MII Alumni Highlights: Sue Mecham
Sue Mecham, CEO and Co-founder of NALA Membranes, graduated from Virginia Tech with a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1997. Her studies took place prior to the formation of the MACR Program, but as a student advised by Jim McGrath, she was involved with MII's predecessor organizations, the Center for Adhesives and Sealant Science (CASS) and the Polymer Materials and Interfaces Laboratory (PMIL).
NALA Membranes is a startup company developing game-changing new material membranes for reverse osmosis. The polymer technology they are using was developed at VT in the labs of Jim McGrath and Judy Riffle. NALA has licensed a patent that is co-owned by VT and UT Austin, and is preparing to commercialize a chemically resistant reverse osmosis membrane based on that technology.
Below, Mecham describes how her experience at Virginia Tech has helped shape her career:
"For over ten years, I was part of the institutions that became MII, from the time that I worked as an undergraduate researcher through my two-year post-doc. I learned about polymers, polymer characterization, and polymer processing. More importantly, I learned how to conduct and report high-quality interdisciplinary research. The opportunities that I had to collaborate with other scientists and engineers who knew different fields were tremendous. This experience enabled me to work with people from other disciplines collaboratively and learn to lead interdisciplinary efforts effectively. Importantly, I have engaged with many fellow VT grads over the years, and still engage with many of my colleagues from decades ago at VT.
"The polymer program at VT prepared me to use my expertise to solve problems, communicate with a diverse group, and develop, communicate, and execute a sound work plan. It led me to be comfortable taking jobs in extremely diverse areas where I had a lot to learn, but could apply my expertise in polymers.
"My first position outside of the university was with Acadia Polymers, a mid-size supplier of transmission seals to the big 3 automotive suppliers in the USA. When I started at Acadia, I knew very little about rubber and rubber compounding, and absolutely nothing about sealing products, large scale manufacturing, quality control operations, etc. Learning all of that (and more) took a couple of years, but that was exactly what I had been trained for in the programs at VT.
"My next job was at Polymer Solutions, where I led a team doing contract analytical testing and consulting for the polymer industry and supported patent litigation related to polymers. This work was extremely diverse (from medical devices to tire treads and fertilizers) as we dealt with problems from a wide variety of industries that used polymer-based products. The strong base of fundamental knowledge and the experience of collaborating with scientists and engineers with very different backgrounds set me up to succeed in my industry career.
"I had the opportunity to return to VT from 2010 to 2014 when I joined the McGrath group again as a Research Professor. It was great to be part of MII again, and see how it had grown and developed the MACR Program while I was in industry. When I left VT again in 2014 I joined the lab of Joe DeSimone (another McGrath Ph.D.), a professor and serial entrepreneur at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"By that time I had already decided that I wanted to found a startup and I was looking for the right opportunity. In 2018, Professor Judy Riffle, who was the director of the MACR Program and a MII faculty member, notified me about new polymers her group had developed in collaboration with Professor Benny Freeman at UT Austin. We founded NALA within a week of that conversation and that has led me to where I am today. The programs at VT that include MII and MACR were an integral part of my professional development and I am tremendously grateful for the training, exposure, and relationships they enabled."