Mary Lowe Good: A Chemistry Career in Three Parts

Mary Lowe Good: A Chemistry Career in Three Parts

Film transcript

Transcription from video completed in June 2012, with interviews conducted in November 2011. Learn more about Mary Lowe Good and additional resources connected to the film.


I’ve never been afraid to do new things, and in fact, I like to do new things.


Chapter 1. Mary Lowe Good, Ph.D.: Chemist/Business Leader/Policy Maker (and Chance Taker)


The small rural school where I went to high school didn’t have a chemistry lab, nor a chemistry course for that matter, but I ended up creating a homemade photography studio in my cellar.

Somebody had given me an old enlarger, and I thought, “Well, okay, what do we do with this thing?” And we set up this little lab in the cellar. And I read up on what to do and how to make the chemicals and that sort of thing.

My parents were pretty open about what we wanted to do, and so long as I didn’t carry the chemicals into the house, my mother was fine.


As a university professor, industry maverick, and government leader, Mary Lowe Good has made a career out of curiosity and finds the science in just about everything. 

Her extraordinary contributions in building technology partnerships spur economic growth and help our nation’s industries compete more aggressively in the global marketplace.

Even her humbler beginnings were tinged with a pioneering spirit.

Mary’s story starts in Grapevine, Texas, where she was one of four children born to Winnie and John Lowe.


My parents were kind of a unique couple. They were both schoolteachers. My mother in particular was pretty extraordinary . . . probably one of the brightest people I ever met. 

Never said you have to do this, that, or the other, and she really didn’t care what it was that we did, but the idea that we would all go to college and we would do something was just an expectation.

You know, anything that you did, to be able to tell her about it was probably what made it worthwhile.

My father finished college after he started working. He actually got his degree after he had four children. We have this marvelous photograph of him in his cap and gown, and he kept plugging at it and finally finished his degree.


Chapter 2. An Inspired Beginning: At Home in the Laboratory


There weren’t very many role models, you know, for women in the sciences in the ’50s.

When I was in school, I was one of those Marie Curie fans. I read her biography when I was in high school. Well, the science was obviously fabulous. I mean, she was really one of the real scientists of that era. She did win two Nobel Prizes, which is relatively reasonable.

The only thing my father ever said about what we should study, he said, “You know, you really need to take something that you can make a living with.”

At that time the only thing I knew was schoolteaching, and the vocational home-economics teachers actually got extra pay; so I decided, well, I’ll just go do home economics.

Well, I went to college at the University of Central Arkansas, and I took freshman chemistry. And I had a fabulous elderly man that taught freshman chemistry, and I was intrigued by it. I just thought it was the most interesting thing I’d ever had anything to do with.

My time as a home-ec major was one semester. 

So the second semester I registered as a chemistry major, and that was the end of that.


Mary earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and was awarded a scholarship to continue her graduate chemical education at the University of Arkansas—all by the age most students were just entering as freshmen.


I was less than 18 years old when I went to graduate school, and, uh, they made me stay in the dormitory. (laughs)

And that was so horrible because you couldn’t study. They put me in with these girls that lived in that dorm, were there only for the parties.

So my mother wrote me this letter to the Dean of Women that let me get out and get an apartment at the end of the first semester.


Mary started dating William J. Good when they were both undergraduates at the University of Arkansas.


He was my lab partner in physical chemistry. And I got married the second year I was in graduate school. And then my first son was born the third year I was in graduate school, so it was a busy time.

My husband and I, we’d get up before class and go fly-fishing, and then go to class. It was fun to do, and also we had fresh fish. (laughs)


Mary’s graduate education at the University of Arkansas was funded by a scholarship from the Atomic Energy Commission.

Inspired by her high-school hero, Mary’s work focused on radiochemistry and the use of radioactivity to study ordinary chemical reactions.


We had one really kind of neat breakthrough in my research. People had been using iodine—radioactive iodine—to treat thyroid disorders, and it was the wrong chemistry for the thyroid to pick up. So all we had to do was add a little bit of iodide to it. That stabilized the radioactive isotope, and it handled it very well.


This breakthrough discovery changed the field of medicine and is a mainstay in treating thyroid disorders today.

After grad school Mary joined the chemistry faculty at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where she became an assistant professor. In 1958 LSU opened a new campus in New Orleans, and both of the Goods were asked to serve on the faculty there.


When I first went to LSU, I taught several classes, and then I also had a lab. So, yeah, I usually would get to the university by 9, and if you get home by 5 or 6 that’s pretty good.

And I got to the point where I learned to write papers after 10 o’clock. Because I’d help the kids and do homework and all of the other kinds of things that we wanted to do, and then from about 9 till 2 in the morning you write your papers.

In those days there were almost no other women in the business. That didn’t bother me much. That never . . . I never got entangled in that very much. There were times when it was obvious that you were the only woman in the department, but it didn’t inhibit what I wanted to do.


In the field of chemistry Mary was making her own history. In 1967 she began using a new experimental technique called Mossbauer spectroscopy.

Spectroscopy uses the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation, such as infrared radiation and visible light, to answer chemical and physical questions.


If you understand how the molecule behaves, then you can understand what to do with it.


Mary used the technique to study compounds containing the metallic element ruthenium.


We were trying to do a spectroscopy experiment that was really very, very difficult.

