stereotyping really kicks in. There are a lot of really good programs. As an example, I am involved in www.believeinohio.org which is an entrepreneurial STEM program for middle and high school kids. This shows the kids a wide breadth of STEM careers—much beyond limited high school career counseling. Need to get social media more onto this for girls and minorities. Make sure that kids understand you can make money in STEM—you don't have to go to business, law or medicine.