Mary K. Carroll is the 2024 American Chemical Society president. She recently spoke with C&EN about her plans to strengthen ACS’s connections with its members as well as the public. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
I liked lots of different subjects, but when I took chemistry in high school, I really enjoyed it—especially the experimental aspect of it. I had a teacher who made the subject interesting. She did a lot of demonstrations. They didn’t always work, but when she was setting up a demonstration again, she’d tell us what it should have done. It was clearly something where you didn’t always have to get it right the first time. You could iterate. You could try different approaches.
I entered college thinking I’d major in math or chemistry and then go to law school. But that changed over time. I took a course in analytical chemistry in my first year at Union College (where I teach now), and I liked the laboratory aspect of it and the precision.
But my real interest got piqued in research. In the summer after my sophomore year, I worked in Leslie Hull’s group analyzing cloud water samples by high-performance liquid chromatography. For my senior thesis research, I worked with Thomas Werner, doing fluorescence spectroscopy work related to sensors, and I really enjoyed that. So I ended up going to grad school for analytical chemistry at Indiana University Bloomington.
The joy and challenge of research and teaching. I did a fair amount of tutoring as an undergraduate, and as a graduate student I served as a teaching assistant. Working with students was fun, and I also recognized from my own experience that working closely with a faculty member really makes a difference. My undergraduate research experiences helped me to decide that’s what I wanted to do.
By the time I decided I was going to pursue an academic career as a chemist, I knew I wanted to teach at a school like Union, which is an undergraduate liberal arts institution. I’d be able to do research, teaching would be very important and valued, and I’d be working with very bright students. So in the first year of my postdoc, I applied to a very small pool of jobs, and one of them was at Union. And now I’m in my 32nd year on the faculty, where I’m fortunate to have talented, dedicated, and supportive colleagues.
I went to grad school at Indiana for analytical chemistry and worked with Gary Hieftje. I was building spectroscopic instruments—using optical components and lasers and fiber-optic sensors. I went to do my postdoc in Julian Tyson’s lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, thinking that the kind of research I had been doing was probably too expensive for the kind of faculty positions I wanted. And so in Julian’s lab I worked on detector design for flow injection analysis using inexpensive optical components instead of huge lasers.
In my first 10 years at Union as a faculty member, I was still working in those spaces. My research focused on instrument development using diode lasers. My students and I were doing sensor work. We were looking at fundamental interactions of dyes with surfactants in solution. Then, just over 20 years ago, one of my colleagues in mechanical engineering—Ann M. Anderson—reached out to me because she had a student who wanted to make an aerogel. Aerogels are porous, ultralight solids made from silica or other materials.
I was interested in aerogels for sensing because they’re so porous, but we didn’t have the equipment to make them. So over the next 2 years, Ann and I worked with undergraduate students, using equipment available at Union, and we invented a different way of making aerogels, which we patented. It’s a rapid, supercritical extraction method.
And then there was a lot to study. We wanted to know if we were producing materials comparable to aerogels made the conventional way. We studied their properties. For sensing applications, we wanted to learn if we could trap a luminescent probe in the material and then use the porosity to allow gases such as oxygen to reach the probes and be detected. That porosity is also of interest in areas such as catalysis. And then most types of aerogels, including the silica aerogels that we were starting with, are particularly good optical, electrical, and acoustic insulators. So there are many other applications.
When Ann and I began collaborating, we each had our own lab, and then we ended up with a combined lab, the Aerogel Lab at Union. Initial funding from ACS’s Petroleum Research Fund and substantial funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) have supported our efforts. We work with students and colleagues from different STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. Sometimes we’re speaking the same language; sometimes we’re not. But it’s very useful for the students to work in an interdisciplinary environment. Since the 2001–02 academic year, we’ve had more than 170 undergraduate students participate in aerogel research.
When you have funding from NSF, you get notices about other types of funding they offer. One example is the NSF Innovation Corps program, which helps researchers translate ideas from the lab to the marketplace.
My collaborator, Ann, thought this would be an interesting thing to do for her sabbatical. She was the technical lead, a recent graduate served as the entrepreneurial lead, and a retired General Electric engineer was the entrepreneurial mentor and our initial CEO (he has since retired).
We used the program to figure out what we could do with the silica aerogel monoliths we make. You can see right through them, so we decided to use them as highly insulating, lightweight inserts in windows. We formed a company, SunThru, which is part of a business incubator in the Binghamton, New York, area. An alumnus of our lab is now CEO, some other former students have joined us, and in mid-2023 we landed an NSF Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grant. We also have a major grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. We’re looking to scale up for manufacturing at this point.
Belonging to ACS means you get certain member benefits, but being actively involved brings different benefits. One benefit is that your voice and your opinions and your work can contribute to things that ACS is doing. It’s rewarding to help move the society forward or to contribute to a policy statement or a particular program that’s being developed. You can also develop leadership skills and build a network of people who may come in handy professionally.
I started out as an analytical chemist, so I joined the Division of Analytical Chemistry, and I was an educator, so I joined the Division of Chemical Education. As I began doing aerogel research and working with inorganic materials and colloidal systems, I joined more and more technical divisions. And after we went into the entrepreneurial space by forming SunThru, I joined the Division of Small Chemical Businesses. Being part of different ACS units gives me a broader perspective and puts me in touch with people who are working in different areas where I don’t have much experience, like patent law and marketing.