You have to take this radioactive source, you have to move it back and forth, and the amount of movement corresponds to the energy of the electrons in the atom that you’re looking at. Okay? And we had run this thing, and we couldn’t see a thing.

And so my graduate student, he said, “You know, I’m gonna run this sucker one more time, and if I don’t get a signal, I’m gonna go play golf.” So we set the whole thing up . . . it was a Saturday morning . . . set the whole thing up one more time.

And when this little signal began to come out of the grass . . . on your recorder, and you see it ease up like that, and this really nice little signal comes out of the thing. . . . That was a eureka moment.


After an accomplished 20 years at LSU, New Orleans, Mary returned to the main campus in Baton Rouge to an important post: the Boyd Professor of Chemistry, the chemistry department’s highest honor.

Soon after, industry took notice of the scientist. An executive for Universal Oil Products arrived on campus and asked her to apply for a position with the company.


And I said, “Well, you know, I’ve got a good research group, I’ve got good research money, I’ve got good grants. Why would I do that?”

And he said, “Well, because number one, we need somebody.” And he said, “I think you’d be very good at it.” And I said I’ve never ever thought about going to the industry.

So I talked to my husband, and he said, “Well, you know, it won’t hurt to just go talk to them.”


Mary did meet with UOP executives to explore career possibilities outside of academia.


As I was leaving, he just put an offer on the table. So I went back, and Bill and I talked it over, and he said, “You know, if you want to, take it.” So we did. We moved to Chicago. 

And he said, “I would like to try to paint,” because he had begun to work on his painting, which he hadn’t had time to do. And he turned out to be a very, very good painter. And so he painted furiously for the rest of his life actually.


Chapter 3. Taking a Chance: The Private Sector


I’d never been in the industry before, and going from academic to industry was a big challenge. And I could have failed. You know, that was a real possibility. 

UOP is an interesting company. They invent technology for the petrochemical industry and for the refining industry. They make a living by licensing technology. You have to have the best technology, and you have to have it first. So that’s kind of a fun and challenging thing to do, and I enjoyed that very much.

I ended up as the senior vice president for technology for all of Allied Signal.

Mary remained in industry for 13 years, staying with the same company through several mergers and name changes.

Along the way she pursued other activities, including one year as president of the American Chemical Society.


I don’t mind jumping into something I know not very much about, and I believe that I’ll be able to learn it.

And I think that’s really a big piece of it. It’s just being willing to take a chance.


Chapter 4. Knowledge for a Nation: Chemistry’s Role in Government


Mary’s third career—this time in government—took off in 1991 when President George H. W. Bush appointed her to his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

But her training in this realm had actually begun in the 1970s when she served on the National Science Board—first under President Carter and then under President Reagan.

Mary was the first woman to lead this group that directs much of the government’s support for research.


If you think about the world today, technology permeates everything. And most of the presidents don’t have technology backgrounds. And so if they don’t get decent advice on some of the technical issues, you know, it’s a problem. And that’s particularly true on the military issues as much as on the commercial issues—because the technology is what drives it.


“Scientific and technical excellence will be broadly distributed throughout the world, and this is good for the world. So the question is, we simply have to learn to run fast enough to have enough of our share of what goes on to keep us afloat.”


One of the things we worked on was GPS, because it was just coming online. The question was whether or not companies could sell GPS units because the Defense Department was not sure they wanted anybody else to be able to have it.

So we were part of the decisions on what to do about those sorts of issues.


Mary was vice president of technology at Allied Signal when she left the firm in 1993. She was considering retirement when the Clinton Administration called.


I knew the Clintons from Arkansas. They really wanted me to come be part of the administration. And so I agreed to come. I was an undersecretary for technology in the Department of Commerce.


In her new full-time role Mary encouraged government, industry, and universities to work together, providing policy and analysis statements for technology-based business issues.

Mary also worked on a cooperative research program between the government and major car companies. Their goal? Bringing a super-efficient car to market.


The whole world of chemistry is an extremely important part of what makes the world go around. And you begin to appreciate that a lot more, because if you look around at all this stuff you all brought today, all of it is chemistry. In fact, almost all of it’s made from petroleum products that you brought in here today, everything from the screens to the plastics.

Most people don’t know that, and it just has a major impact on the whole world, both commercially and otherwise.


Impacting the world has been Mary’s specialty since the beginning, and in 1997 she became the first woman to receive the Priestley Medal—the highest honor given by the American Chemical Society.

Seeing an opportunity to return to academia, Mary found herself back at the University of Arkansas, this time as founding dean of the Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology in Little Rock.

While growing the college’s national reputation for excellence, she oversaw the construction of its new $34.5 million LEED Gold-certified building, one of her proudest achievements.


There’s been a lot of emphasis in later years on figuring out what you want to do and going for it. And the world’s not like that. You’ve got to take the opportunities as they appear, not worry so much about plotting out your life.

And you can’t predict today what the opportunities are going to be 10 years from now. You know, do the best you can with what’s available, and then if other opportunities come, go for them.

And I think that’s really a big piece of it. It’s just being willing to take a chance.


After retiring as dean in 2011 Mary accepted the post of special advisor to the chancellor for economic development at her alma mater.

As a managing member of the Fund for Arkansas’ Future, Mary helps foster high-tech business and industry in Arkansas.

Mary enjoys spending time with her two children and many grandchildren.

And still goes fly-fishing.

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