People in the Spotlight – Professor Mary K Carroll

Photo credit: Christine Brennan Schmid

For most of us, service to our scientific community (or communities) is something that we take on gladly as a way to give something back to professional communities that gives so much to us. Our “person in the spotlight” this month, Professor Mary Carroll, has taken this ethos to an entirely new level, with her recent election to the role of President of the American Chemical Society in 2024 and the associated representation of the 173,000 members of the ACS. 

Professor Mary K. Carroll was born in 1964 in Massachusetts, and grew up in upstate New York (USA). She earned a B.S. in chemistry from Union College in 1986, and a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1991. Following a postdoctoral research position at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she returned to Union College in 1992, joining the faculty as an Assistant Professor. She subsequently earned tenure and promotion to Associate Professor (1998) and promotion to Full Professor (2005). Since 2017, she has held an endowed chair as the Dwane W. Crichton Professor of Chemistry. At Union, Mary has served as the Director of Undergraduate Research (2005-2008) and as chair of the Chemistry Department (2008-2011). She co-directs the Union College Aerogel Laboratory, a vibrant and productive interdisciplinary research group, with Ann Anderson, the Agnes S. MacDonald Professor of Mechanical Engineering. In addition to fundamental studies, their group investigates applications of aerogels in sustainable buildings, chemical sensing, drag reduction, and automotive pollution mitigation. In 2013, Mary and Ann co-founded SunThru LLC to commercialize the aerogel technology developed at Union.

Union College Aerogel Team, Summer 2004 (Ann Anderson, Mary Carroll and summer re-searchers; picture courtesy of Union College)

Union College is a bachelors-degree granting institution, which means Mary teaches and mentors undergraduate research students. Her primary teaching responsibilities are in introductory chemistry, analytical chemistry and chemical instrumentation. She also occasionally team-teaches a course on the art and science of painting with an art history colleague. When she first started her faculty position, Mary’s research focus was on development of diode-laser-based instruments for luminescence spectroscopy, including fiber-optic sensors, and detection in flow injection analysis. In the late 1990s, she began collaborating with Professor Frank Bright and his group at the University at Buffalo and that was where she and her undergraduate research students were introduced to and began working with sol-gel materials for sensor applications. Mary and her students presented sol-gel-sensor research at the Pittsburgh Conference and at regional and national ACS meetings.

In 2001, Ben Gauthier, a mechanical engineering student who had performed research under Professor Anderson’s direction, requested to make an aerogel for his senior (fourth-year) project. Ann, who had also joined Un-ion’s faculty in 1992, was a close colleague of Mary’s and knew of her work, so sent the student to speak with her. That was the initiation of their more than twenty-year collaboration on aerogel materials. Lacking the traditional equipment to fabricate aerogels (a critical point dryer), the Union College faculty and students invented a new rapid supercritical extraction (RSCE) method, on which they hold two US patents. They subse-quently established an aerogel facility at Union College that has received significant internal support and external funding (much of it from the US National Science Foundation). 

Professors Carroll and Anderson first described the Union College rapid supercritical extraction (RSCE) method for aerogel fabrication to the aerogel community at the 7th International Symposium on Aerogels (Alexandria, Virginia, USA) in 2003. They published their first three aerogel-related papers in 2004 in the special issue of the Journal of Non-Crystalline Solids associated with that conference. Attending and presenting at the XIV Inter-national Sol-Gel Conference in 2007 (Montpellier, France) gave Mary, Ann and their work exposure in the broad-er sol-gel community.

An anecdote: During the XIV International Sol-Gel Conference banquet, they were at a table with Andrei Jitianu (then a postdoctoral researcher, now an ISGS Board member) and other attendees when they were surprised to hear the ISGS Board announce that they were going to perform “The Sol-Gel Song” by Liz Lax (Union College class of 2005), which they had found on the internet. 

Mary also attended and presented at the XVII Interna-tional Sol-Gel Conference in 2013 (Madrid). She has attended and presented at the International Seminar on Aerogels multiple times, most recently in 2022 (Hamburg, Germany). Ann and Mary organized a symposium on aerogels as part of the 2019 ACS Northeast Regional Meeting (NERM) in Saratoga Springs, NY, USA. 

Aerogel team, February 2020 (Front row from left – Ann Anderson, Mary Carroll, Brad Bruno; other rows – undergraduate research students; picture courtesy of Union College)

One of the things about sol-gel work that Mary finds intellectually engaging is its interdisciplinarity and global reach, which presents opportunities to collaborate with others. Mary and Ann have established a number of productive collaborations. They have worked particularly closely with Union College Professor Bradford Bruno, a mechanical engineer with expertise in internal combustion engines, on catalytic aerogels for pollution mitigation, resulting in numerous publications and another US patent. An international collaboration with Professor Cinzia Buratti of the University of Perugia (Italy) on the use of aerogels in sustainable building applications is ongoing, and has led to faculty and student exchanges between these institutions. Mary and Ann have also particularly enjoyed collaborating with the aerogel artist Ioannis Michaloudis (American University of Cyprus), and with alumni of the Union College Aerogel Lab, including Desirée Plata (MIT) and their former students who are leading SunThru, John Costa and Adam Forti. 

From 2004 to present, Professors Carroll and Anderson have published 33 papers on aerogel topics, often with students and colleagues as co-authors. Eleven of these papers appear in the Journal of Sol-Gel Science and Technology. The most recent of these is a retrospective article written for the 30th anniversary issue of JSST enti-tled “Twenty years of aerogel research at an undergraduate institution”. Mary joined the Editorial Advisory Board of JSST in 2020. Ann and Mary have also contributed chapters on hydrophobic silica aerogels and on aerogel platforms for chemical sensing to the Aerogels Handbook (Springer, 2011). They significantly revised those chapters, wrote a new chapter with Brad Bruno on aerogels for mitigation of pollution, and contributed to two other chapters that will be included in the forthcoming Springer Handbook of Aerogel Materials.

Mary Carroll, Ann Anderson, and Cinzia Buratti at the Uni-versity of Perugia ; picture courtesy of Cinzia Buratti)

Mary has a longstanding commitment to professional service. She is the 2023 President-Elect of the American Chemical Society (ACS), and has been active in ACS governance at the local section level since 1993 and nationally since 2001. Based on her contributions to science and service to the ACS, she was selected for recognition as a member of the class of 2016 ACS Fellows. In addition to the ACS and several of its tech-nical divisions, Mary is a member of the International Sol-Gel Society, the Society for Applied Spectroscopy and the Materials Research Society. Both she and Professor Anderson are currently on the Fulbright Specialist Roster.