It offered an opportunity to contribute in a different way than I had contributed before. I was in my 30th year on the faculty at Union, and in some ways, I have the same job that I’ve had since 1992. But what makes the job different from year to year is having choices about what I’m doing. For instance, my research is completely different than when I started. I teach most of the same courses, but what we do in those courses can vary from year to year. The same goes for what I choose to be involved in on campus and in professional society service. Variety makes the job interesting and engaging. And I also saw this as an opportunity to give back to the society that has really benefited me. This seemed like a platform to help move ACS forward, and frankly, it seemed like an interesting 3-year project. Working on behalf of ACS, I’ll focus on supporting the dissemination of research, communicating science to the public, encouraging outreach, and ensuring that our community recruits a diverse membership and subsequently respects the experiences, engages the talents, and welcomes the contributions of all of our members.
One of the biggest parts of the job is serving on the ACS Board of Directors, which has a lot of oversight of ACS activities. The board meets four times a year and also does committee work. I’m on the board’s Public Affairs and Public Relations Committee. And I joined the working group that brought forward the petition to add an international director to the board. I’m so pleased that was approved by the ACS Council and Board and subsequently ratified by members.
I also represented ACS in a number of different venues. I met with some local sections. I met with various committees to discuss activities I might be able to help support or amplify. I participated in dedications for two new National Historic Chemical Landmarks.
I traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, to attend the Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition. I met with the board and staff of the Canadian Society for Chemistry, as well as board members of the Chemical Institute of Canada. I also represented ACS at the General Assembly of the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies and the Asian Chemical Congress in Istanbul. I went to the meeting of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (known as NOBCChE) for their 50th anniversary.
I’ve done virtual events with international chemical sciences chapters and some international student chapters. I like working with students; they bring energy and excitement, and their perspectives are important because they are the future of the society and the profession.
I learned much more about what the board does and how it does it. I was aware of certain aspects of board responsibilities because I had served on a number of committees, including the Society Committee on Education, the Council Policy Committee, and the Committee on Science. The board is involved in a lot of policy-related projects, including ACS policy statements, and has a role in establishing new programs. They also look at a lot of financial matters as well as aspects of ACS Publications and CAS, so I’ve learned more about those parts of the society. And I’ve learned a lot from other board members.
I campaigned on amplifying existing ACS initiatives rather than coming in with a new presidential initiative. ACS is a leader in green chemistry and sustainability. And exciting things are going on in some of the committees and ACS technical divisions—including diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect efforts—that are both important and impactful. They’re helping move ACS forward and contributing to broader society. I want to amplify this work. Trust in science and scientists was a major focus of ACS immediate past president Judith C. Giordan, and I want to continue the effort to enhance that trust. We have to be engaged in communicating more with legislators and the public about what we do, what we know, and what we understand.
Also, I want to help celebrate milestones and successes. For instance, the Younger Chemists Committee (YCC) is celebrating its 50th anniversary. YCC has helped ACS bring new people to the table, not just on that committee but in other committees and in leadership positions in other ACS units. They are bringing different perspectives, experiences, and talents, and they are helping move things forward. We’re an organization that sometimes rewards and celebrates experience and longevity. But we need the energy, focus, and different experiences—both lived experiences and approaches to things—that you get by casting a broader net.
I’m working with the Committee on Committees (ConC) so ACS can provide more short-term, high-impact activities for members to commit to because it can be very hard to say, “Sure, I’ll be on that committee for 3 years.” People at certain life stages might not be able to make a long-term commitment like that, but they might be able to do something for 3 months or 6 months. We don’t currently have a good structure for that. And so ConC is discussing ways we can involve people meaningfully. And it’s not just putting people on a committee. When they’re on a committee, is their voice being heard? Do they feel that their time is being used effectively?
I want ACS to involve more people. The pandemic showed us that we can do a lot more remotely than we thought we could. That means we can pull people into committees from different places around the globe much more easily than we could have 5 years ago. More than a quarter of our members live outside the US. It’s important to bring their perspectives and their talents to bear on ACS initiatives.
Mary K. Carroll is the Dwane W. Crichton Professor of Chemistry at Union College in Schenectady, New York. With mechanical engineering professor Ann M. Anderson, she codirects the college’s Aerogel Lab, which focuses on the use of aerogel materials in sustainable building applications and automotive pollution mitigation. Carroll also serves as chief scientific officer for SunThru, a company she cofounded to develop and commercialize silica aerogel products for windows and other applications.
After earning a BS in chemistry at Union College in 1986 and a PhD in analytical chemistry at Indiana University Bloomington in 1991, she was a postdoc at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In 1992, she became the first alumna hired as a tenure-track member of the Union College faculty. Carroll has published more than 50 journal articles and several book chapters, and she holds three patents related to aerogels.
A member of the American Chemical Society since 1986, she has served in numerous roles in the society, including as councilor for the Eastern New York Section for 25 years and as a member of the Council Policy Committee, the Committee on Public Affairs and Public Relations, and the Committee on Science. She was recognized as an ACS fellow in 2016. Other honors include Union College’s Stillman Prize for Faculty Excellence in Research and Stillman Prize for Excellence in Teaching, the 100 Inspiring Women in STEM Award from the Insight into Diversity magazine, and the Faculty Meritorious Service Award from the Union College Alumni Council.
Carroll comes from a large family—she’s the oldest of six sisters and has about 50 first cousins—with a deep commitment to education and social justice. Her husband, Michael Mahony, is an electrical engineer who works at GE HealthCare. Their older daughter, Anna Mahony, is an ACS member and a doctoral student in environmental engineering at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Their younger daughter, Emma Mahony, teaches Spanish at Wellan Montessori School in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.
The family enjoys traveling and spending time hiking and kayaking near their cabin in the Adirondacks. Carroll also sings, reads fiction, goes to plays and concerts, and cooks.