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Alumna’s people skills inspire future faculty member

Engineers everywhere use broad and diverse skill sets to solve a slew of humankind’s problems. One of the often-cited reasons to become an engineer is the opportunity to make a difference in the world. But not all engineering dilemmas can be addressed by getting creative with scientific knowledge and mathematical equations. Just ask Mary (Carley) Carlson, a 1978 chemical engineering alumna of the MU College of Engineering.

Mary Carlson head shot

Mary Carlson, who in addition to making use of the engineering competencies mastered at MU, also has made a difference with her persuasive communication skills, both in her long career with 3M and as a mentor. Photo courtesy of 3M Corporation.

Carlson, who in addition to making use of the engineering competencies mastered at MU, has made a difference with her persuasive communication skills, both in her long career with 3M and as a mentor. In doing so, she serendipitously influenced a young girl who eventually became one of MU Engineering’s young and talented women faculty, but the two didn’t realize it until they made another serendipitous connection through their associations with the 3M Corporation.

As a senior in high school in House Springs, Mo., Carlson loved chemistry and served as a sort of teaching assistant for her chemistry instructor, Mr. Davenport. She had a future as a chemistry teacher planned until Davenport urged her to consider attending college in Rolla to study engineering because there was “no money” in teaching.

“But I thought, ‘What if Mr. Davenport is wrong?’” Carlson said. “I decided on MU because if I changed my mind, I could still study to be a teacher.

“The thing I hadn’t figured out was that engineering was all men,” she added, and said on the first day of class, she thought she was in the wrong room because of the distinct lack of female faces that greeted her. She went back out to check the room number to make sure it was the right place.

After graduating, Carlson’s first job was with Proctor & Gamble in Cape Girardeau, Mo., but in 1979, she went to work for 3M, relocating to St. Paul, Minn., where the company’s corporate headquarters is located. While there, she participated in — and greatly enjoyed — a program in the high schools aimed at encouraging 6th to 9th grade girls to take an interest in science.

“We combined doing some simple experiments with talking about what got us interested in science,” Carlson said, and added, “Teachers would always ask if boys could attend.”

Carlson began to rise through the 3M ranks, largely because of her communication skills.

The hiring manager for a supervisory role in product development she had applied for told her, “Three Ph.D. organic chemists, nine master’s organic chemists and one B.S. in chemical engineering [Carlson] are being considered for the job.”

“People tell me that you have really good people skills,” he said and selected Carlson for the job.

“I’m a good engineer, but not a leading organic chemist,” Carlson said. “My strength has always been my people skills.”

Carlson has relocated 10 times while working for 3M, gaining experience in a variety of divisions with various technologies. While at the Austin, Texas, facility in her early career, Carlson was working in product training, going out with the sales team. One of her supervisors had been attending some of her product demos.

“You have a knack for reading the audience,” he told her and asked if she might not prefer to work in manufacturing rather than the R&D laboratory. He offered to mentor her once a week for 15 minutes and eventually sent her to St. Paul to optimize operations and introduced her to another vice president. Carlson moved into plant management and supply chain, including a three-year assignment in Taiwan, where she was charged with improving the plant’s leadership skills and new product and process scale-up.

Heather Hunt shares a laugh with a student in a lab coat.

One of the 10-year-old girls who attended the “Taking the Road Less Traveled” event Mary Carlson spoke at was Heather Hunt, current assistant professor of chemical engineering.

In her next position as a plant manger in Ames, Iowa, Carlson once again had the opportunity to serve as a mentor by participating in Iowa State University’s “Taking the Road Less Traveled,” a STEM career exploration program that targets middle and high school girls and their teachers.

One of the 10-year-old girls who attended the event was Heather Hunt, who firmly believed she wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up.

“I went to the vet-med session and saw that they did surgeries on cats and dogs,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this,’ and went to the chemical engineering session, [which was being led by Carlson].”

“She’s a dynamic speaker,” said Hunt, admitting that, as a girl, she also loved chemistry. “I thought, ‘This sounds like fun. I’m going to do this.’”

Hunt also is a fan of the ISU “Road Less Traveled” program, initiated in 1987. To date, over 60,000 girls, educators and parents have been impacted by the program. “This is what I want us to do at MU,” she said.

Fast forward to the spring of 2015 when Hunt learned she had been awarded a 3M Non-tenured Faculty Award from the company’s Research and Development Community, in partnership with 3M’s Corporate Giving Program. The $15,000-per-year grant provides up to three years of discretionary funding for Hunt’s research program, investigating the use of sensors to detect and remove pollutants from drinking water.

At the end of the award’s first year, the 3M plant in Columbia invited Hunt to come and talk about her research.

“One of the things I talked about was the way 3M impacted my career,” Hunt said. “This one company has so many connections. In college, I got offers from 3M for co-ops and jobs, but instead decided to go on to grad school at Caltech.

“And a 3M gift to my graduate advisor’s research program supported my research materials,” she added.

Hunt also shared how a speech by 3M’s first female plant manager, at the Ames, Iowa plant, who spoke at the “Road Less Traveled” event at ISU actually made her decide to become a chemical engineer.

People at 3M’s Columbia facility immediately made the connection and put the two women in touch.

Hunt’s ensuing e-mail to Carlson read, “I don’t remember what was said, but I do remember the passion and humor and it really caught me. It was the first time I thought an adult was interesting! … I fell in love with chemical engineering that day and haven’t managed to shake it yet.”

Calling Hunt’s note “priceless,” Carlson, who is now back in Austin, replied, “I am so glad that you were inspired and I am so impressed with your career and achievements so far — fabulous!”

Carlson was inducted into the MU Chemical Engineering’s Academy of Distinguished Alumni and also has endowed a scholarship in the department.

Both women said they look forward to their paths crossing again in the near future.